The Glamour of Su Embroidery
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.
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.
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