Legendary Suzhou Embroidery Master Shen Shou (part II)

Legendary Suzhou Embroidery Master Shen Shou (part I)




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Legendary Suzhou Embroidery Master Shen Shou (part I)



by Xu Tingchang
Shen Shou called her works “simulated embroideries” but the people regarded them as works of art. She said later: “My embroidery techniques were not handed down. I learned them in my childhood, and practiced them when I grew up. They are all old techniques. When I had an understanding of an object, I embroidered to simulate the object. I create my designs based on real objects. Later I saw European oil paintings and pencil drawings, are good at tracing the shapes of things. The shape is formed by light, and the light and shade (in my embroidery). I employed the old techniques to express the new ideas.”
In 1911, Shen Shou embroidered the Portrait of the Italian King and the Portrait of the Italian Queen. They were first exhibited at the East China Commodities Fair opened by the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce in Nanjing on April 28, and were later chosen as national gifts to be sent to Italy. They caused a sensation among the officials and common people of that country. They king and queen of Italy wrote a letter to the        Qing government in praise of the superb Suzhou embroidery, and gave a gold watch to Shen Shou. Meanwhile, these two embroidery works were sent to the World’s Fair in Turin, Italy, and won the top prize. At this period of her life, Shen Shou was at her peak as an artist.
The following year saw the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China. At the suggestion of Shen Shou, embroidery classes and schools were opened throughout Jiangsu Province, in the cities of Suzhou, Nantong, Danyang, Wuxi and Changshu. Shen taught embroidery in Suzhou, Beijing and Tianjin and trained young embroiderers. Zhang Jian, a gifted scholar and industrialist in Nantong, had long heard of her, and wanted to invite the couple to set up an embroidery school in his hometown to train embroiderers for his industry.
Zhang Jian set up his embroidery school in Nantong in 1914. at his invitation, Shen Shou went to Nantong to head the school and teach. Yu Jue became the manager of the Nantong Common People’s Workshop. The embroidery school was first attached to the Nantong Women’s Normal School, and later moved to Haoyang Road. The first class enrolled more than 20 girls, and the number increased annually. The school’s educational system was also gradually improved, with the length and levels of training stipulated. The program included a crash course of study, a regular course, a fine arts course, and a research course to meet the students’ different needs.
Shen Shou was not only an outstanding embroidery artist, but also an experienced embroidery teacher. She was a strict manager and educator. In her classes, she always maintained that students should take Nature as their guide. She taught hert students how to observe closely, often taking classes outside to observe and draw natural scenes, and she explained her theory of simulated embroidery. When she was embroidering a flower, she used to put a fresh flower on the frame, and copy it with her stitches. When embroidering a human figure, she captured the lifelike spirit by paying special attention to the eyes—a technique used in Chinese traditional painting and Western painting.
Even when she was ill, she brought her students to her beside to hear her lessons on the proper use of colors and threads. During her tenure, the school trained many outstanding embroiderers. The embroidery produced in Nantong gradually formed its own distinctive style marked by fineness and elegance, and found a good market both at home and abroad.
Shen Shou’s Portrait of Jesus –her masterpiece – won the grand prize when it was exhibited at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Fair held in San Francisco, California. It sold for US$13,000. In 1919, she completed the Portrait of Baker. When it was exhibited in the United States, it attracted large crowds. When the actress saw the work, she offered $5,000 for it, but it was not for sale.
Shen Shou taught embroidery in Nantong for eight years, but eventually became ill as result of her exhaustive schedule. A concerned Zhang Jian brought in a well-known physician to treat her. Zhang also worried that should something happen to Shen, her experience and skills would not be handed down. With her permission, zahang Jian wrote down her memories as she dictated them, to have a written record of her oral history. After months of painstaking work, they completed the manuscript Shen Shou on Embroideries. Zhang Jian wrote in his preface: “ This was done over a period of several months. I asked many questions, studied her answers, and then wrote the script. This process was repeated again and again. There is no word which was not written by me and there is no word which was not spoken by Shou.” The book was indeed a crystallization of Shen Shou’s 40 years of artistic practice and labor of love for Zhang Jian.
The book is divided into eight chapters: Embroidery Tools, Embroidery Preparation, Stitches, Essential Points for Embroidery, Embroidery Works, Embroidery Ethics, and Eental and Physical Health of Embroiderers. The book gives a complete account of the embroidery process, from the use of threads and colors, the essential points for embroidery, the code of conduct for embroiderers, as well as health protection and hygiene advice for needleworkers. It is China’s first academic work on Suzhou embroidery.
She Shou died on June 18, 1921 at the age of 48. zhang Jian, who was 72, wept at her passing. According to her wishes, Shen Shou was buried at the foot of Mount Ma’an in Nantong, near the Yangtze River. On her tomb is an inscription written by Zhang Jian: “The comb of Madam Shen, World Artist from Wuxian country.” Behind the tomb is a stone tablet, also inscribed by Zhang Jian: “ The Epitaph of Madam Shen, World Artist from Wuxian Country.” On the back of the tablet is a carved portrait of the artist.
Her exquisite works of embroidery are now displayed in museums in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Nantong, as well in other countries. Everyone who sees her embroidery admires it, and wonders at her superb skill. With her extraordinary wisdom and artful dexterity, she raised the art of Suzhou embroidery to a high level, and created many unparalleled masterpieces.

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