As the Chinese Government has been making greater efforts to protect China's cultural heritage in recent years, an increasing number of Chinese have been placing greater value on "knickknacks" and "old-folk items" than they have in previous years. When you marvel at the beauty and artistic charm of such items, you might not fully appreciate how much effort the craftspeople put into making the items. They spend years creating crafts, with skill, determination and patience, and they constantly work to perfect and innovate the skills they use to create the crafts. We should give thumbs up to the women inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, especially to those who are breaking the gender barrier by inheriting the crafts traditionally passed down to men. In this edition, Women of China English Monthly shares the stories of women inheritors who create exquisite embroideries.
Gu Weaves Silk Thread into Colorful Life
Suzhou (a city in East China's Jiangsu Province), which is one of China's historical and cultural cities, is lauded as "Paradise on Earth" by many Chinese. The garden-like city is the birthplace of the Suzhou-style embroidery, which has long been ranked No. 1 among China's four famous styles of embroidery. The other three styles are: Hunan-, Sichuan- and Guangdong-style embroideries. The craft of making Suzhou-style embroideries dates back more than 2,000 years. The earliest records of craftswomen, who created the embroideries, was written during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). The craft entered its golden age during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Suzhou-style embroideries, which originated in Wuxian, a county in Suzhou, are known for their beautiful patterns, exquisite workmanship, unique local features and good likenesses of original images. To make an embroidery, craftspeople must complete several complicated procedures, including designing patterns on the item, using the threads to embroider the outlines of the patterns, filling in the outlines with colorful silk threads and mounting the item. So far, craftswomen in Suzhou have developed more than 40 methods of embroidering.
The embroideries fall into one of two categories: Single-sided or double-sided embroideries. The exquisite artworks perfectly reveal the delicacy and elegance of Oriental culture. In 2006, the craft of making Suzhou-style embroideries was listed in the first group of elements designated national intangible cultural heritage.
During the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings, held in Beijing in November 2014, a double-sided embroidered screen, which embodied traditional Chinese cultural elements, caught the attention of many participants from different parts of the world. The beautiful screen was placed in the passageway, which connected the meeting hall and the crush room. Gu Wenxia, a native of Dugu, a town in Wuxian, created the beautiful artwork.
In 1954, Gu received training, organized by Suzhou Embroidery Institute, for young embroiders. The institute invited painters and professors with academies of fine arts to provide lectures. The event marked a turning point in Gu's life, not only because she began working at the institute, but also because she realized embroidery was an art form, rather than a way to make a living. She also realized that creating artworks stressed creativity and originality, rather than merely the duplication of others' works. With that in mind, she went all out to practice her craft-making skills.For two millennia, the craft of embroidering has been handed down from generation to generation, especially among women. Gu began learning, from her mother, how to make embroideries when she was 14 years old. Within a short time, she made crafts to help her family meet its daily expenses.
Gu in 1961 learned how to paint cats from Cao Kejia (1906-1979), a Chinese painter who was especially good at painting the animal. As she improved her painting skills, Gu could create embroideries that vividly depicted cats. She even kept felines, so she could observe them carefully. Eventually, Gu became an expert in embroidering cats.
In 1956, Gu participated in an international craft exhibition in London, during which she showed the artistic charm of Suzhou-style embroideries. Many visitors (to the exhibition) were impressed by Gu's superb skills, when she embroidered a cat. The viewers were amazed when they watched her split a colorful silk thread into a dozen of strands. A British woman told Gu, "How marvelous is your embroidery! If we hadn't seen you work, we wouldn't believe it's a handmade item. We might even think your hands are equipped with micro machines." Many viewers referred to the Chinese embroidery as "an oriental pearl." Then, Gu realized small silk embroidery needles could play big roles in promoting traditional Chinese culture.
Given the outstanding achievements in her work, Gu was promoted to vice-president of the institute in 1965. In 1978, when China implemented its policy of reform and opening to the world, Gu decided to create an embroidery, based on a painting by 14 well-known Chinese calligraphers and painters, to reflect the people's joy of living in the prosperous country. While she participated in a cultural activity in Beijing, Gu asked Zhao Puchu (1907-2000), a famous Chinese calligrapher, to write an inscription on the painting. Zhao wielded his brush and wrote the characters for "Spring Comes Round." After Gu returned home, she immediately organized 10-plus experienced craftswomen to create the embroidery. "It took us 10 months to finish the item. It turned out to be the best artwork of our institute," says Gu.
