The History of Su Embroidery

The History of Su Embroidery

Suzhou embroidery (Su embroidery for short) was originated in Wuxian, Suzhou and later on spread to the neighboring areas such as Nantong, Wuxi, Changzhou, Yangzhou, Suqian and Dongtai in Jiangsu province. These areas, located in the lower reach of Youngest River, have been famous for their high quality silk productions for centuries. The fertile soil, mild temperature, and booming production of silk fabric and thread naturally nourished the burgeoning and flourishing of Suzhou embroidery.

According to "Shuo Yuan", written by Liu Xiang during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 24 AD), the country of Wu (current Suzhou area) has started to use embroidery to decorate garments over 2,000 years ago. In the Three Kingdoms Period (220 - 280), Sun Quan, emperor of the Wu Kingdom (current lower-middle Yangtse valley), ordered the sister of his prime minister to embroider a "Map of the Kingdoms." Mountains, rivers, towns and barracks were depicted in minute detail on this square piece of silk fabric. As described in the book of "Secret Treasures of Qing," the Suzhou embroiders in Song Dynasty (960-1279) used "needles that could be as thin as the hair. The colors are so brilliant as to dazzle the eye. The landscapes and buildings are positioned in proper perspective, figures are vivid and touching, and flowers and birds seem to have been brought into lives. The best embroidery work can beat paintings."

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Suzhou has become a thriving center for silk industries and handicrafts. Artists in Wu area, represented by Tang Yin (Bohu) and Shen Zhou, helped the further development of Suzhou embroidery. Embroiders reproduced their paintings using needles. These works were so vivid and elegant as to be called "paintings by needle" or "unmatchable even by the nature." Since then, Suzhou embroidery evolved a style of its own in needlework, color plan and pattern.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Suzhou embroidery reached its peak, with the prevalence of various styles and master embroiders. The embroidered products used by the royal family were almost exclusively from Suzhou. Folk embroidery products were even more diverse, including decorations on garments, theater costumes, quilt covers, cushions, shoes, perfume bags and fan bags. They were extremely popular among common people. Another type of embroidery, "painting-like embroidery," however, was regarded as exquisite collectibles. According to history accounts, the embroidery works of Qian Hui and Cao Moqing from Wuxian, Yang Maojun and Chen Guanguan from Wujiang and Ding Pei and Xue Wenhua from Wuxi were very famous during that era.

At the turn of the 20th century, under the influence of Western civilization, Suzhou embroidery artists started to seek innovations as well. Shen Yunzhi (1874-1921), a master in Suzhou embroidery, integrated the effect of portraits in oil-painting into her embroidery work, and created a new style called "realistic embroidery." In 1904, Shen made eight pieces of embroidery works for the Empress Dowager Cixi as her 70th birthday present. Cixi was so delighted that she wrote Shen and her husband two characters, Shou (longevity) and Fu (happiness) as blessings. Shen changed her name then into Shen Shou. Later on, her "Portrait of the Italian Queen" was sent to Italy as national gift and invoked a sensation there. In 1915, Shen's "Portrait of Jesus" won the first prize at the "Panama-Pacific Exhibition" hold in US and was priced at a marked high US$13,000. Another portrait of an American actress also received great acclaim when being exhibited in the US. Shen's "realistic embroidery" achieved remarkable recognition both home and abroad.

Embroidery training schools, associations and trade unions were established in Suzhou, Nantong, Danyang, Wuxi and Changshu as a result of Shen's efforts. Shen also lectured in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities. Her best-known contemporaries included Hua Ji, Wang Shaoming, Tang Yizhen, Li Peifu, Zhang Yingxiu, Cai Qunxiu and Jin Jingfen, whose works won prizes at many international exhibitions.

In the early 1930s, a new style of Suzhou embroidery needlework, named "random-stitchwork" was created by Yang Shouyu, director of the embroidery department at the Zhengze Girls' Vocational School in Danyang, Jiangsu. As the name implies, this style uses stitches of different lengths and directions and seemingly random overlapping layers to achieve a better effect of tone and depth for the final work. This marked the prelude to a new epoch of the development of Suzhou embroidery.

In the 1950's, research institutes and workshops were established in Suzhou, Nantong, Wuxi, Changzhou,Yangzhou and Dong Tai. Embroidery artists were able to devote themselves to research and development of new or lost embroidering skills. They use various kinds of needlework, thread, and fabric to create vivid portraits of landscape, flowers, birds, and figures.

Suzhou embroidery is now renowned for its "refinement, elegance and beauty". The double-side embroideries of "Goldfish" and "Kitty" are representative pieces of Suzhou embroidery. Besides the traditional single- and double-side embroideries, Suzhou embroidery includes a wide range of other needlework as well, such as brocade-like embroidery, hair embroidery, knot embroidery, and etc. As a very traditional form of art, Suzhou embroidery is still developing in styles and themes with the effort of contemporary artists. Exhibitions are held around the world, traditional-art-lovers are constantly astonished by the beauty and exquisiteness Suzhou embroidery can achieve. 

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