Suzhou Embroidery -- A Legend Created by Women
Embroidery 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, subsequently, 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 ?most especially the embroideries and paintings. When she returned, Shen was appointed the Imperial Palace’s general instructor of embroidery.
By 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.
Other outstanding embroiderers during that era included Hua Qi, Wang Shouming, Tang Yizhen, 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 International 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.