Suzhou Embroidery—A Legend Created by Women

suzhou embroideryEmbroidery is a form of traditional Chinese art. During the Spring and Autumn Period, more than 2,000 years ago, people from Wu State applied embroidery to clothes. That was the origin of Suzhou-style embroidery. China's three other well-known styles of embroidery are the Xiang, Shu and Yue. During the development of Suzhou-style embroidery, many famous women pushed the art form to new levels. They displayed their cleverness and talent, and, subse-quently, entrenched their names in history.

Shen Shou over the past 100 years has had the greatest impact on the development of Suzhou-style embroidery. Shen, born in 1871 in Wuxian County, Jiangsu Province, commonly referred to as the cradle of Suzhou-style embroidery, began using a needle at seven. She learned embroidery a year later. At first, she embroidered flowers and grass on bedding and various other items. Later, as she matured as an embroiderer, Shen began creating her own works, which her family hailed as original art. By 16, she had become a famous embroidery artist in Suzhou City. In 1904, Shen embroidered eight pieces – including a portrait of Buddha – to give to the Empress Dowager Cixi, of the Qing Dynasty, who was celebrating her 70th birthday. The gift pleased Cixi. In return, she wrote— "寿"(Longevity) and "福"(Happiness)– which she gave to Shen and her husband. Also that year, the Qing Government sent Shen to Japan to observe Japan's works of art –especially the embroideries and paintings. When she returned, Shen was appointed the Imperial Palace's general instructor of embroidery.

suzhou embroideryBy combining her experiences, Japan's embroidery techniques and Europe and America's sketching and oil painting techniques, Shen set a new standard for Chinese embroidery. In 1911, Shen finished her work "Portrait of an Italian Empress," which was presented to Italy as a State present from the Qing Government. Italy's then-Emperor and Empress, in a letter, thanked the Qing Government for the exquisite, Suzhou-style embroidery. They also gave Shen a gold watch as a reciprocal gift. The embroidery was sent to Italy's Turin International Fair, where it won first place.
In 1914, Shen was named director of Jiangsu's Nantong Needlework Learning School. She also taught embroidery in other regions of China, and, as a result, developed a cult-like following of young people. Unfortunately, she burned herself out within eight years. While lying in bed, Shen recalled her experiences. Over several months, she wrote a book, titled Xuehuan Embroidery Guide, which summed up her 40-year career as an embroiderer – China's preeminent embroiderer. Shen's book was the first written about Suzhou-style embroidery.

suzhou embroideryOther outstanding embroiderers during that era included Hua Qi, Wang Shouming, Tang Yiz-hen, Li Peifu, Cai Qunxiu, Zhang Yingxiu and Jin Jingfen. Collectively, they won many prestigious awards – including honors at Italy's Turin International Fair (1911), the Panama-Pacific Interna-tional Fair (1915) and the Belgium International Fair (1930)—for their wonderful embroideries. Of the outstanding needlework artistes, Jin Jingfen formally acknowledged Shen as her master. Jin later followed Shen to the capital, and became a teacher at the embroidery school. Jin's works included flowers, birds, people, mountains and rivers. Jin was especially adept at embroidering portraits of people.

Wu Yu, another of Shen's students, also was an elite needlework artist.

Wu closely followed Shen's style. Her images were accurate, the colors were smooth and the stitches were tight. At 18, Wu embroidered a wonderful piece titled "Reed and Kingfisher." It has been listed in the album collection of "Chinese Embroideries."

The "cross-stitch embroidery method" was a leap forward in Suzhou-style embroidery. In 1928, Yang Shouyu, director of embroidery at Danyang Women's Vocational School, cre-ated the vertical and horizontal cross-stitch method. The new technique reinvigorated the art form. Ren Huixian, who graduated from the school in the 1930s, further developed the cross-stitch method. Her works were artistic, elegant and exquisite – while being soft and smooth. Her master-pieces included "Lenin," "Painter Qi Baishi" and "Cat." She also wrote a book on cross-stitch embroidery.

The 1950s ushered in a new era of Suzhou-style embroidery, and artists have since created a variety of new masterpieces. The two-sided embroideries "Gold Fish" and "Catlings" became representative works of that time. The technique effectively transforms flat embroideries into three-dimensional works. The vivid, exquisite pattern is identical on each side. "Gold Fish" won the gold medal at the 56th Poznan International Fair. Gu Wenxia, director of China Suzhou-style Embroidery Museum and general technician at the Suzhou-style Embroidery Institute, is a master of two-sided embroidery. "Hawksbill Turtle and Cat" and "Orchid" are two of her best-known works. She has been invited to discuss embroidery in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Albania.

To keep the ancient, Suzhou-style embroidery alive, research institutes and mills have been built since the 1950s in Suzhou, Nantong, Changzhou and Wuxi. The Suzhou-style Embroidery Institute has done an excellent job of studying, recording and promoting the embroidery technique, which was nearly lost during past generations. As a result, there are more varieties of Suzhou-style embroideries. In addition to single-sided and double-sided embroideries, there are "color-ful-brocade embroidery," which is used especially for decorations; "hair embroidery;" "miniature embroidery," in which up to 780 characters can be embroidered on a portrait of the Goddess of Mercy; and "seed embroidery." Most of these creations are considered miracles.

Suzhou-style embroidery is world renowned for its exquisite, elegant, clear and beautiful artis-tic style. Such embroideries in years past were given by China to heads of states as gifts. Suzhou-style embroideries have been exhibited in 92 countries and regions, and more than 100 embroiderers have won international awards and/or recognition.

The art continues, and, in Suzhou, some old-time embroiderers are creating some outstanding pieces of art. By using needles, floss and fabric, and by applying various methods of stitching, they seem to bring nature, flowers, birds, fish and humans to life in their creations.

There are also many folk embroiderers in Wujiang County. Some estimates indicate there are 8,000 women embroiderers in Zhenhu. They range in age from early teens to 70-year-old grand-mothers. Almost all households in the county earn at least a portion of their incomes from embroi-dery. In Zhenhu, considered the home of Suzhou-style embroidery, needlework is a tourist favorite. No one can tell exactly how many embroidery mills are located in and around Zhenhu.

(Source: Women of China)