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Dexterous Hands Embroidery Bright Colours of Spring - Chinese Embroidery Art and Collections

By OGP Reporters / Members Contribute File Photos

Oh Good Party

China's traditional embroidery art has been neglected in the international art market for a long time. By 1993, some collectors had been specifically acquired fine embroidery products in Hong Kong and Singapore, then embroidery art was gradually taken seriously. In the past ten years, the price of Chinese traditional embroidery auctions has been highly competitive at some art auctions, and these are showing its strong appeal.

Above us is heaven; down below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou. They are known as paradises on earth. The Zhenhu town of Suzhou has been “eight thousand embroidered women, and four hundred embroidered villages” since ancient times. There are two national non-genetic embroidered inheritors, two masters of Chinese Arts and Crafts, 12 embroidered masters of provincial arts and crafts, 8 embroidered celebrities of provincial arts and crafts, 74 senior craft artists, and a large number women of embroidered intermediate titles. OGP was fortunate to join a wonderful event of Chinese embroidery art in the Chinese Embroidery Museum of Suzhou.

Although it’s a "small place", hundreds of precious exhibits in the museum systematically and clearly show the development history of Suzhou embroidery.

The exhibition is divided into three areas: the ancient embroidery room, the embroidery room of Ming and Qing Dynasties, and the modern embroidery room.

Once you enter the museum, it‘s the highlight of the collections - "Prosperous Suzhou", also known as " Burgeoning Life in a Resplendent Age", is a long scroll of L.400 x W. 33 cm. The embroidered manuscript was part of the Chinese painting of the same name by Xu Yang, who was a famous painter of the Qing Dynasty. Depicting the bustling urban life of Suzhou, it combines Western perspective with traditional Chinese style. Master Li Yuying of Master of Chinese Arts and Crafts (1*) and her team uses more than ten embroidered skills, and more than 500 kinds of colour lines to make the scenery of life, and the humanities and customs at that time.

In the ancient embroidery room, we saw the earliest embroidered objects, such as the embroidery of Five dynasties (907–979) unearthed from Suzhou Tiger Hill Tower, the embroidery of Western Han (206 BC - 9 AD) unearthed from the Tomb of Prince of Yan in Beijing Grand Theatre and unearthed from the Tian Shan Tomb of Jiangsu, the double-sided embroidery of the Northern Song Dynasty unearthed from the Huiguang Tower in Zhejiang etc. In the embroidered room of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, a lot of the king's robes, the queen's clothes with the hundred children pattern, the official's costumes were displayed. There were popular waist jewels and purses in the Qing Dynasty, mirror sets for interior decoration, bed hangs, etc. They are extremely elegant, beautiful, and fine. These are "Squirrel Grape", "Pheasant White Rabbit" of Ming Dynasty, and "Ladies and Flower", "Chrysanthemum and Stone Painting" of Qing Dynasty's, and other embroidery. The most striking thing is a large-scale Qianlong period masterpiece "Vermilion Blanket" of Qing Dynasty, L.4 m x W. 2 m. It's a large-scale embroidered for Qianlong Emperor when he was in Shenyang. The double butterfly and flower contains the meaning of "Happiness" for king and queen. The patterned vine flowers and plants are embroidered with coloured red velvet, which is flexible and interspersed. The gold-embroidered snails, treasure umbrellas, treasure covers, gold chains and other auspicious things. The colour is bright and rich, and full of royal luxury.

The modern embroidery room focuses on the outstanding embroidery masterpieces of China's embroidery master Shen Shou (2*) and Suzhou famous old artist Ms. Jin Jingfen. Master Shen Shou enjoys the reputation of “ Goddess of Embroidery” and “ Fantastic hands”. She presented embroidery "The Immortal Buddha" and "The Eight Immortals Blessing Longevity" as the gift of the Empress Dowager Cixi's 70th birthday in 1904, and was awarded the fourth-class business honour of the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce of the Qing Dynasty. The Empress Dowager Cixi give her a new first name "longevity" (this word read as "Shou"), so she changed her name to Shen Shou (formerly known as Shen Yunzhi). Then Shen Shou went to Japan to study, and she try to combining oriental embroidery stitching with Western sketching, oil painting and other techniques. After returning to China, she served as the leader of the Capital Embroidery Dept. In the meantime, she borrowed the realistic techniques of Western painting and created the “simulation embroidery” to raise the embroidery skills to a new level. Her embroidery works "Italian Queen Elena" and "The Queen Victoria", was exhibited at the Italian Durand Fair (1911), the "Jesus" won the first prize at the Panama Pacific International Fair (1915) in San Francisco, USA. She won a high honour for Chinese embroidery in the world. In addition, there are also beautiful embroidery products such as needle-stitch embroidery, crepe plate gold embroidery, flat gold embroidery, gold-plated embroidery, and woven gold embroidery etc.

