Can Suzhou Embroidery be contemporary art?

CHEN Anying

7 September 2018

In the 2017 Venice Biennale, curator Qiu Zhijie brought Suzhou Embroidery and Shaanxi Shadow Play to the China Pavilion. The “intangible cultural heritage” that has found its way into the realm of contemporary art was attacked and branded as “old shrouds” and “provincial”. Reminded of the embarrassing memory when the Chinese government sent embroidery and paper-cutting works to the Venice Biennale in the early 1980s, critics rushed to conclude that displaying “intangible cultural heritage” in an international event is conservative and regressive. To them, Suzhou Embroidery, Shadow Play and other so-called “folk arts” will never become contemporary art.

Such criticism reflects the stereotype that the contemporary art community holds about traditional crafts and reveals the predicament facing crafts as they try to be admitted into contemporary art. This paper attempts to share some of the writer’s observations regarding the current development of contemporary crafts, using Suzhou Embroidery as an example. We realize that contemporary or traditional crafts in China have encountered some theoretical obstacles as they grow. It is not only true for Suzhou Embroidery, but also many other traditional crafts relating to sculpture and painting. This predicament is somewhat metaphysical and has to do with disorder and symptoms at the levels of knowledge and narrative.

The predicament of Suzhou Embroidery and ontological self-denigration

Before the Venice Biennale opened, we visited Yao Huifen, who holds the title of “Representative Inheritor of National Intangible Cultural Heritage” and was going to participate in the biennale, in Zhen Lake, Suzhou. Her partner for this project, artist Wu Jian’an, chose a painting by Li Song of the Southern Song dynasty, known as Skeleton Fantasy Show, as a starting point for her creation. Wu found this painting to be a very meaningful depiction of a topic that can easily resonate with the art history in the West. For Yao Huifen and her team, what matters is not the content of the painting, but how to use it to showcase their reflections on Suzhou Embroidery techniques. A series of embroidery works were produced, each using different needle techniques, including variations in different details of the same piece (e.g. a brick in the city wall), which created contrasts and contradictions. Unlike regular Suzhou Embroidery-paintings, this set of works is more about the manifestation and awakening of the needle techniques, instead of the picture it mimics.

Embroidery in Suzhou and the neighbouring region in the south of Yangtze River has long developed a form separated from embroidery for clothing, known as embroidery painting (which coexists with embroidery for clothing but is produced and used by a different group), which began by imitating Chinese literati paintings. More recently, innovations by Shen Shou (1874-1921) and others gave Suzhou Embroidery the ability to imitate Western paintings, allowing it to be included into the Western fine art framework and become fine craft. The tradition of embroidery painting continued to evolve in the Suzhou Embroidery Institute under the planned economy (embroiderers outside of the institute were primarily doing embroidery for clothing) and gradually acquired dominant position after China’s reform and opening-up.

Today, Suzhou Embroidery masters can easily imitate any painting (including photos and sketches). Seemingly, it has come to a point where no further development is possible. At the same time, as it started with imitating paintings, it will never be put in the same league no matter how close it gets to what the original painting looks like. As the young embroiderers today in Zhen Lake were trained not in embroidery for clothing but embroidery painting, which comes with an easier set of needle techniques, they were less adept at using the techniques in original creation than their predecessors. Since the innovations of Shen Shou, embroidery painting has come to another critical moment where a breakthrough is urgently needed.

Similarly, in recent times, especially after PRC was founded, many decorative arts have increasingly broken away from daily utility roles to become stand-alone “fine crafts”, including ceramics painting, lacquer painting, paper cutting, woodcarving and clay sculpture, all of which aspire to become artworks with frames or pedestals. Both “fine art” and “fine craft” are Western concepts translated into Chinese through Japan in the early twentieth century. With the emphasis placed squarely on art, it essentially tries to measure traditional crafts in the East within the framework of Western fine art. As a result, such fine craft will inevitably be regarded as subordinate to painting, sculpture or other so-called pure arts.

Sometimes fine craft is also known as decorative art. As a subfield of fine art, decorative art is considered lesser important to pure art. Since the second half of the twentieth century, the fine craft community in China has witnessed a shift away from functional decorative paintings to representational paintings of decorative style, and from functional sculpture to decorative, figurative sculpture. This shift has been further amplified by the socialist-realistic paradigm of artistic creation, allowing various cliché topics to dominate the use of materials and techniques.

Many faculties in the history of the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts (CAAC, founded in 1956) also wondered: Does decoration mean decorative style? Is decoration design or fine art? The former dean of CAAC, Pang Xunqin, told his students very clearly that decoration is not a “decoration for decoration’s sake” kind of artistic style. Instead, as something functional, it should be part of the whole design. “It is not an afterthought or the icing on the cake.” In addition to painting, means of decoration should also include “decorative materials and tools” that were often ignored by art schools at the time. For decorative art, “some people believe drawing is the solution to everything. This is a bias. Drawing is only one of the approaches. It cannot solve the fundamental problem of decorative art.” [1] Mr Pang was making a conscious effort to bring decoration from the teaching of fine art back to the teaching of design, because he was aware that decorative art is inherently functional and utility-oriented.

However, many people in the academy favoured decorative manner and tended to see decorative art as a form of artistic creation with decorative style. [2] Outside the academy, many craftsmen wished to become an artist due to the influence of the “China Arts and Crafts Masters” selection and the ill-informed worship of academicism. It is true that a small faction in Suzhou Embroidery deviated from utility to become appreciation-only embroidery painting a long time ago. However, what we see today is that not only the four major embroidery schools are moving ever closer to painting, some peasant’s needlework also attempts to be a painting that is framed and hung on the wall. Similar things are also happening with traditional carving crafts. For example, woodcarving used to be the decoration on buildings or furniture, but now it is also trying to be fine art, with some kind of decorative style, leading to the creation of something like an art-deco style nude (an apparently Western subject matter) standing on the base for onlookers to appreciate.

