Legendary Suzhou Embroidery Master Shen Shou (part I)

Legendary Suzhou Embroidery Master Shen Shou (part I)

 
by Xu Tingchang
 
Suzhou embroidery master artist, Shen Shou Embroidery master Shen Shou by the embroidery slating frame
 
While all Chinese embroidery is exquisite, Suzhou embroidery is particularly striking. There have been many achievements in Suzhou embroidery, and it boasts a galaxy of artists with superb skills. In the early years of the 20th century, a pretty woman in East China won national fame for her exquisite embroidery and was then renowned in the world. She was Shen Shou, a Suzhou embroidery master who was described by noted Qing Dynasty scholar Yu Yue as a ‘needle sage’.
 
Her name at birth was Xuezhi, and she styled herself tianxiangge zhuren, which means ‘owner of the Heavenly Frangrance Pavilion’. She was born in the family of an antique trader at Haihongfang of Changmen, Wu county Jiangsu, on the 11th day of the eighth month of the 13th year of the Tongzhi Reign of the Qing Dynasty (Sept. 21, 1874). Her father, Shen Chun, studied literature and history, and was skilled at the salt business. He was once a government official in charge of salt business in Zhejing. He was an ardent collector of antiques, and opened an antique shop later in his life.
 
Xue zhi’s mother had three sons and two daughters – Xuezhi was the fifth. She was pretty, bright and clever, and was loved deeply by her father who expected her to be a young lady of note. As a child, she leaned Chinese characters and read books with her father, and studies Confucian classics. Her good family background and the family’s collection of antiques, calligraphy and paintings helped to develop her understand of the arts.
 
The city of Suzhou is known as the “home of Suzhou Embroidery.” In Mudu and other villages surrounding the city, almost every family breeds silkworms and there is an embroidery frame in every house. As a girl, Xuezhi often visited her grandmother, there her interest in the fascinating art of embroidery was cultivated.
 
She began to experiment with needlework at the age of seven and a year later, with the help of her sister Shen Li, was learning embroidery, getting and early start of what would be her lifelong passion. She had a natural understanding of stitching, and moreover, was utterly devoted to it. As a result, her talent developed rapidly. As first, she embroidered small pieces for use at home, mainly of flowers and plants. Later, she began to use the family’s painting collection as inspiration for her embroidery masterpieces.
 
Initially, her father objected to her learning embroidery, thinking that it was a useless skill. When he realized how deeply his daughter loved her art, he relented and allowed her to continue. By the time she was about 16, she was known throughout Suzhou for her stitching expertise
At 20, she married Yu Jue, six years her senior. He was born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, and later his family moved to Suzhou. He came from a well-off family of scholars, and was good at calligraphy and painting. After their marriage, Yu Jue devoted his time to calligraphy and painting while supported each other’s artistic pursuits. When not doing her household chores, Xuezhi spent all of her time at her embroidery frame.
 
In 1899, Yu Jue took a teaching job at a private school in Shanghai under the Shanghai Manufacturing Bureau. Xuezhi accompanied her husband. Shanghai was a window to Western culture, and the artistic style of the western oil paintings and a powerful influence on the couple. They returned to Suzhou in 1903. Yu Jue sold his calligraphy, and Xuezhi sold her embroidery. Octorber in the 30th year of the Guangxu Reign (1904) was the 70th birthday of the empress Dowager Cixi. The Qing government issued an edict to the local authorities to pay tribute to her. At the suggestion of Yu Jue’s friend Shan Shusheng, Yu Jue decided that his wife would embroider longevity screens as a gift of the Empress Dowager Cixi. They invited Yan Yuan (father of the modern painter Yan Wenliang), a disciple of the famous painter Ren Bonian, to paint the Eight Immortals Congratulate on the Birthday for eight hanging screens. They also chose the vertical scroll of Amitabha from his home collectiong as a sample and quickly drew the sketches; the faces of the eight figures were embroidered by Xuezhi herself and other skilled workers helped to do ornamental stitches. Thanks to the concerted efforts of Xuezhi, her elder sister Shen Li, and her disciples, the two great works were completed on time and were presented to the Empress Dowager. (The Amitabha was done by Jin Jingfen, Xuezhi’s disciple).
 
At the sight of the two birthday presents, the Empress Dowager Cixi was overjoyed. She spoke highly of them, calling them “unequalled masterpieces.” She wrote the two Chinese characters “福”fu (blessing) and “寿” shou (longevity), and gave them to Xuezhi and Yu Jue. Moreover, the young couple also received a medal a medal from the Ministry of Commerce. As a result of her artistic achievements and the Empress Dowager’s praise, Xuezhi became a celbrity. At that point, she changed her name to Shen Shou. The couple devoted themselves to the study of embroidery and were later referred to as “embroidery sages”.
 
In the same year, Shen Shou was sent to Japan by Commerce Minister Zai Zhen for a two-month study of Japan’s embroidery and paintings. She became the first Chinese female official to go on a study tour abroad. After returning home, she was assigned to the post of general teaching officer in the embroidery division of the Art and Crafts Bureau under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. By combing the traditional Chinese techniques, Japan’s embroidery techniques, the color composition of Western paintings and photography, and a three-dimensional effect of her subjects, she created works with her own unique style of embroidery which marked a new chapter in Chinese modern embroidery.
To be continued
 
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