Perseverance and InnovationChinese Women Inheriting Intangible Cultural Heritage

November 29, 2018
By Women of ChinaEditor: Zhang Shanshan
Perseverance and Innovation


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 "knick-knacks" 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.

Kaifeng-Styled Embroideries Superb Works of Art

Kaifeng-Styled Embroideries

For about 1,000 years, the craft of making Kaifeng-styled embroideries has been handed down from generation to generation, especially among women. The embroideries, which are one of the best-known embroidered crafts in China, have amazed people with their charm and unique artistic beauty. In 2008, China added the craft to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage. It is widely acknowledged that Suzhou-styled embroidered cats, Hunan-styled embroidered lions and tigers, Sichuan-styled embroidered fish, Guangdong-styled embroidered birds and beasts, and Kaifeng-styled embroidered figures are truest to life. While they create Kaifeng-styled embroideries, craftspeople use bright-colored silk threads to embroider — on taffeta or Hangzhou satin — various patterns, which vividly portray figures, natural views and scenes in common people's lives. 

The first embroideries originated in Bianjing (the predecessor of Kaifeng, a city in Central China's Henan Province), capital of China during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The imperial palace employed more than 300 craftswomen to create embroidered clothes and adornments for dignitaries, emperors and their concubines. Records indicate that during the dynasty, numerous craftswomen produced and sold embroideries in a lane called "Xiuxiang" (Embroidery Lane). Shortly after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, China's first embroidery cooperative was established, in Kaifeng. In 1958, the cooperative evolved into Kaifeng-styled Embroideries Plant, a full-fledged plant. During the past six decades, the plant has developed more than 10 embroidering methods. In recent years, the embroideries produced by the plant have sold well, both at home and abroad. The Chinese Government has presented many of its works to leaders and organizations in other countries during cultural exchanges.

Wang Suhua, a native of Fengqiu, a town in Henan Province, has dedicated her life to promoting the traditional craft of creating Kaifeng-styled embroideries. With her enthusiasm for beautiful things, and her persevering effort to improve her artistic skills, she has created many works of art that have captured their "vigorous vitality" during the past six decades. Given her superb workmanship, many Chinese refer to Wang as "empress of Kaifeng-styled embroideries."

Wang began learning, from her grandmother, how to make embroideries when she was 8 years old. In 1957, when she was 22, she was employed, as a worker, by Kaifeng-styled Embroideries Plant. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills. Within six months, she was promoted to head of a workshop.

The embroidery, entitled Along the River During the Qingming Festival (a famous Chinese painting by Zhang Zeduan during the Northern Song Dynasty), is one of the works that has given Wang the greatest satisfaction. Numerous viewers during the past five decades have been amazed by the beauty of the embroidery, decorated with paintings that vividly depicted the bustling downtown life and beautiful natural views during the Northern Song Dynasty. In 1959, Wang and several craftswomen in the plant spent more than 100 days creating the embroidery. They made a special trip to the bank of the Yellow River to watch boatmen retract and release boats' ropes, so the craftswomen could vividly depict the scene while they created the embroidery. Through repeated experiments, Wang led the craftswomen to use new embroidering methods while they made the artwork. Henan's provincial government presented the item to the central government, to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. 

Given her outstanding achievements in promoting the traditional craft, Wang was named a Henan Model Worker in 1959. In 1979, she attended the National Artists, Craftspeople and Art Designers' Conference.

Shortly after Wang retired from the plant in 1990, she established Kaifeng Suhua Embroidery Co. Ltd. During the past 20-plus years, the company has provided free training to more than 3,000 residents, to help them develop the skills needed to make embroideries. Wang has invested much time and energy in leading craftswomen to develop the skills needed to both make the crafts and expand the market. Given Wang and her employees' efforts, an increasing number of residents in Kaifeng and its neighboring areas have taken up the craft-related jobs in recent years. That, in turn, has greatly promoted the development of the areas' tourism industry.

In 1995, Wang held an exhibition in Chicago to promote Kaifeng-styled embroideries. During the exhibition, she showed the artistic charm of dozens of embroideries to visitors from different parts of the world.