OGP focus on embroidery art since 2004, that was a striking appearances work on the auction market – “An Embroidered Silk of Eighteen Arhats, Yuan Dynasty” which was sold at a price of RMB 19.8 million. It's the highest price for ancient Chinese embroidery works. After that, at the 57th Venice International Art Biennale in May 2017, Ms. Yao Huifen (3*) embroidered her work -- the series of "Skeleton Fantasy Show", and another work "Forgotten Sea" with Mr. Tang Nannan. These works all gave us a deep impression left.

At the time, Ms. Yao Huifen introduced us to her work said, "There are usually only a few of the skills used in a traditional embroidered work, but ‘Skeleton Fantasy Show’ is not. These works are combination more skills. The edge of each part is required to be more contradictory and the better. It's not like the embroidery we used to. This piece is full of contradictions. There are conflicts between each other. Each one we uses more than 50 kinds of skills, each part we must very careful, very delicate, and the method is completely different. In fact, for the whole embroidery industry, there is no such thing, so it's completely subverting the tradition."

No one of traditional art is never changed, it must constantly develop – keep pace with the times.

In our view, this is not just a breakthrough in craftsmanship and design. It's more about traditional folk artists crossing the inherent past, and looking for contemporary expressions. They are trying to break through the bottlenecks and constraints of “tradition”

Embroidery, which is called needle embroidery in ancient times, is a technique on the fabric with the embroidery needles to form the pattern. In ancient times, it was called "Zhi" and “Needle Zhi". The embroidery is mostly women's work, so it's an important part of "needlework". Embroidery is one of the ancient Chinese handicrafts, and has a long history. According to the "Shangshu", the constitution of the ceremonial service as early as 4,000 years ago stipulated "Clothing Embroidery." In the Zhou Dynasty, there is a record of “Embroidery Customization”. Embroidered in the Warring States Period and the Han Dynasty unearthed in Hubei and Hunan (the earliest embroidered products) used lock embroidery on the Jin and Luo. The stitches are neat, the colour is elegant, and the style smooth, and the skill is superb. For example, a large variety of complete embroidery was unearthed in Mawangdui, Changsha in 1972, which these patterns are embroidered into a silk of auspicious characters such as "Longevity, and more Children" and "Happy and Bright". The technique is mainly based on lock embroidery, the pattern is tight and fine, the stitching is neat, and the lines are extremely smooth.

To the Tang and Song Dynasties, the embroidery needles are even more thin, and the colour is more rich. The embroidery is used for painting, calligraphy, and accessories. The embroidery of Tang Dynasty unearthed has a close relationship with the religious art. Among them, there are many embroidered Buddha statues, such as the embroidered "Sakyamuni Buddha Speak Scriptures at Lingjiu Mountain" of the Emperor Dunhuang Thousand Buddha Caves discovered by the British Museum, and the Sakyamuni's Scriptures of the Nara National Museum are directly related to the belief in the prosperity of Buddha. This embroidery technique still follows the Han Dynasty lock embroidery, but the needles method has begun to change the use of flat embroidery, and uses a variety of different needles methods, and a variety of colour lines. The embroidered bottom material used is not limited to the silk. The patterns used in embroidery are closely related to painting. In addition to the Buddha figures, the landscape and animals are also used in embroidery patterns that with vivid composition and bright colours. Using the fine embroidering method, and various colour silk-lines to instead of the painting depicting. This is a special art formed, which is also the unique style of Tang embroidery. It's use of the outline of the gold and silver line coiled pattern, as well as an innovation to enhance the three-dimensional sense.

