The Glam­our of Su Em­broi­dery

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Sun Hong­shan Edited by David Ball

Suzhou in Jiangsu Prov­ince is an an­cient city of cul­ture. In ad­di­tion to its gardening land­scapes, the city is also fa­mous for its Su (Suzhou) Em­broi­dery.

Suzhou in Jiangsu Prov­ince is an an­cient city of cul­ture, also known as “par­adise on earth.” The city is filled with small bridges over brooks, pav­il­ions in gar­dens, bam­boo sway­ing in the wind, plas­ter walls with black tiles and the worl­drenowned Su (Suzhou) Em­broi­dery. With a history of more than 2,000 years, Su em­broi­dery is known as one of China's four ma­jor em­broi­deries—to­gether with Xiang (Hu­nan), Yue (Guang­dong) and Shu (Sichuan) em­broi­dery.

The History of Su Em­broi­dery

Su em­broi­dery, a gen­eral term for em­broi­dery prod­ucts pro­duced in the area around Suzhou, orig­i­nated in Wu County, Suzhou, and has now spread through­out the area around Lake Tai. The art form bears wit­ness to the ten­der, el­e­gant style of Jiang­nan (ar­eas south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River). The ear­li­est form of Su em­broi­dery was sim­ple nühong (needle­work) pro­duced by girls who were re­quired to stay at home un­til they mar­ried. The craft was passed down from mother to daugh­ter, sis­ter-in-law to sis­ter and from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. When the time came for a girl's en­gage­ment, the prospec­tive hus­band's fam­ily would then tra­di­tion­ally judge whether the girl was hard­work­ing or vir­tu­ous by her em­broi­dery. This cus­tom did not end un­til the Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644), when Su em­broi­dery made its way out of the homes. From then on, Suzhou was con­sid­ered the “Em­broi­dery Mar­ket of the Yangtze River Delta.”

The 2,000-year history of Su em­broi­dery can be traced as far back as the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770–476 BC). In the Gar­den of Sto­ries (Shuo yuan), a col­lec­tion of sto­ries and anec­dotes by Liu Xiang (77–6 BC) of the Western Han Dy­nasty (206 BC–AD 24), em­broi­dery de­signs could al­ready be found on cloth­ing in the State of Wu dur­ing the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod. Dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279), the craft de­vel­oped to a high stan­dard in the coun­try­side as ev­ery house­hold raised silk­worms and did em­broi­dery, whilst in the city, hotspots such as Rolling Em­broi­dery Work­shop, Bro­cade Em­broi­dery Work­shop, Em­broi­dery Thread Al­ley and Em­broi­dery Lane ap­peared. At that time, aside from fam­i­lies who made em­broi­deries for a liv­ing, young women in rich fam­i­lies also en­joyed the craft for en­ter­tain­ment or self-cul­ti­va­tion. This then led to the ap­pear­ance of folk em­broi­dery, boudoir em­broi­dery and palace em­broi­dery.

Dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty, the Yangtze River Delta be­came a cen­tre for silk hand­i­crafts. The Wu school of paint­ing, es­tab­lished by a group of pain­ters skilled at poetry and prose, quickly rose in promi­nence due to its dis­tinc­tive style and high qual­ity of works. In turn, this spurred on the de­vel­op­ment of paint­ing-based Su em­broi­dery from a folk art to a no­ble one.

Su em­broi­dery flour­ished dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911), when var­i­ous schools and fa­mous ar­ti­sans emerged around Suzhou. At the time, the imperial house­hold had a large de­mand for fine em­broi­dery—nearly all of which were pro­duced by ar­ti­sans from Suzhou. Works of folk em­broi­dery, on the other hand, came in a wide range of de­signs and colours and could be seen on cloth­ing, stage cos­tumes, bed­cov­ers, cush­ions, in­soles and fan bags. These works were not only pro­duced us­ing var­i­ous styles of stitch­ing and were elab­o­rately de­signed us­ing en­chant­ing colours, but also fea­tured pat­terns de­not­ing hap­pi­ness, longevity and aus­pi­cious­ness.

After the doors of China opened in 1840, changes in the style of stitch­ing used in Su em­broi­dery ap­peared. This al­lowed ar­ti­sans to not only re­pro­duce the essence of tra­di­tional Chi­nese ink wash paint­ing, but also that of oil paint­ing and line draw­ing. There­fore, Su em­broi­dery played a unique role in as­sim­i­lat­ing el­e­ments of Western cul­ture.

Nowadays, ar­ti­sans mak­ing Su em­broi­dery have de­vel­oped new tech­niques based on orig­i­nal meth­ods. They are cre­at­ing prod­ucts ac­cord­ing to cur­rent de­mand by try­ing to ab­sorb new el­e­ments, rather than slav­ishly fol­low­ing old mod­els.