In 2005, Wang registered a brand name — Suhua — for her embroideries, so it would be easier to expand her business. Three years later, Suhua embroideries became one of the most well-recognized brand-name products in Henan Province. 

In 2010, Wang established Kaifeng Brothers' Embroidery Company, which employed disabled residents. At present, 28 disabled women are on the company's payroll. Given Wang and other craftswomen's help, many of the women have become skilled embroiderers.

To promote the traditional craft, Wang and other craftswomen in 2016 established Wang Suhua's Embroideries Museum. From time to time, Wang explains to visitors the development of the traditional craft.

In June 2018, Wang made a special trip to Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province, to attend the Fifth China International Creative Handicraft Cultural Industry Expo. She was delighted to see many visitors watched her embroideries carefully.

Wang says she plans to develop Kaifeng Suhua Embroidery Co. Ltd. into a multifunctional base, in which craftspeople produce and exhibit embroideries. She also says she hopes more visitors, from home and abroad, will have a better understanding of Kaifeng's traditional culture through the exquisite artworks created by the company.


Perseverance and Innovation


Craftswoman's Bio

Wang Suhua, who was born into a farmer's family in Fengqiu in 1935, is a State-level master of arts and crafts in China and a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Kaifeng-styled embroideries. She has won many prizes for her artworks. In 2005, China National Arts and Crafts Society presented to her the life achievement award of promoting the development of the traditional Chinese craft.

Maweixiu 'Living Fossil' of Chinese Art of Embroidery

Shui People's Maweixiu

Sandu Shui Autonomous County, deep in the Yueliang and Leigong mountains, in Southwest China's Guizhou Province, is China's only autonomous county inhabited by the Shui minority group. Sandong, Zhonghe and several other villages in the county have long been known for Shui women's maweixiu (unique art form that involves the use of thread, made from horsetail hair, to embroider patterns' outlines on cloth) items. With true-to-life patterns of flowers, birds, fish and other animals, the exquisite embroideries embody the ethnic group's traditional cultural elements. The art form, often referred to as the "living fossil" of China's art of embroidery, was added to China's list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

Ban'gao, a village in the county, is the birthplace of maweixiu. The exquisite embroideries sell well, both at home and abroad. When girls in the village turn 6 or 7, their mothers, or other senior relatives, usually begin teaching them the skills needed to embroider maweixiu items. Many of the women created their first small embroideries when they were around 10 years old. A woman's skill in making maweixiu is used to indicate how creative she is, and how good she is at using her hands. When a woman in the village gets married, her parents customarily give her a maweixiu baby sling, made by her mother, to express their hope that she will soon have a baby. Six complicated procedures — including making thread for the embroidery by winding (white) silk threads around horsetail hair, using the thread to embroider the outlines of the patterns, filling in the outlines with colorful silk threads, bordering the embroidery with orange and dark green silk threads, adding small copper sheets to the embroidery (so the work will look brighter) and framing the item — must be followed when creating a maweixiu item.

Song Shuixian is a native of Banmen, a village in Sandu Shui Autonomous County. "My mother began teaching me the basic skills (to make) the embroideries when I was a little girl," Song recalls. "My husband is a resident of Bangao Village. With the help of Pan Shuiying, my husband's grandmother, who was a well-known craftswoman in the county, I improved my embroidery skills within a short time."

More than 10 years ago, Song discovered few young people were willing to study the craft, as an increasing number of youngsters left their homes to work elsewhere. She also noticed there was a decrease in the number of people who bought maweixiu items, as more and more people preferred to buy less-expensive, ready-made clothes.

Seeing the business opportunity in the county's tourism industry, Song in 2006 opened a specialty craft shop that dealt mainly in maweixiu items. The shop was the first of its kind in the county. Within a short time, Song had established a production and marketing network. As a result, many of the women villagers, who had moved to other regions of the country to do manual work, returned home and began to make maweixiu items to earn money. Many of the women were grateful to Song, as they could work at home, which made it easier for them to take care of their children and elderly family members.