During the past several decades, Gu has strived to improve her skills and to innovate the technical skills used to create the crafts. In addition to summarizing the 40-plus traditional embroidering methods, she has developed new ways to create more exquisite embroideries. She has also led craftspeople in the institute in collecting embroidered works created by folk artists and in reproducing embroidered cultural relics, which were created during the past dynasties.
In 1986, Gu established the Museum of Suzhou Embroidery Art, to display the artistic charm of Suzhou-style embroideries. She was still concerned about the development of the craft, even after she retired from the museum in 1999. In 2001, she set up a studio to create embroideries.
In December 2015, Gu donated some of her embroideries to Suzhou Art & Design Technology Institute. "The works will be more useful at the school (than in my home)," Gu was quoted as saying. "I hope more youngsters will appreciate the beauty of the art form and promote the traditional craft throughout the world."
Gu Wenxia, who was born in Wuxian in 1931, is a State-level master of arts and crafts in China and a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Suzhou-styled embroideries. During the past six decades, she has created numerous exquisite embroideries with various patterns, including figures, animals, plants, flowers, scenes and/or buildings.
Liu Pursues Artistic Perfection, Promotes Traditional Embroideries
Hunan-style embroideries, one of China's four famous embroidery styles, are characterized by vivid images and vibrant colors. Pure silk, satin and transparent gauze are the main raw materials used to make the embroideries. The embroideries' patterns vividly portray figures, animals, plants, flowers, scenes and/or buildings.
Changsha, capital of central China's Hunan Province, is renowned for Hunan-style embroideries, which are products with geographical indicators. The craft of making Hunan-style embroideries has a 2,000-plus-year history; in fact, records of the craft date back to 770-221 BC.
So far, craftswomen in Hunan have developed more than 70 embroidering methods. By using colorful silk threads and different embroidering methods, craftswomen have depicted numerous images with a three dimensional effect. In 2006, China added the craft of making Hunan-style embroideries to the list of the country's intangible cultural heritage.
Liu Aiyun, a native of Huangxing, a town in Changsha, has dedicated her life to inheriting the craft of making Hunan-style embroideries, and to promoting the development of the traditional craft. She has been creating embroideries for more than 60 years, during which she has won many prizes.
"Creating an embroidery is time-consuming. For example, it usually takes a craftswoman one to three years to embroider a tiger," says Liu. "A skilled embroiderer has to spend two months to depict a tiger's eye, using 20 different colors of threads." Although embroidering requires tremendous patience, Liu has never given up on her pursuit of artistic perfection.
She stresses that embroiderers must master various embroidering methods, so they can vividly depict images. "Most of the plants (in Changsha), which produced and sold machine-made embroideries, closed during the 1980s, as the products sold sluggishly in the market … Many customers, especially foreign customers, treasure handmade embroideries rather than machine-made items," says Liu.
In 1951, Liu, then 12, began learning how to embroider from her aunt. When she saw the colorful silk threads and smooth satin, she immediately "fell in love" with the craft. Within a short time, she began making embroideries to help with her family meet its daily expenses.
During the 1950s, a local county-level embroidery plant established several centers to collect and sell the embroideries created by rural craftswomen. Liu's beautiful embroideries caught the attention of the leaders and workers at the plant. The plant later employed her as a craftswoman and a technical counselor.
In September 1958, Liu was transferred to Hunan-style Embroideries Plant (in Changsha). Under the guidance of several experienced craftswomen, she strived to improve her craft-making skills.
In 1962, Liu apprenticed under Yu Zhenhui, an experienced artisan, so she could learn how to use special techniques to create lively depictions of tigers and lions. "My teacher was strict with me. At that time, I often went to the zoo in my spare time, to observe the fierce animals … I also asked several painters, who were good at painting tigers, to help me improve my painting skills. That helped me lay a solid foundation for my future career development. During the first few years I worked at the plant, I worked with other craftswomen to create several large embroideries, " Liu recalls.
