Have you ever seen such a beautiful painting on a
piece of silk satin? Just imagine embroidering such
a delicate figure with threads and needles! But such
exquisite embroidery has been one of China's most
famous art forms for many centuries, and four main
schools of embroidery have established with their
S: Mohammed Babul Hossain wrote us a letter
recently. He says in his home country of Bangladesh,
women wear long pieces of fine cloth called Saris.
M: They are very beautiful. I'd love to try one on.
S: No problem, we've got colleagues in the Hindi and
Bangladeshi services who'd love to help. It's easy:
hold one end of a long piece of cloth close to you,
then spin round one hundred times. If you get dizzy
M: Thank you, Stuart. Maybe you should tell us more
about the letter.
S: Well, Babul wants to know something about
traditional Chinese textiles and clothing. It's a
rather broad topic. Can we narrow it down?
M: How about we talk about Chinese embroidery? We
could choose another aspect of textiles and clothing
for a future program.
S: Good idea. As anyone who has been to a museum and
seen the clothing that the emperors and other big
wigs used to wear, exquisitely embroidered silk
robes and things were all the fashion in the royal
court for centuries.
M: And the ranks of the officials could be told from
the embroidery on their robes.
S: So embroidery has been an established art form in
China for a long time. And the embroiderers really
went to town - not just robes, but shoes, theatrical
costumes, table cloths, bed covers, screens,
banners, hankies, hats, any bit of silk stretched
across a frame, and shoes - nothing was safe from
the needles of the practitioners of this ancient
M: That reminds me. I went traveling to the ancient
city of Pingyao last winter. Guess what I found? I
saw some very nice embroidered shoe-pads. They are
just lovely. I bought a few pairs.
S: Shoe pads? What are shoe pads?
M: Those things you stick inside your shoes to make
them easier on your feet.
S: Oh, I think you mean insoles. Shoe-shaped things
made of something soft and warm.
M: That's what I mean. But I checked in a
Chinese-English dictionary, and it said shoe pads.
S: Can't believe everything you read in books, Min.
But do you have them with you? Are you standing on
M: No, they're far too nice to squash under my feet.
S: A fate worse than death.
M: For once I agree with you. No, they are in my
folk art collection.
S: Framed and hanging on the wall?
M: Not a bad idea. They are really lovely.
S: I can imagine. I bet they were done by an old
lady who kept herself busy embroidering before she
M: And probably after she was married.
S: Cos women kept themselves out of mischief by
embroidering for hours and hours. Right?
M: Kind of. But embroidery was never solely a female
activity: some men also did it. And we've mentioned
that this skill was long seen as very important. In
fact, an emperor of the Song Dynasty established an
embroidery bureau in the 12th century.
S: But it goes way back further in time. Historical
records tell us that embroidery appeared in China
some 4,000 years ago. Well before television.
Amazing! No wonder it's so well developed, and
embroidery became widespread in China during the Han
Dynasty, some 2,200 years ago. By the way, the Silk
Road came into being during the Han Dynasty, too.
M: Talking about embroidery becoming widespread.
I've traveled to many places in China. And I always
keep a look out for local embroideries, especially
those from a few decades ago, before machines took
S: Like your fancy insoles.
M: You've got it. But I must mention that the most
famous four schools, or types of embroidery, are
those of Suzhou, Hunan, Sichuan and Guangdong.
S: I've seen embroidered pictures from Suzhou.
They're set in a frame, and the two sides of the
embroidery are the same. Very skilled work, no ugly
knots and things on the back, and usually done, by
hand of course, using very fine silk thread. It
would take me a week to thread the needle. And most
of the pictures are of cats. The fur looks quite
real, you can see the individual hairs. And the eyes
look at you.
M: I know what you mean. In fact, Suzhou embroidery
is famed for being fine, smooth, dense and even. And
guess how many colors are typically used just for
the eyes of these cat pieces.
S: I'll have to guess. Five hundred and thirty
M: Don't be silly. Twenty or more colors usually go
into the cats' eyes. But there's more than pictures
S: You're right. Several years ago I saw an
embroidered picture, about 90cm by 1.2 m big - a
winter scene at the Summer Palace, pristine white
snow, red berries, frozen water, it was beautiful,
but very expensive - ten or 15 thousand RMB,
something like that.
M: Not surprising, it must have taken months to
S: And come to think of it, I don't know if it was
Suzhou style. Never mind. Not important. Talking
about Suzhou embroidery, it's been popular there for
over 2,000 years. Located in the lower Yangtze River
valley not far from Shanghai, Suzhou was described
as "every family raising silk worms and every
M: Yes, in the old days girls made embroidered
incense bags for their lovers as tokens of their
S: And they often embroidered a pair of mandarin
ducks, which are symbols of loving couples. Why, I
wonder? Do mandarin ducks mate for life? Have to
check it out.
M: I don't know. But in addition to ducks, other
birds, and flowers, fish, and animals were the most
common subjects for embroidery. My parents used to
have a pair of pillow covers with double ducks on. I
guess they got them when they married.
S: Moving on. We've established that Suzhou
embroidery is famous for its extremely delicate
stitches, and cats and ducks. What about the other
three types of embroidery? As far as I know, Hunan
embroidery adopted some strong points from Suzhou
and Guangdong embroideries in forming its own style.
Is that right?
M: That's right. Hunan embroidery is famous for its
rich colors. The unique technique of Hunan
embroidery allows threads of different colors to mix
naturally, producing a very harmonious effect. This
technique is best shown in embroidering lions and
tigers. The shades and luster of the fur of these
big cats look best in Hunan embroidery.
S: That's funny. The double-faced cat is typical of
Suzhou embroidery. Now, it's cats again, big cats,
in Hunan embroidery. But Hunan embroidery also
borrows elements from traditional Chinese landscape
painting, and landscapes are popular favorite
subject of this embroidery style.
M: Stuart, the other two schools of embroidery,
Sichuan and Guangdong, share something in common.
Know what it is?
S: Min, as usual, you're thinking of food. Right?
The cuisines of Sichuan and Guangdong, or Cantonese,
are perhaps the most famous of China's food styles.
Their embroidery is not so well known, but equally
tasty to the embroidery gourmet.
M: Sichuan embroiderers are very fussy: they will
only use locally made cloth and thread, and their
patterns are chosen mainly from local folk art. So
Sichuan embroidery has a strong local flavor.
S: Like the food! Everything is related! Cantonese
embroidery, by contrast, tends to have rather
complicated patterns. "All birds paying homage
to the phoenix" is one favorite subject. Very
colorful, and lots of colors.
M: You're right, it can be quite dazzling. And did
you know that thread made from peacock feathers is
sometimes used in Cantonese embroidery?
S: That's new to me.
M: And Cantonese embroidery is famous for its
three-dimensional effect, as well as bright colors.
They make really good decorations.
S: Have you got any?
M: Not yet, but I will, in time.
S: Talking about time, it is flying. Time to move
on. But before we do, a quick review: Suzhou
embroidery, lots of two-faced cats. Oops, didn't
express that well. I mean two sided cats.
M: Hunan embroidery: Lions and tigers with lovely
S: Sichuan embroidery: strong flavor of local folk
M: And Guangdong embroidery: complex and colorful.
S: Babul Hossain, and all you other people out
there, we hope you found our brief intro to Chinese