Famed guxiu, or Gu-style embroidery, is named after the artistic concubine of Shanghai scholar Gu Huihai. Ladies integrated painting and embroidery and turned an elite women's pastime into a family industry in hard times.
Needlecraft belongs to a bygone era when Chinese gentlewomen didn't work. "Stitch after stitch" - and exquisite stitches many of them were - was a favorite way to pass the time.
More than that, for cultivated women, embroidery was a vehicle for expressing their innermost feelings and views of nature and human relations.
"Fancy Art of Shanghai, Selected Works of Gu-style Embroidery," an exhibition of 50 embroidery pieces, is underway at the Shanghai Museum. It is the first special show devoted to guxiu that originated in Shanghai's Songjiang District in the Lu Xiang Garden.
Guxiu is named after the exquisite needlework of a concubine of Gu Huihai, the eldest son of a famous scholar in Shanghai in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). But its greatest practitioner was Han Ximin, wife of the second grandson of the family. She was known as "Saint Needle."
She and other women in the 17th-century family created "paintings" in silk, sometimes copying classic painting and calligraphy, even down to replicating the seal.
The embroidery used subtly dyed silk threads and wool, and sometimes human hair, swallows' feathers, animal down, aquatic grasses and threads or flakes of gold. They were coveted luxury items.
Originally Gu-style embroidery was a kind of "boudoir art" only appreciated and collected by literati, but it later became a fne art product that was sold due to the Gu family's failing financial situation.
"Because of its rarity, guxiu is not so widely known," says Chen Xiejun, director of Shanghai Museum. "It is the first time that a special show featuring Gu-style embroidery has ever been held."
Some of the embroidery is on loan from Beijing's Palace Museum, the Liaoning Provincial Museum, the Nanjing Museum, Nantong Museum and Suzhou Museum, all in Jiangsu Province. This is the first time some pieces have been publicly viewed.
Embroidery was one of the four domestic virtues that women were required to have in ancient China (the others were cooking, sewing and knitting). Women often poured their innermost subtle feelings into this craft, and so many works carry a feeling of truth.
Their understanding of flora and fauna, their love of family, affection, friendship and even religion were expressed.
Listed as one of China's intangible cultural heritages, Gu-style embroidery achieved its refined technique through accurate observations fused with inspirations from the literati's paintings.
"What made Gu-style embroidery excel over others was the embroiderers' aesthetic acuity and art perception," adds Chen. "The cultural ethos and elegant taste nurtured by a good education from a wealthy family, plus mastery of sewing skills has made Gu-style embroidery an art that every visitor will marvel at."
The show is divided into four parts: copies of classical works, Taoism and Buddhism, flora and fauna, as well as narrative themes.
One remarkable characteristic of the embroidery is its various stitches. For example, concentric long and short stitches were used on flowers; straight long and short ones on rockery. Sometimes the embroidery integrated "encroaching" stitches to create the texture of an overlapped effect. "Gu-style embroidery is a perfect combination of embroidery and painting," says Chen.
The inspiration of the work was often a famous classical painting or calligraphy. Gu-style embroidery follows exactly the classical form of a painting, with four required elements: poetry, calligraphy, painting and a seal.
The tiny needles and threads make the whole work so smooth that it looks like a real painting. The tiny spaces between two groups of stitches are so accurate that they appear to be painted lines.
Due to the technique, tone and texture of silk materials, the embroidery has a feminine and soft flavor that even the original painting could not render.
The colors in the embroidery are close to the original hues. "It is probable the Gu-style ladies mastered a secret recipe for dying thread," says Ma Baojie, director of the Liaoning Provincial Museum. "The colorful threads dyed in various shades provided a prerequisite for Gu-style embroidery to mimetically represent its painting prototype. In fact, dying silk threads was more difficult than dying silk textiles."
The Gu family ladies were also adept at twisting different colored threads into a thicker strand to create a visual effect of a new color or a unique texture.
Gu-style embroidery equates needles with the artist's brushes and silk threads with color pigments.
Standing in front of these embroidery artworks, one can imagine a lady sitting quietly, indulged in a small world of needles and threads.
Date: through February 25, 9am-5pm
Address: 201 People's Ave
Admission: 20 yuan
(Shanghai Daily January 4, 2008)