In the time-honored Suzhou, there is water under the petite bridge, pavilions, terraces and open halls , dancing bamboos in the wind, white wall and black tiles , as well as the world-renowned Suzhou embroidery. Here is a poem by Li Bai: "The best dress to sing and dance is made of embroidery with golden silk thread and jade. Nothing could outshine this dress but the moon hanging in the cloudy night."
As the name suggests, Suzhou embroidery hailed from a county in Suzhou—the Wuxian County. But now it has reached everywhere around the Taihu Lake. It is one of the "Four Embroideries" along with Hunan embroidery, Guangdong embroidery and Sichuan embroidery.
Suzhou embroidery and southern China are both gentle and elegant. The earliest Suzhou embroidery was just some needlework for young girls who never set foot outside her chamber, longing for a husband to take her hand. Mothers taught their daughters and older sisters-in-law taught their younger. The legacy went on and on. Before a marriage was set in stone, the mother of the groom-to-be could tell if the bride would make a capable, gentle wife based on her embroidery. It was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the art made it out of girls' chamber and took over the entire Suzhou, making the region "the embroidery market for southern China."
Ming writer Wang Ao concluded that Suzhou embroidery is "refined, exquisite, elegant and pure." In Chapter 53 of the Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin wrote that a woman in Suzhou made embroidery patterns inspired by the flower branch drawings in Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming. Then she sewed poems with black threads, which was no different than fine calligraphy. This shows that early in the Ming and Qing dynasties, Suzhou embroidery had become famous in China for its vivid artistic expressions.
Suzhou embroidery was only a folk art, until painters of the Wu School put it in the fine arts hall of fame. As China became more open to the world in modern times, artists of Suzhou embroidery are innovating in their own way. Beyond the traditional ink paintings, capable embroidery artists are able to bring oil painting and line drawings to life. Between the Chinese and Western cultures, Suzhou embroidery has found its own unique spot.
Suzhou embroidery of our day has incorporated many new things without losing the classic ones. It even made it onto the international stage of contemporary art. In 2017, Yao Huifen, inheritor of Suzhou embroidery—a national intangible heritage—exhibited her works at the Chinese Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. The time-honored art with modern allure is composing its next glorious, legendary chapter that goes hand in hand with the trends of our times.
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