The Em­broi­dery of Yao Jian­ping

On Oc­to­ber 20, 2015, British Queen El­iz­a­beth II re­ceived a fine piece of Suzhou em­broi­dery as a gift from vis­it­ing Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and his wife Peng Liyuan. This piece vividly por­trayed the Queen and her hus­band Prince Philip, Duke of Ed­in­bur

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Wang Lei Un­cred­ited pho­tos courtesy of Yao Jian­ping Art Stu­dio

Suzhou em­broi­dery, a tra­di­tional Chi­nese craft, emerged in ar­eas around Suzhou City in Jiangsu Prov­ince. After more than 2,000 years of evo­lu­tion, it has devel­oped a unique style fea­tur­ing el­e­gant pat­terns, in­ge­nious de­signs, ex­quis­ite needle­work, clever stitches and grace­ful col­ors. One of the four most fa­mous Chi­nese em­broi­deries, Suzhou em­broi­dery has been pre­sented to for­eign dig­ni­taries as na­tional gifts many times. Many pieces have been ac­quired by mu­se­ums in China and around the world, and some have even been col­lected by royal fam­i­lies.

Zhenhu Town is the cra­dle of Suzhou em­broi­dery. With a long­stand­ing lo­cal cul­ture and at­mos­phere re­lated to the craft, the small town has cul­ti­vated many in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized em­broi­dery masters. Yao Jian­ping, a renowned em­broi­dery artist and among the prac­ti­tion­ers of the na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage of Suzhou em­broi­dery, hails from Zhenhu. After in­her­it­ing skills from her pre­de­ces­sors, Yao cre­ated a unique artis­tic style and used her work to show­case the era. She has not only pro­duced a se­ries of works rep­re­sent­ing the high­est level of con­tem­po­rary Suzhou em­broi­dery, but also men­tored a num­ber of young Suzhou em­broi­dery artists.

“I Want to Reach Higher Lev­els”

Yao has be­come bet­ter known to the pub­lic in the past few years since her works be­gan be­ing used as China’s na­tional gifts. On Oc­to­ber 20, 2015, British Queen El­iz­a­beth II re­ceived a fine piece of Suzhou em­broi­dery as a gift from vis­it­ing Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and his wife Peng Liyuan, which vividly por­trayed the Queen and her hus­band Prince Philip, Duke of Ed­in­burgh. This piece, Song of Life, boasted a to­tal length of 1.18 me­ters and took Yao and her as­sis­tants more than three months to com­plete. Yao’s em­broi­dery works have been pre­sented to for­eign po­lit­i­cal fig­ures as na­tional gifts on many oc­ca­sions. Her first work to be­come a na­tional gift was Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, an epony­mous piece cre­ated in 1996 for the then-malaysian prime min­is­ter.

Born in Zhenhu, Yao be­gan learn­ing

em­broi­dery from her mother at the age of seven. By her teens, the girl’s pieces were al­ready highly ac­claimed and be­gan ex­hibit­ing great po­ten­tial. Due to her pas­sion for em­broi­dery, Yao skipped the col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion and chose to at­tend the Suzhou Art & De­sign Tech­nol­ogy In­sti­tute, a vo­ca­tional school where she could study em­broi­dery and work at the same time.

In the early 1980s, fe­male em­broi­der­ers from Zhenhu be­gan to sell their works in down­town Suzhou. Grad­u­ally, fam­ily-run em­broi­dery stores emerged, with wives do­ing the em­broi­dery work and hus­bands han­dling sales. Buck­ing this trend, Yao passed on open­ing her own store, and con­tin­ued to learn skills from se­nior masters. “Ac­tu­ally, I was al­ready an out­stand­ing em­broi­derer by that time and could earn three times more than most of my peers,” re­calls Yao. “But I still felt my abil­i­ties were in­suf­fi­cient and wanted to reach higher lev­els. So I fo­cused on con­tin­u­ing to learn from the masters.”

The Suzhou Em­broi­dery Re­search In­sti­tute, which was es­tab­lished in the 1950s, at­tracted many Suzhou em­broi­dery masters. In 1990, Yao be­gan study­ing un­der Xu Zhi­hui, a re­tired em­broi­dery mas­ter from the in­sti­tute who was liv­ing alone at an ad­vanced age. Yao pro­posed mov­ing in with the mas­ter to act as her care­taker while study­ing, which re­sulted in her be­com­ing Xu’s fi­nal pro­tégé. At the time, Yao’s el­dest daugh­ter was only eight months old. In 1994, Yao fi­nally com­pleted her stud­ies. Thanks in large part to Xu’s guid­ance, Yao at­tained pro­fes­sional per­fec­tion and be­came pro­fi­cient in em­broi­der­ing tra­di­tional sub­jects in­clud­ing flow­ers, grass, fish and in­sects.