In 1986, to fos­ter the out­stand­ing cul­ture of Su em­broi­dery, the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment es­tab­lished the Suzhou Em­broi­dery Mu­seum in the Wang Ao Shrine on Jingde Road in Suzhou. The mu­seum fea­tures sev­eral ex­hi­bi­tion halls in­clud­ing the An­cient Em­broi­dery Room, Ming and Qing Em­broi­dery Room, and Mod­ern Em­broi­dery Room. Hun­dreds of rare ex­hibits are on dis­play faith­fully ex­plain­ing the history of the craft's de­vel­op­ment and telling its old sto­ries.

Elab­o­rate Crafts­man­ship

Works of Su em­broi­dery fall into sev­eral themes such as fig­ures, land­scapes, an­i­mals, flow­ers and oil paint­ing still lifes. No mat­ter the sub­ject mat­ter, the beauty of the craft lies in the fact that the im­ages pro­duced are more life­like than paint­ing. It is for this rea­son that these em­broi­deries, whether im­i­tat­ing paint­ings or real objects, are so vivid that they are highly de­serv­ing of their world­wide rep­u­ta­tion. With its beau­ti­ful pat­terns and wide range of sub­ject mat­ter, ev­ery piece of Su em­broi­dery em­bod­ies the cul­ture of the Yangtze River Delta—the re­gion of rivers and lakes.

What is it that makes a piece of Su em­broi­dery good? Ming Dy­nasty scholar Wang Ao (1450–1524) be­lieved they had to be ex­quis­ite, metic­u­lous, el­e­gant and neat with ex­quis­ite work­man­ship, metic­u­lous stitch­ing, el­e­gant colour­ing and neat com­po­si­tion. As a tra­di­tional hand­i­craft, Su em­broi­dery in to­day's mar­ket is not eval­u­ated in terms of its au­then­tic­ity but ac­cord­ing to qual­ity. Since pro­duc­ing a fine piece is both a craft and an art, the over­all artis­tic ef­fect is a re­li­able cri­te­rion for judg­ing qual­ity. There­fore, a work of high artis­tic value is gen­er­ally de­ter­mined by its com­po­si­tion, work­man­ship, colour and artis­tic ef­fect. In a good piece of em­broi­dery, the pat­tern should hold a deep sig­nif­i­cance, whereas poor works are gen­er­ally rigid, de­void of artistry and crudely made. In ad­di­tion, the most im­por­tant thing to check when buy­ing such an em­broi­dery is whether the sur­face is smooth: if the stitches are loose, then the sur­face will be rough. Good ex­am­ples are em­broi­dered with close stitches, cre­at­ing a sense of three-di­men­sions and mak­ing the sur­face much smoother.

Suzhou em­broi­dery is both dec­o­ra­tive and prac­ti­cal, with “Su dou­ble-sided em­broi­dery” be­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tive. But what is dou­ble-sided em­broi­dery? Typ­i­cally, works only fea­ture a pat­tern on one side, with the re­verse cov­ered in tan­gled lines and thread ends. Dou­ble-sided em­broi­deries how­ever have neat, el­e­gant de­signs on both the front and back, mak­ing both sides equally fas­ci­nat­ing. Of course, cre­at­ing such works re­quires con­sum­mate skill and artistry. In Suzhou, you can find dou­ble-sided em­broi­dery on a va­ri­ety of objects—from clothes to dec­o­ra­tions, and from fur­ni­ture to ev­ery­day items— in­clud­ing hand­ker­chiefs, fold­ing screens and cir­cu­lar fans. This shows that when it comes to em­broi­dery works, dou­ble-sided em­broi­dery is the most out­stand­ing.

The Em­broi­der­esses of Suzhou

“Ev­ery house­hold has an em­broi­dery room and ev­ery fam­ily has an em­broi­der­ess.” This say­ing from Suzhou shows just how in­dis­pens­able em­broi­dery was to girls, some of whom would con­tinue to em­broi­der through­out their en­tire lives. It is also proven by Bai­hua Al­ley, a quiet old lane in the west of Suzhou. Here stands an em­broi­dery work­shop es­tab­lished in 1958. At that time, work­shops were man­aged by the pro­duc­tion co­op­er­a­tive, but things have changed dras­ti­cally. Since China be­gan de­vel­op­ing a mar­ket econ­omy, work­shops in sim­i­lar lanes have moved into the in­dus­trial park near Lake Tai and turned into fac­to­ries where em­broi­dery prod­ucts are ma­chine-pro­duced in huge quan­ti­ties. How­ever, the em­broi­dery work­shop es­tab­lished in 1958 is an ex­cep­tion as it still stands on its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion and has be­come an im­por­tant her­itage site. For decades, work­ers have grad­u­ally been leav­ing the work­shop, whilst the xi­u­ni­ang

The city is filled with small bridges over brooks, pav­il­ions in gar­dens, bam­boos sway­ing in the wind, plas­ter walls with black tiles and the world-renowned Su (Suzhou) Em­broi­dery.