A Tiger Drinking Water, an embroidery created by Liu in 1982, caused a sensation throughout China. Many viewers marveled at the lifelike "king of the jungle," which had wild, ferocious eyes and bright-colored skin. The work in 2000 earned Liu the gold medal of China's Hundred Flowers Awards, the top prize for China's arts and crafts. The work has been housed in China National Arts and Crafts Museum since 1985.
Liu and other craftspeople at the plant during the past several decades have put a lot of effort into improving and innovating embroidering techniques, to add beauty to the traditional craft. In 1983, Liu led her colleagues in making Vibrant Dongting Lake, the largest double-sided Hunan-style embroidery, which vividly depicts two wild ducks swimming on the lake (in Hunan Province). The ducks have different colors when one views them from different sides of the embroidery. In 1984, the Chinese Government presented the artwork to Romania.
In 1986, the Chinese Government sent Liu to Harare, capital of the Republic of Zimbabwe, to provide training to local women, to help them improve their embroidering skills. When Liu offered her embroidered screen, Victoria Falls, as a present to Robert Gabriel Mugabe, then-President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Mugabe could hardly take his eyes off the magnificent artwork. Countless Africans marveled at the beauty of African Antelopes, another embroidery (by Liu), which portrays antelopes running on the grassland.
Since Liu retired from the plant, in 1998, she has invested more time and energy in promoting the traditional craft. In 2007, Hunan Arts and Crafts Vocational College employed her as a guest professor. The previous year, the college took the lead in the country in setting up the department of Hunan-style embroideries. In 2009, Liu established a studio and took on four apprentices.
Despite her advanced age, Liu takes delight in promoting the traditional Chinese craft. "My biggest wish is to pass on my craft-making skills to more young people. I also hope more people will understand the beauty of the art form," says Liu.
Liu Aiyun, who was born in 1939 in Changsha, is a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Hunan-style embroideries. During the past six decades, she has created numerous exquisite embroideries that have vividly depicted figures, flowers, birds and other animals. She is especially good at embroidering tigers. She has won many prizes for her artworks.
Hao Dedicates Life to Developing Sichuan-Style Embroideries
The craft of making Sichuan-style embroideries is one of China's best-known styles of embroidering. The embroideries are characterized by a smooth texture and natural, elegant colors.
Most of the Sichuan-style embroideries are produced in Chengdu (capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province) or Mianyang (a city in the province). The art form originated in the Western Sichuan Plain, where silkworms abound. For millennia, craftspeople have used silk threads, which are glossy and strong, to create embroideries. The craft of making Sichuan-style embroideries dates back more than 3,000 years. The craft entered its golden age during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911), many craftspeople established embroidery studios in Sichuan. By the end of the 1970s, almost every rural family in western Sichuan made embroideries.
Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, in 1949, craftspeople in Sichuan have innovated their embroidering methods and skills. To date, the craftspeople have developed 138 embroidering methods. Now, the craftspeople can embroider different patterns, or the same patterns, with different colors on both sides of an embroidery. As a result, they can create lively depictions of figures, animals, plants and landscapes. In 2006, China added the craft of making Sichuan-style embroideries to the list of the country's intangible cultural heritage.
Hao Shuping, a native of Chengdu, has dedicated her life to pursuing her dream — displaying the unique charm of Sichuan-style embroideries. In 1959, she was admitted to the training class of Chengdu Professional Arts and Crafts School. Within a short time, she began studying embroidering under several master craftspeople. Hao is the only trainee, among her former 50-plus classmates, who has stuck to her career of promoting the traditional craft during the past five decades, despite all of the hardships and difficulties.
Hao was the hardest working trainee in the class. She believed painting was the prerequisite for creating exquisite embroideries. Therefore, she spent much time observing animals and plants, so she could paint them from nature.
Hao also apprenticed under several skilled craftspeople, who helped her improve her craft-making skills. During her spare time, she visited many art museums and exhibitions, from which she drew inspiration for her artistic creations. She also taught herself how to portray lively images.
In 1961, Chengdu Embroidery Plant employed Hao as a craftswoman. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills. In 1984, she was promoted to director of the plant. During the past several decades, she has led workers in creating many exquisite embroideries.
