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A Young Woman Devoted to An Ancient Art

Mudu, a water town on the western outskirts of Suzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province, is famous for its numerous gardens. More than 30 private gardens were built here during the Ming and Qing dynasties, forming a tranquil and graceful environment that embraces many historic legends. In recent years, many sites have been restored including the Yan Clan Garden, Hongyin Mountain Villa, Former Residence of Feng Guifen and the Ancient Pine Garden.

The Ancient Pine Garden, aside from the beauty of its landscaping, possesses a very special charm that stems from the art studio tucked into the rear of the garden.

Yao Jianping's Embroidery Art Studio, named after the curator and chief artist herself, covers just under half a hectare of land and its design combines both Chinese and Western styles. With an investment of 3 million yuan (US$360,000) by the Mudu town government, it was completed last October and opened to visitors on March 28 this year.

A town government has never before invested such a huge sum of money on an individual. Yao says that the Mudu government decided to go forward because of the studio's value in preserving traditional culture, as well as its value to the tourism industry.

Mudu was the hometown of Shen Shou, a first-generation embroidery master who was known for her work depicting Queen Elizabeth at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The second-generation master, Gu Wenxia, was also born here. The Mudu government selected the back garden of the Shen Shou Residence to build the Yao's studio, symbolizing both the brilliant past and bright future of the art of embroidery.

It seems that every household in Mudu has embroidery frames and every girl is skilled at plying the needle. According to Yao, there are about 100,000 females in the Suzhou area engaged in embroidering, from little girls to gray-haired grandmas. Most of them live in Zhenhu, Yao Jianping's birthplace.

Unlike many traditional arts that are in danger of disappearing, experts believe that Suzhou embroidery will continue to flourish because it is deeply rooted among ordinary people. "We are trying not only to inherit this traditional art, but also to innovate it," said Yao, "Our work must keep in step with changing times."

Yao's studio combines the functions of design, production, study and display of Suzhou embroidery. It contains an exhibition hall, a workroom, a reception room and a training center.

The most striking picture displayed in the central hall is "Peace," depicting a meeting between former President Jiang Zemin and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. More than 20 artists stitched around the clock for 150 days to complete the piece, which is 1.2 meters wide and just under a meter tall. They used 2.5 kilograms of thread in 1,480 different colors. To express the unique temperament of the two leaders, the artists combined Western with traditional Chinese painting techniques. Meticulous in every detail, even the differences in texture between the men's neckties and their suits are apparent.

The original work has been presented to Annan as a gift, but visitors may still marvel over the photograph that is displayed at the studio.

The hand-shaking scene symbolizes the eternal quest for peace, and peace is frequently a theme of Yao Jianping's work. At the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee, which was held from June 28 to July 7 in Suzhou, her "Hundred Doves" was a big attraction. About 12 meters long, the huge work was hung on the western wall anteroom to the committee's conference room. Representatives from around the world showed great admiration for the work.

It took five years for Yao and her 15 colleagues to finish the piece, the longest in any of their careers.

Yao and 38 other embroiderers set a record for speed when they stitched "Cordial Friendship." It depicts Jiang Zemin and eight former schoolmates enjoying a chat after dinner at Zhongnanhai in December 2000.

Yao got an order from Nanjing University to embroider this scene in May 2002. For the next four months, Yao and her colleagues devoted themselves to the work, using 1,650 colors to render every detail of the men's expressions, the quality of their clothing, the wood of their chairs, thickness of the carpet and transparency of curtains. Now the work is part of the Nanjing University collection.

"Normally, a work like that would take us two or three years, but we finished it in only 135 days," Yao said.

The market value of the work is estimated at 2 million yuan (US$240,000), but Yao values more the words from the head of Nanjing University: "De yi shuang xin, yi jing de gao," meaning strong in both art and virtue.

This work is now on display next to "Peace". To the right of the "Cordial Friendship" is Yao's rendition in silk thread of the "Mona Lisa". It brought to Yao the Shanhua (Mountain Flower) Award, the highest award for Chinese folk artists.

Many of the pieces on the second floor of the exhibition hall are for sale. A 30-by-20-centimeter piece of embroidery may sell for 6,000 to 10,000 yuan (US$720 to 1,200). But Yao refuses to sacrifice quality for the chance to earn quick profits "I will not send a piece out until I am satisfied with it. If I am not quite happy with something, I will do it over and over until I have it right. I can discuss a higher price with the customer later, but I can't give them shoddy work."

Yao notes that there is, of course, a market for more moderately priced works, and even tourist goods. However, those should not be confused with or threaten the creation of top-notch art.

In Yao's office is displayed her portrait of Zhou Enlai which, entitled "In Deep Thought," is reproduced from a photo taken by an Italian photographer in the 1970s. Employing random stitches, Yao depicts every detail of Zhou's expression and posture, down to the veins in his hands. The piece took Yao 10 months and won the gold prize at the First China International Folk Art Exhibition in 1998. Yao says that this was the work that first earned her fame in the world of embroidery.

In the same year, her works "Charisma of Great Man" depicting the architect of China's reform and opening, Deng Xiaoping, and "Playing Xiao to Attract Phoenixes" also won top prizes at the First China International Folk Art Exhibition.

Yao, born into a farming family in 1967 in Zhenhu, first picked up a needle at the age of eight. She once dreamed of going to college and someday working in a company. However, realistically considering her capacity to study and her love of embroidery, she finally gave up taking the college entrance examination.

"When I saw my classmates admitted to universities and colleges, I suddenly realized that no matter what we do, we must give 100 percent effort to it," she said. Since then, she has devoted herself heart and soul to embroidery.

Yao believes that embroidery is actually a comprehensive art requiring far more than expertise with a needle and thread. "Embroiderers are required to know sculpture, photography, oil painting and traditional Chinese painting. We are trying to convey the soul of a thing rather than a simple plane painting," she says.

In 1987, she went to study at the Suzhou Arts and Crafts School. In the five years that followed, she received guidance from many teachers, and was later formally apprenticed to Xu Zhihui, an artist at the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute. Such embroidery masters as Gu Wenxia and Wang Zushi instructed her. During that period, she worked for more than 15 hours every day.

The fine silk threads and tiny stitches of Suzhou embroidery require exhaustingly intense concentration, but Yao shrugs off those 15-hour days, saying "But I love it. I can keep on working for 24 hours without feeling tired."

Perhaps she feels driven by the relatively short career span of the embroiderer. While many painters continue to work in their 60s and 70s and beyond, as embroiderers grow old their eyesight worsens and the slightest trembling of the hands may spoil a piece. "It's very, very hard for us to finish a work then," Yao said.

Suzhou embroidery has had a history of more than 2,000 years. It is one of the four famous embroidery schools of China, with the other three coming from Hunan, Sichuan and Guangdong provinces. Suzhou embroidery is often described as "exquisite, careful, graceful and clean."

Bold and innovative, Yao integrates techniques of oil, figure and portrait painting into the ancient art of Suzhou embroidery. She also applies sketching techniques, use of light and shadow, perspective and blending of hues to her work.

In 1997, the UNESCO awarded her the title of Folk Industrial Artist.

Now with an embroidery research institute in Zhenhu, her hometown, the studio in Mudu and an embroidery art company in Shanghai, Yao can hardly find time to rest. She also tutors 60 students.

Yao's two daughters, both in primary school now, can also do some embroidery. Each has a project to complete over the summer school holiday. "They are doing well," says the girls' father.

Some of Yao Jianping's work may be seen at her website: www.yaojianping.com.

(China.org.cn by staff reporter Li Jinhui, August 11, 2004)

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