(em­broi­der­esses) who chose to stay have be­come el­derly. A few xi­u­ni­ang around 70 years old, past the age of re­tire­ment yet still work­ing swiftly and at­ten­tively in front of their em­broi­dery frames, give the im­pres­sion that they are still young.

In the past, when these xi­u­ni­ang were still young girls, they would rush to this hum­ble work­shop from Zhenhu Town to start their day's work. To­day, al­though they are not get­ting any younger, they still rush to the work­shop ev­ery sin­gle day. In the morn­ing, whether wind or rain, they all ar­rive on time by bus to start their work. Each of the women sits be­fore a sim­ple em­broi­dery frame and con­tin­ues their needle­work where they left off the day be­fore. Work­ing day in day out, they have cre­ated count­less works, em­broi­der­ing dragon, phoenix, flower or grass pat­terns, mak­ing each stage cos­tume highly colour­ful and de­light­fully vivid.

Their par­tic­u­lar craft tech­nique is called pan­jinxiu (gold-foiled em­broi­dery), one of the tech­niques of Su em­broi­dery. They coil golden threads onto a cloth base, and then fix them with gold or sil­ver threads as thin as a strand of hair. Each stitch re­quires a high de­gree of skill. If we study the history of Su em­broi­dery, which is over 2,000 years old, then we will find that pan­jinxiu is an art form that has ex­isted for over a cen­tury. As such, each stitch of Su em­broi­dery is an em­bod­i­ment of both history and cul­ture.

How­ever, this old work­shop has not put out of busi­ness by fac­to­ries pro­duc­ing ma­chine-stich em­broi­deries. On the con­trary, the su­pe­rior qual­ity of its prod­ucts has earned it a good rep­u­ta­tion with cus­tomers, with many theatre and artis­tic troupes across China pre­fer­ring to have their stage cos­tumes made here.

The em­broi­der­esses be­gin by dec­o­rat­ing a satin base with a pat­tern ac­cord­ing to the tem­plate pro­vided by the designers, be­fore hand­ing the semi- fin­ished prod­uct to an­other worker for fur­ther work. As the size of each em­broi­dery varies, so does the pat­tern. To ac­com­plish a fully hand- em­broi­dered pat­tern can take any­thing from a week to a month, and com­plet­ing a whole piece of work may take as long as a year.

Home of Em­broi­dery

The most renowned place of pro­duc­tion for Su em­broi­dery is Zhenhu Town (a neigh­bour­hood in present-day Suzhou). Zhenhu is the ab­so­lute cen­tre of Su em­broi­dery as 80 per­cent of Su em­broi­dery prod­ucts come from there. There are about 1,000 em­broi­der­esses in the town, which also con­tains an “em­broi­dery street” ex­tend­ing more than 1,000 me­tres and filled with shops. Ev­ery day, ex­quis­ite em­broi­deries are made there and sent out to coun­tries all around the world.

Zhenhu—sit­u­ated near the beau­ti­ful Lake Tai and about 20 kilo­me­tres from down­town Suzhou—is a small, dis­tinc­tive town set in an at­trac­tive spot. Dur­ing the Warn­ing States Pe­riod (475–221 BC), the town was bustling with ac­tiv­ity as “ev­ery fam­ily had an em­broi­dery frame, at which a girl was do­ing needle­work.” To­day, an­other old say­ing still pop­u­lar here says: “There

are 100,000 em­broi­der­esses in Suzhou, of whom 8,000 are in Zhenhu.”

Zhenhu, a place of great cul­tural in­ter­est, was once de­scribed by a scholar: “Em­broi­dery work­shops lined both sides of the street with their doors wide open. Look­ing in­side one, I saw sev­eral girls sit­ting at­ten­tively at their frames do­ing em­broi­dery. In Zhenhu, many xi­u­ni­ang still work into their 70s or even 80s, em­broi­der­ing del­i­cate de­signs of ‘gen­tle winds and round moons' for their whole life. As for the girls in the town, em­broi­dery is a tra­di­tional fam­ily craft and con­sid­ered in­dis­pens­able for self­cul­ti­va­tion. Skilled xi­u­ni­ang tend to be el­e­gant, gen­tle and con­sid­er­ate. Whilst it seemed that they were just sit­ting around, they were in fact del­i­cately thread­ing their nee­dles. They were so ab­sorbed in their work that they were to­tally un­aware of vis­i­tors. As such, they may strike you as in­dif­fer­ent. Even if you ap­proach, they would sim­ply raise their heads for a quick glance and then con­tinue with their work. On swel­ter­ing sum­mer days, you will never find them sweat­ing. Watch­ing these young girls with their long, slen­der necks and raven-black hair coiled on top of their heads, you may feel that the sum­mer heat is abat­ing and some cool­ness soothes your heart. All this would oc­cur to you nat­u­rally.”

