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Stitch in Time-A Venerated Art of Cloth and Color

Han Embroidery is lustrous, vivid in color, and strongly representative of a particular place and a special art in China.


Forming what has come to be known as "Embroidery Street," near the Wanshou Palace in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, are 32 embroidery shops. In days past, renowned Beijing Opera masters such as Cheng Yanqiu and Yuan Shihai ordered their embroidered stage costumes from the predecessors of these workshops. In 1910, Han Embroidery, as crafted by well-known craftsmen and depicting Chinese characters and paintings, won a first prize at the Nanyang Exposition. Again in 1915, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Han Embroidery won a gold medal. Han Embroidery has since become known throughout the nation and collected around the world by lovers of the traditional art.



Ren Benrong, 68, born into a venerated family of embroidering craftspeople, is of the latest generation of practitioners on Embroidery Street. And he is perhaps the person best versed in the craft. In his studio, a modest small workshop, embroideries are classified and affixed to the walls, forming a small gallery housing traditional Chinese folk custom paintings characterized by fine brushwork and great attention to detail. Most of his works take as subjects flowers, stories derived from Buddhist sutras, and the Chinese characters representing well-being, high rank, longevity and happiness.


Ren explains that it may take several months to complete a complicated embroidery, including time and effort expended on conception, design, painting, color-matching, embroidering and mounting.



Han Embroidery is particularly known for its diverse patterns and delicate needlework. "As to the various patterns and designs of Han Embroidery," Ren says, "They are basically drawn from life and reality, but they are not totally realistic. To achieve a strong contrast and luxurious effect, the darker colors are often used as the grounding." He adds that, "In this school of embroidery, designs are put to the cloth stitch-by-stitch, and they are carefully treated to avoid the fading of colors." Ren's collection of elaborately mounted embroideries-some adorning official robes of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)-all demonstrate the classic patterns and traditional ways of Han Embroidery. Ren has carefully preserved these treasures, and he has continued to collect embroideries depicting folk customs. He has collected and collated more than 2,000 patterns in eight years. After choosing and purchasing materials, he spends long hours crafting his embroideries. He attributes the improvement in his skills to the classic works of Han Embroidery he has collected, from which he says he has gained tremendous inspiration.


In an age when embroideries made by electronic machines are prevalent, the careful manual needlework of Han Embroidery remains unique. As one of the few remaining veteran Han Embroidery handicraftsmen, Ren, accomplished at more than 50 kinds of stitches as well as intricate designs, has contributed much to the preservation and continuing development of this traditional handicraft.



Ren Benrong's Han Embroidery studio.


Though Ren is no longer a young man, and his eyesight is not what it used to be, he enthusiastically continues his work. He explains that his greatest wish is to pass down this now rare handicraft. But it is not easy to learn this special art. Many of those who took up the art along with Ren later gave up. To improve his own skills, years ago Ren entered the Central Academy of Fine Arts to learn painting. He says it is impossible to produce a well-crafted embroidery without being well-trained in the basic skills. Achieving even a rudimentary level of skill can require three to four years of study and practice. With the support of his daughter, he spent more than 300,000 yuan to buy materials and made some one thousand embroideries in a short time. He has also recruited many apprentices.


To help more people understand the art and to encourage others to learn the handicraft, Ren Benrong plans to establish a base of learning for Han Embroidery in cooperation with the local government. Besides training artisans, classes will also be offered to college students, the unemployed and others interested in the art. "Only by doing so, can I preserve the art while sharing with others my life-long love affair with Han Embroidery," Ren says. "I hope the handicraft will be handed down and be further developed, so this treasure of local culture can regain its vigor." To Ren, Han Embroidery is something beyond applying stitch and color to cloth. The art has long surpassed a simple demonstration of skill. It is the profound folk culture that has brought such great meaning to the craft.



Ren Benrong instructs a foreign apprentice in needlework.


Link: Han Embroidery


A traditional folk art in China, embroidery has a long history and features myriad styles. Among the best known are Su Embroidery of Jiangsu Province, Yue Embroidery of Guangdong Province, Shu Embroidery of Sichuan Province, and Han Embroidery of Hubei Province. The history of Han Embroidery dates back to the Chu Kingdom in the Warring States (BC 475-BC 221). During the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the handicraft spread in Hubei Province from Jingzhou and Shashi cities to Wuhan City. Accents of lines, lattices and circles are made use of in designs of Han Embroidery that take as major patterns auspicious traditional Chinese folk paintings, such as Prosperity Brought by the Dragon and the Phoenix, Duo Dragons Playing a Pearl, and A Surplus Year After Year. The craft is bold in transforming portraits, flowers, grass, birds, animals, fish and other creatures.


(China Pictorial May 24, 2006)

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