My daughter spent last summer working in China. Of course, I could not resist the chance to go out and visit her there before she came home. Alongside seeing many wonderful historic sites, I had the chance to fulfil a long-time dream in visiting the Suzhou Silk Embroidery Research Institute.
Sadly, I had the misfortune to have my camera stolen right at the end of my trip so I lost all the wonderful pictures I had taken, but by chance, I also snapped a few pictures with my iPod while at the Embroidery Institute. Though these are not much good as photographs, they at least give some idea of what I saw on my visit.
Situated in a classic Chinese garden, the Institute was founded in the 1950’s as a
centre of excellence for Chinese embroidery. The skills maintained and taught
there include traditional approaches but also the innovations brought to
Chinese embroidery by 20th century pioneers such as Shen Shou (1874–1921) and Yang Shouyu (1896-1982).
Shen Shou was a famous embroiderer and educator who transformed her subject by bringing in aspects learned from painting (including western painting),
Japanese embroidery and photography. When she was sent on a study tour to Japan organised by the government, she became the first Chinese woman ever to
undertake such a role. The influence of Shen Shou is still strong today and can be seen in the way the embroiderers treat light. This is very impressionistic and clearly relates to photography in a way that takes it far from traditional approaches.
Today, all tourists with an interest in embroidery are given a warm welcome at the
Institute but its products are only available to the very rich. In the early
twentieth century Shen Shou produced renowned embroideries for the Dowager
Empress of China and for European royalty. One hundred years later the Suzhou
Institute still supplies clients of a similar profile (a commission for the Dutch
royal family was in progress when I visited.)
As well as the actual embroidery, all the silks are dyed on the premises to the precise shades required.
The quality of the work is astounding and the embroideries of traditional subjects, particularly those drawn from nature are awe-inspiring. At the same time I am left with a feeling that so much concentrated talent could achieve more. A little too much of the subject matter is very safe and often blatantly sentimental and I find it troubling that immensely talented young women should be spending many hours copying photographs of rich people’s pets. Even so, I will always treasure my visit and the chance to see such exquisite craftsmanship.
I am still sad about my lost photographs though!