Yang Shouyu, Founder of Crisscross Stitch Embroidery
by Sun Peilan
Portrait of Yang Shouyu, a false-and-true crissscross stitch embroidery, embroidered by embroidery artist Ren Huixian in 1987, now in the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute
Yang Shouyu (1896-1982), whose given name was Yun, was born in a family of scholars in Wujin country, Jiangsu. Her mother was an aunt of the famous art master Liu Haisu. As a girl, she was apprenticed to Shi Pinsan, and read the classics Spring and Autumn Annals and the Best Selected Articles from Records of the Historian. She learned emboridery from her elder female cousin and wa also fond of painting; she often went to visit Liu’s family and joined her brother Liu Haisu in learning painting.
Yang and Liu were childhood playmates. As they grew older, they fell in love but were not allowed to be together. A fortune-teller said that their astrological signs were incompatible, and so they were forbidden to marry. Liu Haisu was deeply disappointed, and Yang Shouy, a gentle , quiet, introverted girl, devoted her heart and soul to embroidery. She never married.
At the age of 20, she graduated from the Changzhou Normal School in Jiangsu with excellent marks. Professor Lv Fengzi, a noted art educator, immediately employed her as a teacher in the Zhengze Ladies’Vocational School in Danyang. She later became the head of the embroidery division of the school. During the period of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (19327-1945), she moved with the school to Bishan, in Sichuan, and became the chief of the painting and embroidery division of the Zhengze Art School. She was concurrently an associate professor of the National Art School in Chongqing.
After the victory over Japan’s aggression, she returned to her birthplace of Danyang. Though she had little money and the nation’s economy was in tatters, she did all she could to help Lv Fengzi rebuild their old school and train group after grouop fo embroiderers. In the 1950s, she was employed at the Suzhou Embroidery School, bu soon returned to Changzhou to recuperate from an illness. She became an advisor to the Changzhou Arts and Crafts Research Institute, and was elected a member of the local branch of the Political Consultative Committee four times. She devoted herself to embroidery research and education, and contributed to the innovation and development of the embroidery art. She died in Changzhou at the age of 86 in February 1982.
She learned embroidery as a child and then began to study painting when she grew older. She was good at both arts, and also had a talent for writing. Added to that, she was skilled at calligraphy and seal cutting. She was regarded as talented woman of her time.
She paid great attention to the inherent relationship between embroidery and painting, saying: “ A good embroiderer must be good painting, or she could not reach the peak of embroidery skill. If a person knows how to paint, it is easy for her or him to create expressive, colorful embroidery.” Therefore, she insisted that those who wanted to learn embroidery must also study painting and drawing, just as she has done.
When she was a teacher in the Zhengze Ladies’ Vocational School, she created hert own style of embroidering figures, flowers and birds and was particularly good at using the Western technique of basing her disigns on paintings. She was innovative and developed many new embroidery techniques. In the late 1920s, she assimilated into her embroidery the techniques of the pencil strokes and pen-and-ink drawing in the Western painting. She also veered from the traditional technique of “ closely connected threads and parallel stitches” and used the technique of crossing hong and short lines and applying colors layer by layer to portray scenes.
She used watercolor techniques as inspiration shen embroidering the Portrait of an Old Man and A Small Boy, and the two pieces took a new look. The technique caused a sensation in her school, and was highly acclaimed by Lv Fengzi , her master, who named it “Yang embroidery.” Later Yang Shouyu referred to the style as “crisscross stitch embroidery ” or “Zhengze embroidery” or “needle painting.” In recognition of her initiative in creating the crisscross stitch embroidery, the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Education sent a special official to inspect the school. The official said: “ Yang Shouyu has served for more than 20 years and created the crisscross stitch embroidery. It should be commended.”
After she initiated the crisscross stitch embroidery, she produced many good works, most of which were given as gifts to raise fundin for her school. Those works still available now include the Young Girl and Lida(kept in the Suzhou University), and Portrait of Zhu De (kept in the Changzhou Arts and Crafts Research Institute), and the Portrait of Chairman Mao ( kept in the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute). Both Lida and Young Girl were her early representative works.
Lida was based on Greek mythology. According to legend, Zeus loved Lida, the wife of the king of Sparta, and incarnated himself into a swan to seduce her. In the Western history of art, may famous painters and sculptors including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Antonio Allegri da Correggio created works of art on this theme, but Madam Yang used embroidery to portrait.
In the embroidery tableau, Lida stood by a small lake, looking shyly down at a swan. The swan’s expression is lifelike; its wings are flapping at Lida, as if two lovers are playing to their hearts’ content by the lake in the woods. It is embroidered with crisscross stitches, and when viewed up close, the intricate cross stitches arouse a rhythmic feeling, and express both the concrete form and abstract spirit of the portrait when viewed from a distance. Although only black and white threads are used, the shading is exquisite. In the sunshine, Lida’s skin looks delicate, and her expression is tender and full of love. On the large body of the swan, formerly Zeus, the wings are flapping at Lida, and his expression when he talks with Lida is realistic. The lake water, embroidered in horizontal and oblique stitches, looks as calm and clear as mirror. The dense woods in the distance, embroidered with dotted lines, emphasize the sense of meystery of the scene.
The Young Girl is a self-portrait. It features lively, smooth lines and simple yet elegant hues. By varying the thickness of lines and colors and arranging the lines in diffderent directions, the artist skillfully rendered the skin and hair of the human body and the girl’s clothes. Although few stitches are used to show the five sensory organs on the face, the expression is vivid and lifelike. The hair is bobbed at chin lengthm, with a lock of hair on the forehead. It sets off the quiet charm of the young girl from that period.
Yang’s Portrait of Roosevelt, and The Beauty and Human Skeleton hat she embroidered while in Chongqing during the anti-Japanese war won prizes at national arts and crafts exhibitions. The Portrait of Roosevelt is now kept in an art gallery in the United States.
Her achievements in painting and embroidery received great attention from art circles. At the Asia- Pacific Region Peace Conference in 1952, noted artist Liu Haisu recommended her Portrait of Chairman Mao and Portrait of Stalin to the delegates. In a letter to Mr. Guo Moruo, he said: “Madam Yang Yun( Shouyu) from Changzhou learned painting inher early years, and c an use the painting technique in embroidery. She initiated the crisscross stitch technique by using needles in place o f brushes and colored silks in the place of black and re paints, thus integrating painting and embroidery into a style of her own.”
Madam Yang was an embroidery art educator. Starting at the age of 20, she worked for several decades, enthusiastically teaching others, and passing on her skills to her students. Her students are all over the country. They include Ren Huixian and Zhou Xunxian, senior industrial artist of the Suzhou Emboridery Research Institute and Chinese arts and crafts masters; and Chen Sixue ( an embroidery artist living in Taibei who is the eldest daughter of famous industrial artist and flower-and-bird painter Chen Zhifo) and Tong Jiabin. Currently, crisscross stitch emboridery has been handed down through five generations of embroiderers. Her distinctive school of embroidery has taken root and flourished in China.
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