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, embroidery was more subtle and fine. The embroidery of the Ming Dynasty began in the Gu family's Luxiang Garden of Shanghai during Jiajing period, who is embroidered family and many famous craft-ladies. To Gu Mingshi’s second grandson of his wife, Master Han Ximeng (4*), has deep embroidered skills of the Tang and Song Dynasties. Her skills are exquisite, is called "Luxiang Garden's Gu family embroidery", it can also be said to be painting embroidery. It's also known as famous "Gu embroidery". In the Qing Dynasty, embroidery was mostly used for court. Most of them were drawn and design by the court artists. After being approved by the officials, they were sent to the three embroidery workshops under the Jiangnan Weaving Bureau. Due to the large scale of court embroidering, in addition to the embroidery used by the royal family, there have been many local embroidery in the folk, such as Su embroidery, Yue embroidery, Qian embroidery, Xiang embroidery, Qian embroidery, known as "five famous embroidery." In addition, there are also Gu embroidery, Jing embroidery, Qian embroidery, Lu embroidery, Qian embroidery, Qian embroidery, Han embroidery, Ma embroidery and Miao embroidery.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China During the reign of Emperor Guangxu, Yu Jue's wife Shen Yunzhi (Shen Shou) was famous for its exquisite, varied, and three-dimensional needles embroidery skills. She used the new method to express the characteristics of the realism of Western painting in the embroidery, which she created a "Realism Embroidery", or "Art Embroidery." Throughout the development history of embroidery art, the innovation and development of the each era have their own characteristics, and gain great achievements. However, the birth of "Realism Embroidery" is an important turning point of traditional Chinese embroidery, and a starting point for the innovation of contemporary embroidery art

China's traditional embroidery art has been neglected in the international art market for a long time. By 1993, some collectors had been specifically acquired fine embroidery products in Hong Kong and Singapore, then embroidery art was gradually taken seriously. In the past ten years, the price of Chinese traditional embroidery auctions has been highly competitive at some art auctions, and these are showing its strong appeal.

In 2014, Christie's Hong Kong announced that the huge embroidery "A Highly Important Imperial Embroidered Silk Thangka, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Emperor " which was previously estimated at HK$80 million, was sold at the auction price of HK$348 million, setting a record for the world auction of Chinese art. Prior to this, many embroidery works were sold at high prices. In 2004, "An Embroidered Silk of Eighteen Arhats, Yuan Dynasty” was sold at a price of RMB 19.80 million. In 2005, Han Ximeng's "Flower and Bird Album" embroidery works sold for RMB 1.65 million at China Guardian Auction House, the embroidery work "Yutang Spring" was sold for RMB 980,000. In 2007, the embroidery work "Mona Lisa" was sold for RMB 10 million at the Beijing's auction house. In Nov. 2009, "A Multicoloured Gold Dragon Pattern of Su Embroidery Silk, Qing Dynasty, Jiaqing Emperor" was sold for RMB 3.025 million. In May 2012, a contemporary embroidery work “Hundred Horses” was sold for RMB 1.6675 million in Beijing Huachen Auction house. In 2014, “Fuchun Mountain Residence” was sold for RMB 33 million, and “Century Peace” was sold RMB 26 million in Tianjin Cultural Property Exchange.

As mentioned above, we have seen almost all of the finest embroidery products which all of fine stitching, needlework and exquisite colouring. It has won the essence of Chinese art, and all wrapped up in a classical scroll, so that audiences often mistakenly think that is a painting, or photo. Undoubtedly, these works have extremely high artistic and collection's value. However, embroidery product is more difficult to save than traditional paintings. Taking the embroidery of the Qing Dynasty as an example, most of the embroidery have been preserved so far have fallen off, discoloured, and partially rotted. Most of the embroidery are rough, and no any artistry, which is not suitable for our collection. Very few existing preservations are good embroidery works that have the bright colours, fine skills, and famous artists' works. It usually has a high collection value, and price can reach a price of RMB 10 million.

At present, the main embroidery works in the collection are divided into four categories: time, type, characteristics, and famous artists. It's generally believed that the ancient embroidery can gain higher the value of the investment, the good type embroidery can gain determines the value of the collection, as well as the famous embroidery artists with distinctive characteristics can gain investment returns.

This is completely correct. However, the perfect ancient embroidery works is very hard to find. For an ancient embroidery, the works of left behind are particularly scarce because of their fading, damage, difficulty in repairing, and their hard of storage. At present, the ancient embroidery works before the Ming Dynasty on the market are very rare. There are some in the Qing Dynasty, we suggest that collections of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong periods were better. In embroidery of types, finished embroidery works are more valuable than semi-finished works; the appreciation of embroidery works are more valuable than practical embroidery works. Because the ornamental embroidery is customized, the practical embroidery is more common and numerous. And the value of royal family's embroidery works are more higher than embroidery works of nobles and civilians. That prices would be vary greatly. Some famous embroidery works with distinctive features often have strong value-added potential. Especially, celebrity embroidery works are often the first choice for collectors. For example, Han Ximeng of the Ming Dynasty, her works are flexible and smooth, which makes the works have a strong texture and artistic expression. People called her embroidery method “Gu embroidery”. It‘s the most famous embroidery at that time. Because the great reputation to the embroidery of Gu family is famous, and has been appreciated by the imperial court. In the Qing Dynasty, Gu embroidery was not only well known, but also famous overseas. There is also the unique skill of Dong Xiaowan (5*), one of the "Eight Beauties of Qinhuai" in the late Ming Dynasty. Dong Xiaowan is Mao Xuejiang's concubine, so her embroidered work was known as the "Mao-shi Embroidery". Among the famous embroideries, Su embroidery, Shu embroidery, Yue embroidery, and Xiang embroidery are the most famous in the “Four Famous Embroidery”. Among them, Su embroidery is the most famous, and it is known as “the first embroidery of China”. The excellent contemporary embroidery works have surpassed the traditional embroidery crafts, showing a strong artistic investment value. An artist worthy of attention — Shen Shou, her works have acquired a high reputation and value both in East and West, both domestically and internationally. She was not only excellent skills, but also sorted and categorized the embroidery needles of the past generations, which the traditional techniques of Gu embroidery and Su embroidery to cited the expression methods of western sketches, oil paintings, and photography art. In her later years, she also wrote "Xue Yi Embroidery Spectrum", summed up the Chinese embroidery paintings from the Tang and Song Dynasties, Gu embroidery in the Ming Dynasty, and her embroidery techniques. She made outstanding contributions to Chinese embroidery art, so it's undoubtedly the best choice for collection to embroidery works by artistic standards.

