Chinese Artist Promoting Su Embroidery on Global Stage

August 13, 2013
By Yao Yao and Lei YangEditor: Amanda Wu
The Su embroidery entitled Early Spring of Southern China is displayed in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. [Yao Jianping Embroidery Musuem]

The Su embroidery entitled Early Spring of Southern China is displayed in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. [Yao Jianping Embroidery Musuem]

Are you looking for a traditional art form that perfectly reveals both the delicacy and elegance of Oriental culture? If so, look no farther than Su-style embroidery. This style of embroidery, which originated in east China's Jiangsu Province, has long been ranked No. 1 among China's four famous embroidery styles. The other three styles are: Xiang, from Central China's Hunan Province; Yue, from South China's Guangdong Province; and Shu, from Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Su embroidery has a 2,600-year history; in fact, records of Su embroidery date back to AD 220-280. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), almost every family in Jiangsu raised silkworms, and nearly every member of each family knew how to embroider. At that time, the popularity of the local Wu-style paintings (mainly landscapes and portraits) enhanced the development of embroidery, as many embroiderers used their needles to recreate painters' works.

Su embroidery entered its golden age during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); patterns that symbolized happiness, longevity and auspiciousness were popular. Many families, whether commoners or nobility, had such patterns on their clothes, quilt covers, cushion covers, shoes and scent bags. During the early 1900s, Shen Yunzhi, an embroiderer in Suzhou, created a new technique that gave embroideries a three-dimensional effect. Eight Immortals Celebrate Birthday, which she created for Empress Dowager Cixi's 70th birthday, earned Shen praise and awards from the empress.

The climate and fertile land in the Jiangsu area created favorable conditions for growing mulberries and silkworms. Over time, Jiangsu became known for its high-quality silk. Almost simultaneously, Su embroidery became known for its beautiful patterns, exquisite workmanship, unique local features and good likeness of original images.
For millennia, artists from Jiangsu produced countless embroideries for successive royal families. Nowadays, collectors clamor for the embroideries and Chinese officials present Su embroideries as gifts to State leaders.

"Su embroideries boast superb craftsmanship and noble colors. Goldfish and kittens were typical … in traditional works. People loved them because they were from everyday life. The (patterns) and sizes of the embroideries have changed with time. Embroidering skills have also been updated," says Yao Jianping, one of the inheritors of Su embroidery (a national intangible cultural heritage).

Yao, 46, was born in Zhenhu, a town under Suzhou, in Jiangsu Province. The town is considered a pillar of Su embroidery. She began learning how to embroider at Suzhou Art and Design School in 1987. From 1991-94, she studied under Xu Zhihui, a master of Su embroidery, at Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute. After she learned the skills to embroider animals, flowers and scenes of nature, Yao, who has always challenged herself, started to embroider portraits.

"Portraits are solid; embroidering portraits requires a craftsman to have knowledge of designing, photography and oil painting to handle lighting and shadows. At first, I didn't understand such things, and I just paid attention to the embroidering skills. Then I studied related arts. It's hard to display both a person's appearance and temperament through embroidery. I must respect the original paintings, and I must use my skills to recreate them," Yao says.

It took Yao eight months to finish Contemplation, a double-sided embroidery based on a portrait of former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou was reflected in the embroidery wearing a grey Mao-style suit while he sat peacefully on a magenta couch. That embroidery earned Yao first prize at the first China International Folk Arts Expo in 1998. That year, she established Zhenhu Embroidery Institute. In 2002, the Yao Jianping Embroidery Museum was founded. Four of her works have earned her the top prize for Chinese folk arts. Her embroidery 'I Love China' is still the only embroidery to have been carried into space by a satellite.

Many of her embroideries are in collections owned by departments of the Chinese Government, museums or individuals. Those embroideries include portraits of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, both former Chinese leaders, Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and George W. Bush, former US President.

In September 2011, Dwelling in Fuchun Mountains (based on the famous painting by Huang Gongwang [1269-1354]) and The Pigeons, both by Yao and both among the first intangible cultural heritage products, were listed at the Tianjin Cultural Artwork Exchange. The embroideries sold for a combined 68 million yuan (US $11 million).

Yao says her sincere appreciation of and admiration for the art of embroidery has spurred her to continue progressing as an embroiderer. "You must be patient enough to practice alone for years. More than a craft, embroidery is an art form; you need to learn the basic skills for three to five years, at the beginning; then you can only depend on your talent and hard work. If you are diligent and filled with inspiration, you will feel satisfied and excited by your own works," she says.

Yao received several honors in 2012; in June, her double-sided embroidery of UK Queen, Elizabeth II became the first work by a modern Chinese artist to be collected by Buckingham Palace. Prince Andrew, the Queen's second son, said Yao's work was one of the best portraits of the Queen. "The work shows detailed expressions on her face, especially her eyes. Even I didn't notice those details about my mother. I couldn't wait to show it to her," he was quoted as saying.

In October, Yao attended the Autumn Salon, a prestigious international art exhibition in Paris, France. For the first time, she stepped on the stage, generally used to showcase top artists and their works, and displayed Su embroideries to the world.

"I felt honored when the event's president formally introduced me … at the opening ceremony. They only provided this chance to French artists before," Yao says. During the exhibition, a female Spanish painter tightly held Yao's hands and said, "Your hands must be a goddess' hands to produce such incredibly wonderful art!"

It was a humbling experience for Yao. "I really didn't expect Su embroidery would be recognized by the world's arts community. That recognition gave me confidence. Although I have gained much experience and success, the pressure to make better works has also increased. I am responsible for developing and promoting Chinese embroidery to a higher level. There is still a long way to go," Yao says.

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