Is Silk Embroidery a Dying Art?
From adorning the Chinese royals of 300 BC in exquisite designs to winning accolades at world fairs in the early 20th century, silk embroidery has survived thousands of years. However, as the traditional embroiderers leave their villages for the big city, will the 21st century with all its modern technologies and advances, spell the end for Chinese silk embroidery?
The Rise & Fall of Silk Embroidery
Believed to have its beginnings in the Neolithic age, silk embroidery skills have been handed down from mother to daughter through generations. Silk works were domesticated in China at least 5000 years ago, and it became such a highly-valued commodity that trade with the West via the infamous Silk Road shaped Chinese history in many ways. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), the art form was seen a means for cultivation and self-expression for the nobility of the time, and refined young ladies were painstakingly trained in how to wield a needle and thread.
It didn’t take long for the craft to take on a variety of different attributes in different regions. The cities of Suzhou, Hunan, Guangzhou and Sichuan all developed unique and recognizable styles. Suzhou embroidery is known for its meticulous stitch work and precision, and an offshoot of this style is the double-sided work that is visually flawless from either side of the base material. Other regions’ styles vary in their treatment of color, subject matter and purpose. Over the next few centuries, silk would become China’s most important commodity, with stunning embroideries finding their way to Europe as part of the West’s interest in the “exoticism” of the East and trends that flourished in the mid-19th century for all things “Oriental”, including fashion, visual art, home furnishings, literature, opera and performance art. At first the romantic visions presented to Western Europeans and Americans was centered on the Middle East, specifically the romance of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, but soon the focus drifted further, until Japanese and Chinese aesthetics became “must-haves” for well-to-do homes. In 1911, Chinese silk embroidery was exhibited at the Torino, Italy and subsequent World Expos, receiving high honors and recognition. Long after the Orientalist craze passed, Chinese silk embroidery was respected on the world stage because it combines artistic vision and craftsmanship to a truly elevated level.
Silk embroidery’s illustrious years would unfortunately come to an abrupt end. During the tumult of the Cultural Revolution (1966 –1976), traditional fine arts such as the composition music and literature, were destroyed and their practice forbidden. Silk embroidery, painting, calligraphy and other traditionally Chinese art forms were frowned upon in government attempts to enforce Communism and a Maoist doctrine. In attempts to promote the tenants of Socialism, cultural pastimes and expressions that were traditionally associated with the upper classes of China were labeled “bourgeois” and at odds with a vision of good for the collective whole. Embroidery workshops were shut down, and their master embroiderers forced to toil the land alongside other artists and visionaries. Creating things of beauty seemed frivolous given the political and economic climate, and clothes were meant for hard work and durability, not ethereal patterns and stunning embellishments. Within one generation, the art of silk embroidery became a mere memory.
In the 1970s China began to reopen itself to the world and a passion for fine art, which had laid hidden beneath the surface of society, was once again allowed to blossom and artisans and their traditional crafts gradually reemerged. Once again, handed down by individual instruction – the sophisticated techniques of silk thread splitting, stitching and design slowly spread again.
Silk Embroidery Today – In the Midst of Change
After barely surviving the Cultural Revolution, the four major embroidery styles have since been proclaimed part of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage and recognized as an integral part of Chinese culture. Suzhou, Sichuan, Guangdong and Hunan embroidery have returned to exhibitions abroad, enchanting art collectors worldwide. Galleries in the UK, US and Australia often display works of renowned Chinese embroiders, and students of textile art and design the world over encounter these techniques in their coursework.
The time-consuming nature of embroidery is one of the reasons why a younger generation’s interest in it has waned. Studies have shown that with the increasing popularity of electronic forms of entertainment and ability, via digital platforms, to “multi-task”, the youth of today may be compromising their attention spans. The focus and concentration required to become an Master Silk Embroiderer is a scarce commodity in what has come to be known as the ADD generation. It is often difficult, as well, for young people used to relying on technology for communication, entertainment and information to see the value of making something beautiful by hand, even if it is time-consuming.
As Chinese youth seek to assert themselves in a changing modern world, their tastes in design and aesthetics have followed Western and contemporary Asian trends. The emphasis on what is new and innovative often trumps the traditional, and it is easy to label something like Silk Embroidery as “old-fashioned”. With so many alternative education and employment opportunities available, the allure of traditional arts has lost some of its relevance to the modern mind. Artisans of silk embroidery are an aging group, with few willing apprentices to pass their knowledge and skills onto. As they pass away, the fear is that many will take their craft with them.
In response to this, a handful of silk embroidery workshops are turning to modern technology to update their practices and enhance their products. Designs were once only the creations of master embroiders’ imaginations, and now specialist computing equipment is being embraced to store and reproduce designs, stitch by stitch, with perfect accuracy. At a local level, towns such as Luduo in Yangzhou have invested millions to revive silk embroidery as an art form, building workshops and museums that visitors to the area visit in search of the China of yesteryear. They come away having seen something authentically Chinese, as well as fascinating and beautiful. The industry’s growth has aided the development of small towns too: in Suzhou, as much as 60% of the population is employed in silk embroidery and its related trades, making this the veritable lifeblood of the community. This has also lead to increased interest abroad, with silk embroideries from such towns finding their way to Korea, Malaysia and the Middle East again. Reviving this ancient practice is the key to both cultural and financial relevance for small towns with a history rooted in silk embroidery.
At the same time, local governments wary of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution are now supporting primary and middle schools in offering co-curricular silk embroidery classes in a bid to restore traditional skills. Students are encouraged to cultivate the skills their ancestors were so proud of, placing them firmly in China’s artistic tradition. This has extended to higher education, with the Academy of Fine Arts in Suzhou opening a diploma course in the intricate art. The most talented students are likely to be destined for the Suzhou Silk Embroidery Research Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving and developing the art form. The institute has developed new stitching techniques and nurtured the skills and vision of many an embroidery master. Works of silk embroidery art by such artists are treasured gifts to heads of state, the most recent being Queen Elizabeth in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee.
Silk Embroidery Tomorrow — A Relic or Rediscovered Art?
The efforts to preserve silk embroidery bear testament to the precarious future of this ancient and exquisite art form. Whether works of silk embroidered art will only be found on the walls of museums as relics of the past, or enjoyed in the living rooms of contemporary art lovers worldwide, only time will tell. After surviving 2500 years, the rise and fall of manifold dynasties and the Cultural Revolution — our hopes are for the latter.