Hao in 1983 visited an exhibition to demonstrate China's achievements in promoting export products in Beijing, during which she was impressed by the superb workmanship of Suzhou-, Hunan- and Guangdong-style embroideries, the three other best-known styles of embroidering in China. By absorbing the advantages of other styles of embroideries, and by integrating the skills of creating oil paintings and traditional Chinese paintings in her creation of embroideries, Hao gradually developed her own artistic style.
During the past several decades, Hao has integrated various cultural elements while she has created embroideries. For example, she used both Suzhou- and Sichuan-style embroidering skills when she made Chang'e Flying to the Moon, an embroidery based on the dance drama with the same title. Chang'e is a lady in the legend who swallowed an elixir stolen from her husband and flew to the moon. In 1999, when she created another embroidery, Facial Makeups Used in Sichuan Opera, she used the embroidering patterns and methods during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD). Hao also embodied the cultural elements of the Tibetans and Yis' traditional clothes and adornments in her embroidery. The work was chosen as one of the souvenirs with the highest collectible value during the China Tourist Souvenirs Design Contest for Humanistic Olympics, which was held in Beijing in 2005.
Night Banquet Held by Han Xizai (an official of the Chinese Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period from 907-979) is one of the works that has given Hao the greatest satisfaction. The embroidery, created by Hao and three other craftspeople, is based on the famous painting with the same title, and many consider it to be exquisite beyond compare. All of the 40-plus figures, with different facial expressions and postures, are true to life. Many viewers have marveled at the beauty of the embroidery, which depicts the scene so faithfully that one might take it as a picture taken by a digital camera.
Hao has had several treatises published on the craft of making Sichuan-style embroideries. She uses simple language and vivid pictures to illustrate how to make the items.
In 2001, Hao retired from the plant. Within a short time, she set up a studio to create embroideries. When others asked her why she looked much younger than her age, she replied, "Making beautiful embroideries helps me stay healthy and happy."
Hao's home is filled with books on history and painting. She often visits art exhibitions. "One must make persevering efforts to improve his/her cultural competence, while he/she pursues artistic perfection," she has been quoted as saying.
Hao in recent years has put much effort into cultivating inheritors of the craft. So far, she has cultivated six Sichuan provincial masters of arts and crafts, two provincial-level inheritors of the craft and two Chengdu municipal-level inheritors of the craft. "I will cultivate more inheritors of the craft. I hope some of my apprentices will become masters of arts and crafts," says Hao.
Hao Shuping, who was born in Chengdu in 1945, is a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Sichuan-style embroideries and a State-level master of arts and crafts in China. Given her outstanding achievements in promoting the traditional craft, the World Crafts Council, a nongovernmental organization under UNESCO, in 2012 named Hao a master of arts and crafts in the Asia-Pacific Region. She has won many prizes during national festivals and exhibitions over the past three decades. In addition to the National Museum of China and China National Arts and Crafts Museum, many of her works have been housed in museums in many countries, including Britain, the United States, Japan, Canada, Singapore, France and Malaysia.
Chen Creates Splendid Embroideries, Promotes Traditional Chinese Culture
Guangdong-style embroideries, one of China's four famous embroidery styles, has been popular with people the world over for a millennium. Countless people have been fascinated by craftspeople's exquisite embroideries, which portray figures, animals and plants in vibrant colors. The embroideries fall into one of two categories: Items made from gold-foil threads or items made from velvet. The former items are gorgeous and elegant, whereas the latter items, which usually depict flowers and birds, are exquisite and true to life. In 2006, China added the craft of making Guangdong-style embroideries to the list of the country's intangible cultural heritage.
The earliest records of craftswomen, who created the embroideries, was written during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). As the craft developed rapidly during the Song Dynasty, many ordinary people used embroidered items in their daily lives. The craft entered its golden age during the late Ming Dynasty. The embroideries, produced during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799, sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty), represented the acme of the craft. During that period, numerous craftswomen in South China's Guangdong kept busy by creating crafts all day, every day, in embroidery studios.
After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the craft gradually developed to a higher level. However, the popularity of the art form started to wane during the 1990s, as many elderly craftspeople retired from embroidery plants and many younger craftspeople took other jobs, which were supposed to be less arduous and/or from which they could earn more money. In an effort to promote the development of the traditional craft, Guangzhou (capital of Guangdong Province) Embroidery Plant in 2003 brought together retired craftspeople to take on apprentices. That gave the ancient art form a new lease on life.