How­ever, Yao wasn’t con­tent with her artis­tic achieve­ments. Even­tu­ally, she be­gan to ex­pand her cre­ative themes. To­day, in the cen­tral po­si­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion area on the sec­ond floor of Yao Jian­ping Em­broi­dery Art Gallery, a small Suzhou em­broi­dery piece is dis­played in an in­de­pen­dent cab­i­net. This piece is based on the renowned photo of for­mer Chi­nese Pre­mier Zhou En­lai cap­tured by Ital­ian pho­tog­ra­pher Gior­gio Lotti in 1973 and now known in China as Zhou En­lai in Deep Thought. In 1995, trans­fer­ring the im­age to an em­broi­dery piece took Yao eight months, dur­ing which she lost nearly 20 pounds. Three years later, the work won the gold medal at the First China In­ter­na­tional Folk Art Expo for

its fine tex­ture, taste­ful color match­ing, nat­u­ral con­trast between light and shade, and vivid de­pic­tion. Yao was con­ferred the ti­tle of “folk craft artist” by UNESCO. More im­por­tantly, the honor gave Yao great con­fi­dence in her skills at fig­ure em­broi­dery. Later, she cre­ated A Great­man, a piece de­pict­ing Deng Xiaop­ing, the “ar­chi­tect of China’s re­form and open­ing up.”

“I Want to Cre­ate Works for This Era”

The year 1998 was im­por­tant for em­broi­dery de­vel­op­ment in Zhenhu. That year, the lo­cal govern­ment des­ig­nated a street es­pe­cially for em­broi­dery man­u­fac­tur­ing and sales and started devel­op­ing em­broi­dered com­modi­ties. Soon, Zhenhu be­came a well-known hub of em­broi­dery. The town has wit­nessed a steady growth in an­nual em­broi­dery sales rev­enue ever since. In 2002, its sales rev­enue ex­ceeded three mil­lion yuan. How­ever, in­stead of en­joy­ing the suc­cess, Yao reg­is­tered Zhenhu Em­broi­dery Re­search In­sti­tute, which was launched in her own three-story house.

“I hope to be­come an artist of the cal­iber of my mas­ter and my many tal­ented pre­de­ces­sors,” de­clares Yao. After years of hard work, Yao fi­nally de­cided it’s time to give full play to her ex­per­tise. “I want to cre­ate works that de­fine this era.” Wor­ried about sim­i­lar em­broi­dered com­modi­ties on the mar­ket, Yao de­cided to de­velop some­thing to­tally unique. “I don’t want to sim­ply copy paint­ings and pho­tos. I want real cre­ation.”

To this end, for the next 20 years, Yao

devel­oped her own team by re­cruit­ing stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­als. She led the team in com­plet­ing one breath­tak­ing project after an­other, from large-scale Suzhou em­broi­dery works in­clud­ing What a Great Land, Har­mony: China’s Cen­te­nary Olympic Dream Re­al­ized and The Silk

Road se­ries to a dozen of works pre­sented as na­tional gifts. Among these works, The Silk

Road – Re­turn­ing Home with Great Honor from Th­e­silkroad se­ries took Yao and her team three years to fi­nally com­plete in 2017. After be­ing used in a num­ber of ac­tiv­i­ties re­lated to for­eign af­fairs, the piece is now col­lected in the Na­tional Art Mu­seum of China.

“I grew up along­side the coun­try’s re­form and open­ing up and have greatly ben­e­fited from this process,” Yao ad­mits. “If it weren’t for this era, I would never have had a chance. The govern­ment helped de­velop the tra­di­tional art that was pre­vi­ously scat­tered in the hands of vil­lagers. The sup­port and en­cour­age­ment of the govern­ment pushed Suzhou em­broi­dery to an un­prece­dented height.” To­day when she is not work­ing on em­broi­dery, Yao puts all her en­ergy into pro­mot­ing the tra­di­tional craft. She teaches em­broi­der­ers and hosts ex­hi­bi­tions around the world. “The artis­tic road calls for con­tin­u­ous in­put and painstak­ing ef­forts.”

Yao Jian­ping, a renowned em­broi­dery oi­dery artist and the rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­her­i­tor of the na­tional in­tan­gi­ble le cul­tural her­itage of Suzhou em­broi­dery, ery, used nee­dles and d threads to show­case case her era. Her work k is con­sid­ered the top ech­e­lon of con­tem­po­rary Suzhou uzhou em­broi­dery.

Yao’s grace­ful mo­tions when per­form­ing em­broi­dery present a vis­ual feast. by Wang Lei

Yao’s em­broi­dery y por­tray­ing late Chi­nese Pre­mier Zhou En­lai, com­pleted in 1996, means a lot t to her. The work won the gold medal edal at the First China a In­ter­na­tional Folk k Art Expo. Yao was as be­stowed the ti­tle e of “folk craft artist” by UNESCO.

Yao’s large-scale Suzhou em­broi­dery piece The Silk Road – Re­turn­ing Home with Great Honor is now held by the Na­tional Art Mu­seum of China.

Yao’s work Song of Life was pre­sented to British Queen El­iz­a­beth II in 2015 as a na­tional gift.

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