An Introduction to Shu, Xiang and Yue Embroidery
The Chinese have long been skilled in the arts of dyeing, weaving and embroidery. There are at least 15 embroidery styles remaining, where the four most famous ones are Suzhou - Su Xiu (苏绣), Sichuan - Shu Xiu (蜀绣), Hunan - Xiang Xiu (湘绣) and Guangdong - Yue Xiu (粤绣).
Shu Xiu is the oldest and comes from areas around Chengdu, Sichuan province. The Western Sichuan Plain was prosperous because of its richness in rice and silkworm-breeding industry in ancient times. The area was also known as the Shu State: "Shu"（蜀）in Chinese literally means 'worms'. Later Shu became the shortened form for Sichuan.
Shu embroidery enjoys a long history. As early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), silk products in the Sichuan plain had been exported to the Thai capital and the art of Shu embroidery developed with the booming silk business. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Shu embroidery enjoyed a high reputation as “a treasure of Sichuan”.
Shu embroidery reached its peak during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) in both production and excellence. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), many professional workshops appeared and many artisans engaged in Shu embroidery. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, factories were set up and the craft entered a new phase of development, using new techniques and developing a larger variety.
With its 122 stitching and weaving techniques divided into 12 categories, Shu Xiu has become the most exquisite of the four most famous embroidery styles. Shu embroidery is smooth, bright and neat in quality, influenced by the geographical environment, customs and cultures of Sichuan.
Renowned for its superb workmanship, people are always impressed by the closeness of the stitching, which makes it possible to highlight minuscule details in images. A Shu embroidery piece may include hundreds of thousands of stitches in a single figure or animal, and may take days or even weeks to finish.
Shu embroidery incorporates flowers, animals, mountains, rivers and human figures as themes in quilts, pillowcases, coats, sheets, slippers, clothes, wall hangings, and curtains. They lend color and beauty to their owners, where their rich color and vibrant images are meant to remind them of happiness and luck.
Xiang embroidery is from Hunan; Xiang（湘）is the shortened form for Hunan province. Xiang embroidery craftwork emerged at least 2,300 years ago. It developed extensively in the intervening centuries, borrowing influences from other Chinese embroidery schools. While other schools strive for perfection in their craftsmanship, Xiang embroidery shows a deep affinity to folk art with its loose threads and rich colors. It emphasizes the contrast between shadow and light, creating a 3D effect.
The Xiang embroidery style most familiar to modern people developed in the Qing Dynasty. Because of its relatively late introduction, it absorbed and improved on stylistic elements from the older Su, Shu and Yue embroidery schools. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, Xiang embroidery had reached its peak, even surpassing Su embroidery.
Xiang embroidery adopted skills originally used in traditional Chinese painting, engraving and calligraphy, and formed its unique style. By taking the spirit of Chinese painting, Xiang embroidery reached a high artistic level: a flower seems to send off fragrance, a bird seems to sing, a tiger seems to run, a person seems to breathe.
Xiang embroidery is usually made on transparent chiffon silk using 16 shades for each color, which makes the image much richer. The thin silk thread can be divided into many barely-visible strands. The embroider splits the hair-thin silk thread into filaments and uses these to create subtle and refined visions of beauty.
There are several distinct needling techniques used, and by design they lack precision – the random or uneven nature of this needling means various colors and textures are often mixed together, showing a gradual change in hue with a rich and harmonious tone.
This combination of techniques produced a stunning new embroidery product, double-faced embroidery, with different patterns and colors on each side of a backing fabric. This Chinese traditional art greatly promoted the artistic value of Xiang embroidery.
Examples of Xiang embroidery are still popular today and used practically in clothing, pillowcases, and sheets or as art pieces, and have won awards from many international fairs and expositions.
Yue embroidery, also known as Guang embroidery or Cantonese embroidery, originated in Guangdong. Yue（粤）is the short term for Guangdong province.
Although it may not be ranked as the best, it has earned a place among its fellow schools as one that is the most special.
Yue embroidery originated from the ethnic group “Li”（黎族）, and the needlework is traditionally done by men. It flourished in the Ming Dynasty and it is said that Yue embroidery was one of the first to travel overseas, when in 1514 AD, Portuguese merchants brought back pieces as a tribute to their king. Since then, Yue embroidery has slowly accumulated an overseas fan base, mostly from the European courts.
When the Chinese government later stopped foreign trade, Canton became the only door to the Western market, and exports boomed. During this time, British businessmen brought their clothes to Guangdong and had them embroidered there, starting a trend in which local embroiderers started to incorporate Western-style designs, especially of western oil paintings, into their patterns.
Yue embroidered pieces can be done on silk or cotton and is known for its innovative use of particular materials like peacock feathers and horsehair. Early artisans used peacock feathers twisted together as their thread; coarse horsetail thread was used to stitch an outline to the piece, attracting the eye to linger on patterns, colors, and objects. As Yue embroidery developed, it has become one of the most eclectic styles. Although it is marked by smooth embroidery, artisans sometimes use gold and silver thread to create a 3D effect in their designs.
Compared to the Su embroidery school, which was deeply influenced by the literati's love of landscapes or paintings of mountains and rivers, Yue embroidery was more influenced by traditional folk art, concentrating on people's hope for prosperity and peace, hence emblems such as the dragon and phoenix, bats, peaches and other auspicious symbols. In the same vein, the colors used are brighter, richer and strongly contrasting.
Yue embroidery is still produced and used in many different ways today, from bridal gowns to wall hangings, costumes, decorations and crafts for daily use.