The craft of em­broi­dery has been passed down by these skilled xi­u­ni­ang from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other. With just a nee­dle and thread, they have pro­duced ra­di­antly beau­ti­ful Su em­broi­deries and es­tab­lished Zhenhu's rep­u­ta­tion as the home of em­broi­dery. Three Su em­broidry works have all been col­lected by the Bri­tish Mu­seum: The “Wind­ing” (“Chan­rao”) em­broi­dery with ran­dom punc­ti­form stitches by Zou Yingzi; “The Charm of Lo­tus” (“Heyun”) piece with full-and-bro­ken­line stitches by Liang Xue­fang; and “The Four Chi­nese Beau­ties” (“Simei Tu”) with de­creas­ing stitches by Yao Huifen.

Since 1998, Zhenhu has been hon­oured by the Cul­ture De­part­ment of Jiangsu Prov­ince as a Town of Folk Art, and by the Min­istry of Cul­ture as a Town of Chi­nese Folk Art. In 2005, Zhenhu em­broi­dery was added to China's first batch of Na­tional In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage items.

Chi­nese El­e­ments

Ar­ti­sans skilled in Su em­broi­dery are able to “paint” us­ing threads on cloth. In ad­di­tion, the styles of stitch­ing have con­tin­u­ally de­vel­oped to keep pace with the times. There­fore, Su em­broi­dery, far from be­ing lost in the tide of history, has a bright fu­ture ahead of it.

Nowadays, there are over 2,000 items used in ev­ery­day life in a dozen cat­e­gories dec­o­rated with Su em­broi­dery. These prod­ucts are widely pop­u­lar and are sold to more than 100 coun­tries and re­gions. The beauty of this form of em­broi­dery is not only its ex­quis­ite crafts­man­ship, but also in the fact that it is an em­bod­i­ment of Chi­nese cul­ture. As more and more prod­ucts are sold abroad, Su em­broi­dery is pre­sent­ing a new im­age of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture to the world.

On Oc­to­ber 20, 2015, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and Her Majesty Queen El­iz­a­beth II ex­changed gifts at Buck­ing­ham Palace. One of Xi's presents was an elab­o­rate piece of Su em­broi­dery ti­tled “Song of Life” (“Suiyue ruge”) which fea­tured a por­trait of the queen and her hus­band. With the con­sum­mate art of Chi­nese Su em­broi­dery, the work de­picts Queen El­iz­a­beth II and Prince Philip, their faces beam­ing with smiles. It dis­plays el­e­gant, ex­quis­ite crafts­man­ship, con­vey­ing a deep af­fec­tion and sin­cere wishes. This work was made by Yao Jian­ping, a fa­mous Chi­nese ar­ti­san and in­her­i­tor of na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage (Su em­broi­dery). Skilled at em­broi­der­ing por­traits, this is the se­cond time that Yao cre­ated a por­trait for the queen. In early June 2012, on the oc­ca­sion of the Di­a­mond Ju­bilee of El­iz­a­beth II, the Su em­broi­dery work “The Queen of Eng­land” by Yao was pre­sented to Buck­ing­ham Palace. Soon after, Yao Jian­ping and her fam­ily were in­vited to visit the palace in Lon­don. Cre­at­ing the se­cond por­trait for the queen and her hus­band took her and four as­sis­tants 100 days to com­plete. To en­sure ev­ery de­tail was pre­cise and life­like, Yao used ex­tra-fine thread to em­broi­der the minute de­tails in the eyes. She also stitched sev­eral lay­ers on top of each an­other to achieve the ideal colour and light­ing ef­fects vis­i­ble in the work.

Thanks to its cul­ture de­vel­oped over the past 2,000 years and its ex­quis­ite crafts­man­ship, Su em­broi­dery is of­ten one of the most searched-for Chi­nese crafts on the In­ter­net in China and is also prop­erly re­garded world­wide as a gem of the fash­ion world. Nowadays, designers at many ma­jor fash­ion weeks like to in­cor­po­rate Chi­nese el­e­ments in their de­signs, with Su em­broi­dery of­ten be­ing fea­tured. From award cer­e­monies to fash­ion shows, many su­per­stars have taken to Chi­nese style, and to Su em­broi­dery in par­tic­u­lar. Ev­ery item of cloth­ing, with a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of tra­di­tional hand­i­craft and mod­ern fash­ion, is sub­limely beau­ti­ful and stun­ningly el­e­gant.

Yao Jian­ping's Su em­broi­dery de­picts pros­per­ous Suzhou in an­cient times.

Qi­pao (a tra­di­tional Chi­nese dress) dec­o­rated with Su em­broi­dery

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