About 20 years ago, when she noticed many visitors to her hometown bought exquisite maweixiu items from residents, Song worried that there would be few crafts left for later generations to inherit and study. She went from village to village, and she used much of her meager income, to collect traditional maweixiu items. Once, when Song discovered her family had sold a maweixiu wallet that she had collected, to help with her family's daily expenses, she was heart-stricken and burst into tears. Eventually, she bought back the wallet.

During the past two decades, Song has collected nearly 10,000 superb maweixiu works, which were worth more than 1.5 million yuan (US $223,881) combined. She hopes young craftspeople will study the works, so they will improve their embroidery skills.


Perseverance and Innovation

In recognition of Song's efforts to promote the development of the craft, Guizhou's Department of Culture in 2007 named her a provincial-level inheritor of the craft.

Song for years has played her role in the development of the art form. During the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, she showed the artistic charm of maweixiu works to visitors from around the world. Also that year, she began displaying her embroideries, in her home, to tourists who visited the village. Her "family museum" was the first of its kind in the county. 

In 2012, Song established Shuixian Maweixiu Co., Ltd. During the past six years, she has led craftswomen (in her company) in improving and innovating the traditional craft. Now, the company employs professional art designers, and it has an effective craft-development team.

"I'm grateful to my family (members), who have always supported me in my work," says Song. "In 2017, my youngest son, who had left home to work elsewhere, returned home to help me manage the company. A short time later, my eldest son and his wife also joined us in running the business."

During the past year, Song's family has integrated modern artistic elements in their designs of maweixiu works. The family has also explored ways to help rural women increase their families' incomes by selling their maweixiu items.


Perseverance and Innovation


Craftswoman's Bio

Song Shuixian was born in Banmen Village in 1966. In 2012, she was named a State-level inheritor of the craft of making maweixiu works. Given her outstanding achievements, Song during the past few years has received accolades and special titles, including the May 1 Labor Medal of Guizhou Province and the Award for Promoting the Intangible Cultural Heritage in China. Song in recent years has led rural Shui women in creating maweixiu items, to help them escape poverty.

Leading Villagers in Creating Embroideries, Rebuilding Homes 

Qiang- and Tibetan-Styled Embroideries and Handwoven Products

The craft of making Qiang- and Tibetan-styled embroideries and handwoven products has been handed down from generation to generation, by women to their daughters, in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, for more than a millennium. The craft embodies the unique culture and aesthetic value of the Tibetan and Qiang people. In 2008, China added the craft of making Qiang-styled embroideries to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage. In 2011, the craft of making Tibetan-styled embroideries and handwoven products was listed in the third group of elements designated as national intangible cultural heritage.

The craft of making Tibetan-styled embroideries, which originated in the ninth century, is one of the major art forms of Tibetan Buddhism. The craft, which has integrated the characteristics of embroideries and other art forms of the Central Plains (the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River) and Central and West Asia, has become a unique art form on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.  It is one of the most representative schools of embroideries of China's minority groups. Qiang people usually wear traditional attire, decorated with various embroidered patterns. Rural Qiang women made the clothes during breaks in their farm work. Almost every Qiang woman began learning, from their grandmother or mother, the skills needed to make embroideries at an early age. As a result, the ancient art form has been well preserved.

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), embroideries have been used as part of Qiang women's dowry. According to local customs, a bride's embroideries are displayed in the hall of her parents' house around her wedding ceremony, so both guests and in-laws can judge whether she has a lively mind and quick hands.

Yang Huazhen, a craftswoman who is skilled in the crafts of making Tibetan- and Qiang-styled embroideries, is somewhat of a celebrity in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Why? A magnitude-8 earthquake razed large areas of Sichuan Province, including Wenchuan (a county in the prefecture), in May 2008. Since then, Yang has led more than 1,000 Qiang and Tibetan women, in the prefecture, in creating embroideries, so they can increase their families' incomes and rebuild their homes.

Yang began learning, from her mother, how to make embroideries at the age of 8. Known for her lively mind and quick hands, Yang began helping villagers design their wedding dresses when she was 15 years old.

Between 1978 (when China implemented its policy of reform and opening to the world) and 1998, Yang served as a teacher, photographer and a photo studio's owner. However, she never gave up making embroideries.