Chen Shaofang, an inheritor of the craft, has devoted her life to studying and saving the craft. During the past four decades, she has integrated the artistic elements of Western-style paintings and traditional Chinese paintings with the traditional Chinese embroidery techniques, and, as a result, she has developed "Chen's Guangdong-style embroideries."
Many of Chen's teachers and schoolmates were impressed by her outstanding talent in art when she studied at Zhongnan Fine Arts Vocational School (the predecessor of the Fine Arts School Affiliated with Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts [GAFA]) from 1954-1958. During the following four years, while she attended GAFA's department of traditional Chinese paintings, she learned painting skills from Guan Shanyue, Li Xiongcai and Yang Zhiguang, all well-known Chinese painters. Later, she took advantage of her painting skills to develop the embroidery-making craft.
Soon after she graduated from the academy, in 1962, Chen was assigned to work at the Guangzhou Arts and Crafts Research Institute. During the first few years she worked in the institute, Chen studied various traditional Chinese crafts, including wood carving, embroidering and making ceramics. Eventually, she chose the craft of making Guangdong-style embroideries, which interested her most, as her life-long career. During the following three decades, she created numerous exquisite embroideries at the institute.
To revive the embroidery-making craft, Chen established a center dedicated to promoting the craft in 1994, one year after she retired from the institute. "I turned my apartment into a plant, in which my husband and I and our two boys made embroideries. When our plant earned a profit, we employed several craftspeople to make embroideries," Chen recalls.
During the past three decades, she has put a lot of effort into protecting and promoting the time-honored craft. She in 1984 had The Craft of Making Guangdong-style Embroideries published. The book uses simple language and vivid pictures to illustrate how to make embroideries. Chen reached the peak of her artistic creation after she retired from the institute. From 1990-2000, she created The Magnificent Landscape in the Area South of the Five Ridges (which cover Guangdong and South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), a 13.8-meter-long and 1.2-meter-high embroidery. In 2004, she received first prize, for her creation of the work, at the first folk arts exhibition in Guangdong Province.
Chen is best at creating embroideries with the patterns of figures. She has made embroideries that portray many "celebrities" worldwide, including Mona Lisa (figure in a half-length portrait painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci [1452-1519]), Venus (the Queen of love), Diana Frances Spencer (1961-1997, Princess of Wales) and Zhao Puchu (1907-2000), a famous Chinese calligrapher. Despite her rich experience in creating embroideries that portray figures, Chen had a hard time depicting the dusky red cheek of Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997-2006.
A few months before the 2010 Asian Games (in Guangzhou), Chen and Tan Zhanpeng, her son, and Huang Jianmin, her daughter-in-law, created a gigantic embroidery, entitled A Harmonious View in the Area South of the Five Ridges. The item hangs in the meeting hall, which was used by the State leaders during the games.
Chen, Tan and Huang set up Libaofang Craft Shop (in Liwan, a district in Guangzhou) several years ago. They produce and sell items, and they provide training to residents, to help them improve their embroidery-making skills, in the shop.
Chen is pleased that several universities in Guangdong in recent years have provided courses on the craft. "The youngsters will benefit from the inheritance (in a broad sense) of the traditional craft. Even if they land jobs that are irrelevant to the craft, learning about the art form will enable them to view things from a new perspective," says Chen.
On May 18, 2018, International Museum Day, Chen held a solo exhibition in Guangzhou Liwan Museum. Among the 54 embroideries displayed during the exhibition, many of her works embodied her new artistic styles. She also used new embroidering methods to create the items. "We embroiderers should blaze new trails when we create artworks, so we can better promote the traditional craft," Chen was quoted as saying.
Chen Shaofang, who was born in 1937 in Guangzhou, is a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Guangdong-styled embroideries. Given her outstanding achievements in promoting the traditional craft, the World Artists' Association presented, to Chen in 2008 and 2009, respectively, the Golden Eagle Award and the Golden Horse Award, both of which are life-achievement awards, for her efforts to promote the development of the world's traditional crafts. In 2010, China National Arts and Crafts Society presented her with the life-achievement award for promoting the development of the traditional Chinese craft.
(Source: Women of China English Monthly August 2018 issue)