Zhenhu in Wuxian County, Jiangsu Province, is the cradle of the world-famous Suzhou embroidery. It is a small town surrounded on three sides by Taihu Lake. It is to be found 80 kilometres from Suzhou. Almost all the families in Zhenhu have at least one embroidery worker. No one is sure how many but altogether there could be as many as 8,000 span all the generations.
Suzhou embroidery has a long history. It enjoys an enviable reputation not only for its elegance and precision but also for the excellence of its craftsmanship. The style includes double-face embroidery (viewable from both sides), single-face embroidery, random-stitch embroidery and various other styles of needlecraft.
According to some historical records, the old Kingdom of Wu saw the use of embroidery and brocade garments as early as the Warring States period some 2,000 years ago.
In the Three Kingdoms Period (220 - 280), Sun Quan, the king of Wu (the area around Suzhou in the lower-middle reaches of the Yangtze River) asked the sister of his prime minister to embroider a Map of the Kingdom. She depicted the mountains, rivers, towns and barracks in minute detail on a square piece of silk.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the eastern part of Suzhou was a thriving centre for silk industries and handicrafts. This further advanced the development of Suzhou embroidery.
By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the different parts of the empire had developed recognisable local characteristics and the four main styles of embroidery had evolved. These were Suzhou (suxiu), Hunan (xinangxiu), Sichuan (shuxiu) and Guangdong (yuexiu). During this period Suzhou embroidery reached its peak and eminent master embroiders emerged. The embroidered products used by the royal family were almost exclusively from Suzhou.
Shen Yunzhi (1874-1921) a master of the Suzhou style of embroidery brought influences derived from portrait painting in oils into her work. She created a new style called “realistic embroidery.”
In 1904 Shen made eight pieces of embroidery for the Dowager Empress Cixi as a 70th birthday present. Cixi was so pleased that she put calligraphy brush to paper and drew two characters Shou (longevity) and Fu (happiness) for Shen and her husband.
Shen then changed her name to Shen Shou. Later she produced a portrait of the Queen of Italy which was sent there as a national gift and invoked quite a sensation. In 1915, Shen's portrait of Jesus won first prize at the “Panama-Pacific International Exhibition” held in USA. It was valued at US$13,000, a remarkable price for those days.
Yao Huifen and Yao Huiqin are fourth generation students following the style of Shen Shou. They are the owners of the Qinfen Embroidery Workshop and their work is exhibited on-line.
When she was 17, Yao Huifen found herself inspired by a rendering of the Mona Lisa in embroidery. She had grown up in an environment where art was no stranger but was amazed that such a fine portrait could be executed by needle and thread. And so she decided she must make the leap from being an ordinary embroidery worker to become an artist working in embroidery.
Recognising her determination to succeed, her father found Mo Zhihong, a famous embroidery artist. He asked this third generation student of Shen Shou if she would be willing to teach his daughter.
Mo accepted Huifen as her student. But Mo’s home was 80 kilometres away. So that she could pursue her dream, Yao Huifen rented a shabby bungalow beside Mo’s house and moved in with only the bare necessities.
Every day when Mo passed by Huifen’s bungalow she dropped in to pass on some aspect of her expertise. For three years Huifen’s regime was to rise early in the morning and work through until she lost the light at sunset.
After three hard years, Yao Huifen returned home. Yao Huiqin, her younger sister also with an interest in art, showed great interest in her wonderful art form. From then on the sisters have studied and worked together in embroidery. It is their hope that their works will not only be tourist souvenirs but that one day it will be recognised as artwork and preserved for posterity.
1998 saw the debut of the sisters’ Qinfen Embroidery Workshop. The name “Qinfen” which means work hard has been made up by combining the second character of each sister’s given name. Their works have been shown in many exhibitions and they teach embroidery workers in their workshop. They have set up their own website to spread their ideas and bring their works to the attention of a larger audience.
(china.org.cn by Chen Lin, August 30, 2002)