As she witnessed many deaths during the Wenchuan Earthquake, Yang realized that she had to do something to help the quake victims overcome the disaster and rebuild their homes. In August 2008, she used a large part of her meager savings to establish an association, to help residents of Wenchuan improve their skills of making Tibetan-styled embroideries and handwoven products.

Later that year, Yang led a dozen 60-something Tibetan and Qiang craftswomen during a special trip to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, to sell their embroideries. However, life was not always smooth sailing. As they were inexperienced, the women sold few items. When they were about to return home three months later, a Chengdu businessman offered them a house, allowing them to pay their rent six months later.


Perseverance and Innovation


The women established an art studio in the house. As they developed their business, orders for their embroideries flooded in from all over the world. To fulfill the orders on time, Yang employed some young residents in her village to make embroideries.

To improve her cultural competence, Yang studied Buddhist scriptures, thangkas (paintings on silk with embroidering) and the Hans' traditional culture. She also apprenticed under Hao Shuping, a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Sichuan-styled embroideries, so she could improve her embroidering skills. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills.

Yang in recent years has taken 150 young people, including rural women and youths with a master's degree in design, as her apprentices. She encouraged her apprentices to integrate modern artistic elements in their designs of artworks.

During the past few decades, Yang has received awards during national and international art exhibitions and craft competitions. As a result, she has become somewhat of a celebrity in the prefecture, and that fame helped her expand her business.

In 2005, Yang registered a brand name — Moerduo — for the Tibetan-styled embroideries made by her art studio, so it would be easier to expand her business. During the past few years, her studio has established business ties with several international enterprises that produce the most well-recognized brand-name beauty products in the world. 
In 2017, shortly after she received financial support from the Chinese Government, Yang began offering free training to Qiang and Tibetan women in Sichuan, to help them improve their embroidering skills. During the past year, more than 1,000 women, who have received the training, have attained wealth by creating embroideries at home. 

In August 2012, Yang established Chengdu Huazhen Tibetan and Qiang Culture Museum, which is dedicated to promoting the traditional crafts of the Tibetan and Qiang ethnic groups. In 2014, China's Ministry of Culture included the museum on the list of the country's experimental bases to protect intangible cultural heritage.

Yang in recent years has put a lot of effort into cultivating inheritors of the craft of making Qiang- and Tibetan-styled embroideries and handwoven products. Many of the young art designers in her studio have designed fashionable clothes, adornments and other items, all integrated with the cultural elements of the traditional crafts. 

In August 2017, Yang attended an art exhibition in Beijing. When asked about the  responsibilities and obligations that come with being a State-level inheritor of the craft, she said she has been obliged to collect and sort out the traditional works and to cultivate inheritors of the crafts.

"I'll arrange for my apprentices to attend lectures to help them improve their craft-making skills," says Yang. "Only when young people inherit and develop the traditional crafts will the crafts become popular worldwide."


Perseverance and Innovation


Craftswoman's Bio

Yang Huazhen, who was born in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in 1960, is a State-level inheritor of the craft of making Qiang- and Tibetan-styled embroideries and handwoven products. Given her efforts to promote the traditional Chinese crafts, she has been named a Sichuan provincial master of arts and crafts and a member of the International Organization of Folk Art, under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

'Summer Cloth' Embodies Artistic Charm of Wash Painting

'Summer Cloth' Embroideries

Xinyu, a city in East China's Jiangxi Province, is renowned for its ramie cloth. As the cloth is soft and light, and as it does a good job of keeping one's body cool, it is often used to make summer clothes. Hence, it is commonly referred to as "summer cloth." In 2014, China added the craft (of making "summer cloth" embroideries) to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage.

Records indicate that Chinese began using ramie cloth to make hats and clothes during the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century-16th century BC). For millennia, the craft of making the cloth has been handed down from generation to generation, especially among women, in Xinyu. The handwoven cloth is soft and durable, and it will not fade easily.

Craftspeople use silk threads, which are glossy and strong, to create "summer cloth" embroideries. Sometimes, craftspeople divide a thread, which is as thin as hair, into several strands to make an item.