In addition, collectors must pay attention to the maintenance and storage of embroidery. This is very important. Embroidery is afraid of light, humidity, and drying. Light will accelerate fading and aging, moisture will be mildew or decay, and drying will make i embrittled. Therefore, in addition to avoiding light, it's best to place it in a special room with controlled temperature and humidity. An ancient embroidery generally has a long storage period, and is easily eroded by destructive substances such as bacteria. It's best to thoroughly disinfect the embroidery at the first time of purchase. The flat-shaped embroidery works are best laid out flat. The placed utensils can be made of drawer-sized wooden boards. The white tissue paper with strong adsorption force should also be separated by layers, and small objects can be stored in small wooden baskets.


1* Master of Chinese Arts and Crafts began in 1979, and have been held six times. The selected artists and scholars are highly skilled, have outstanding achievements, and excellent reputations at global scale. It is the highest honor awarded by the State Council of China for the protection of traditional arts and crafts. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, only 444 artists have won this Master award.

2* Shen Shou (1874–1921) was a Chinese embroiderer during the late Qing and early Republican period. She was pivotal in transforming embroidery from a feminine pastime into a craft that provided for women workers and their families. She created a signature style that combined traditional techniques with international taste and subjects and brought Chinese embroidery into modernity. Shen Shou's unique style is known as Xuehuan. Her pieces have been referred to as “lifelike embroidery” because they were known to resemble paintings. This effect was achieved through varied stitches that created natural and realistic color gradation.Shen’s rise as an artist came at a time of modernization when China experienced many political, social, and economical changes. Embroidery at this time transformed from a woman’s trade to an elevated art form with economic value. Shen Shou’s best known piece is a Portrait of Christ. It is based on the Renaissance painter Guido Reni's oil painting of Christ wearing thorns. Like many of her works, this artwork is an example of “lifelike embroidery.’’ She used more than 100 different shades throughout the piece, creating shading and lighting effects. This piece was first exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and won a gold medal.

3* Yao Huifen (1967- ), born in Suzhou embroidery family, began to learn embroidery since childhood. She is master Shen Shou's third generation descendant Qi Zhihong and Chinese arts and crafts master Ren Huiyi's student. She is the inheritor of the national intangible cultural heritage project (Su embroidery), the first Chinese embroidery art master, and the fourth generation inheritor of Shenshou embroidery. On Jan. 13, 2019, she was elected as the 2018 Chinese Intangible cultural heritage person of the year.

4* embroiderer of the Ming Dynasty. She is good at painting and embroidery. Her work is exquisite, and quite expressive. In contemporary, her works are regarded as treasures, and calls her embroidery as “Gu Embroidery”. Han Ximeng’s skill is superb, so she has a lofty position in embroidery art at that time. Han Ximeng’s representative works are the"Famous Album Series of Song and Yuan Dynasties" in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Dong Qichang praised Han Ximeng's works as an amazing skill that no one can do it. Now, Han Ximeng Embroidered "Flower, Insect and Fish Album" in the Shanghai History Museum, and her other work "Flower and Bird Atlas" is in the Liaoning Province Museum.

5* Dong Xiaowan (1624–1651) was a Chinese courtesan, poet and writer, also known by her pen name Qinglian. Dong has been described as the most famous courtesan of her time, known for her beauty and talent in singing, needlework and the tea ceremony. She lived in the brothel district of Nanjing. She is one of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai described by late Qing officials.


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