During the past millennium, numerous craftspeople have used bright-colored silk threads to create "summer cloth" embroideries, which have vividly depicted figures, natural views, flowers, birds, fishes, insects and other animals. Through the crisscrossing thick and thin threads on an embroidery, one may see the light and shade of the artwork's patterns. Many of the embroideries, which are classically elegant, are of high artistic and practical value. Some people use the artworks to decorate their houses, and many art collectors take delight in keeping the embroideries.

Zhang Xiaohong, a once-laid-off woman in Ruichang, a city in Jiangxi Province, has become known far and wide in recent years. Why? She has created exquisite artworks by embroidering patterns of wash paintings on the "summer cloth."

Zhang developed an interest in creating embroideries during her early childhood. In early 2002, she was laid off by the factory where she had worked for several years. Despite the setback, she never gave up hope. One day, an exquisite Suzhou-styled embroidery caught her eyes. She immediately made up her mind to learn the craft. Within a short time, she moved to Suzhou to study embroidery skills.

After she returned home, she frequently visited Xinyu Culture Center, to learn, from well-known craftswomen, how to improve her embroidering. In 2004, she held her first solo exhibition in Xinyu.

In March 2004, with the help of Liu Xiaoyan, President of Xinyu Women's Federation, Zhang received a 40,000-yuan (US $5,970) loan from the federation. Within a short time, she and several craftswomen established Yuzhou Embroidery Studio.

During the first year after the studio was established, Zhang travelled across the country to attend art and craft exhibitions, to promote sales of the craftswomen's embroideries. In 2005, she received an order for hundreds of their products from an enterprise, which was about to use the items during a commercial activity. "The enterprise was our studio's 'lifesaver.' Within a short time, our business took a turn for the better," Zhang recalls.

Zhang in recent years has put a lot of effort into improving and innovating embroidering techniques, to add beauty to her artworks. Through repeated experiments, she eventually mastered the skill of softening the "summer cloth," so craftspeople could embroider easily on the cloth.

Zhang during the past decade has led her employees to create embroideries with unique local features. Many of their embroideries, with patterns of traditional Chinese wash paintings, embody the unique culture of the Chinese nation. The exquisite artworks have enthralled people throughout the world. Many of the craftswomen's works have earned them prizes for the national arts and crafts. Some of their works have been housed in China National Arts and Crafts Museum and China's Embroidery Art Museum.

In 2005, Zhang obtained a national patent for a new method of embroidering on the "summer cloth." Since then, the craft has been hailed as "China's top embroidery on the 'summer cloth'."

In 2009, Zhang established Xinyu Summer Cloth Embroidery Institute. In 2014, Zhang established Xinyu Summer Cloth Embroidery Museum, the first of its kind in China. Many of the works, which have been displayed in the museum, have amazed people with their charm and unique artistic beauty.

During the past eight years, Zhang and her employees have provided free training to more than 1,000 women, including university students, laid-off workers and rural residents, to help them develop the skills needed to make embroideries. Given the sound development of the craft, jobs were created for more than 2,000 women.

Zhang and her employees in recent years have put much effort into developing the craft, promoting sales of their embroideries and cultivating inheritors of the craft. As a result, they have created tremendous social and economic benefits.

Zhang recently told media she hoped the "summer cloth" embroidery would become one of the best-known embroidered crafts in China. She said she planned to develop a multifunctional base, in which craftspeople produce and exhibit embroideries. She also said she hoped more visitors, from home and abroad, would have a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture through the exquisite artworks created by the base.

"I have just celebrated my 60th birthday. If I can live to the ripe old age of 90 years, I'll spare no effort in developing and promoting the traditional craft during the next three decades," says Zhang.


Perseverance and Innovation


Craftswoman's Bio

Zhang Xiaohong, who was born into a worker's family in Ruichang in 1958, is a provincial-level inheritor of the craft of making "summer cloth" embroideries. Given her efforts to promote the traditional craft, she has received accolades and special titles, including a master of embroideries in China, a master of arts and crafts in Jiangxi Province and a National March 8th Red-banner Holder.

(Source: Women of China English Monthly September 2018 issue)

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