Any craftsman who tries to become an artist would find themselves in an embarrassing situation where the entire system of knowledge behind the fine art they worship was overthrown in the West in the early twentieth century and has become outdated in contemporary art. If we look at the history of art before fine art, we will see that most paintings and sculptures were decorative and part of the productive process. In its effort to shift away from utility, decorative art has embarrassed itself not because it was not done perfectly, but because it has been trapped into a kind of ontological self-denigration. When traditional crafts are incorporated into the framework of fine arts, such embarrassment will be everywhere. Not to mention the issue of mismatch between Chinese and Western art systems. Putting traditional decorative painting and sculpture in China under the classification system of Western art will complicate things even further.

Self-breakthrough and innovation by returning to origin

Facing this predicament, where should Suzhou Embroidery go? That is the question Yao Huifen and her team were concerned with. In the partnership with Wu Jian’an, Yao Huifen and her team realized that some traditional needle techniques had been forgotten by most people today (especially those used in embroidery for clothing). As a result, they decided to go back to earlier traditions to seek new possibilities. To a certain degree, this awakening of Suzhou Embroidery in terms of needle techniques resembles what Greenberg calls the “transcendence of modernism over realism and narrative art” in that it is full of self-criticism in relation to the media.

What is it that distinguishes Suzhou Embroidery (or embroidery painting) from painting in terms of media? Definitely needle techniques! Needle techniques constitute the language of Suzhou Embroidery. The key of the Skeleton Fantasy Show series is not to imitate the painting using embroidery, but to leverage the painting (not necessary this one) and to showcase the needle techniques: every brick in the wall and every single detail are produced with different and contrasting techniques. In this process, Yao Huifen, her sister Yao Huiqin and their fellow embroiderers felt awkward and strange at first, but soon entered a state of activity, going where their mind and heart led them. After the Venice Biennale, they continue to create more embroidery works with relentless enthusiasm. They have complete autonomy over what technique to use for what part of the embroidery work. If the emphasis was on “what to embroider” in the past (making the embroidery look like a certain painting), now it is more about “how to embroider”.

In the words of Greenberg, Suzhou Embroidery painting has become “pure” by shifting away from representation to abstraction. But this exploration is significant in ways beyond what is discussed above. In the process of embroidery, some lost needle techniques, especially those used in embroidery for clothing and quills, have been rediscovered, creating an interesting conversation with tradition. This conversation has gone beyond the paradigm of embroidery as art developed since recent history and made a creative return to older traditions. The separation of embroidery as art and embroidery as utility can be traced back to its remote origin in the Song dynasty. The inclusion of Suzhou Embroidery painting into the Western framework of fine art in recent history was the result of Shen Shou (1874-1921)’s efforts to imitate Western paintings using embroidery, modelling after the experience of Japan. The creation this time can be seen as going back to pre-SHEN Shou times and setting off again.

The China Pavilion in 2017 Venice Biennale featured the theme of “Continuum” by presenting the relationship between different generations of artists. The Yao sisters are located on a line of apprenticeship that goes back to Shen Shou through Mou Zhihong and Ren Huixian. Along this line, embroidery for imitation, or embroidery as art, have continued to evolve and develop, witnessing the formation of China’s handicraft system under the planned economy and its collapse in the market economy. Since the 1990s, the embroidery industry in Zhen Lake has been dominated by embroidery paintings that bear the hallmarks of fine crafts, which include both exclusive artworks by the masters and mass production by regular embroiders. At its heyday, the embroidery industry in Zhen Lake has also come to a bottleneck. At this critical juncture, the team of Yao Huifen has pioneered a self-breakthrough and innovation by returning to the origin.

Instead of going forward, this breakthrough is about moving backward to where embroidery for imitation started. In this process, the husband of Yao Huifen, Mr Yu Hongqing, has played an important role. Yu studied Chinese literature in college, but he later became interested in embroidery and began to consciously collect historical evidences to study Suzhou Embroidery in a systemic way. He believed Shen Shou was influenced by Japan. He looked into a flea market and collected many samples of needle techniques used by the Suzhou state-owned embroidery factory for overseas trading,  which later served as an important source of inspiration for the creation for this Venice Biennale. Having been passionate about embroidery since a young age, the Yao sisters know all the needle techniques in the region very well. In recent years, they have been teaching embroidery classes, which have also exposed them to many needle techniques in different minority ethnic regions. As they absorb these techniques and integrate them with their existing skill sets, their horizon and knowledge continue to expand. The knowledge from experience, together with the knowledge extracted from a theoretical study by Yu Hongqing, has become the foundation for this breakthrough of Suzhou Embroidery.

Attempts to contemporize Suzhou Embroidery and future of traditional crafts

The partnership with contemporary art is a conscious choice by Yao Huifen and Yu Hongqing. Five years ago, for the first time, the thought of participating in the Venice Biennale occurred to Mr YU, who had been following contemporary art for a long time. In August 2015, Metamorphosis: Past and Present of the Tale of White Snake, an exhibition organized by the Prince Kung’s Mansion Management Center and the Central Academy of Fine Arts under the guidance of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Division of the Ministry of Culture, was held in Prince Kung’s Mansion. Yao Huifen and Yu Hongqing were very interested in the efforts of Shaanxi Shadow Play to contemporize itself and got in touch with Wu Jian’an. By combining contemporary art with intangible cultural heritage, the exhibition inadvertently portended the conception and creation for the China Pavilion of the Venice Biennale this year. During the revival of traditions, contemporary artists in China realise the potential of intangible cultural heritage, and the successors of such heritage also see the vitality and creativity of contemporary art.

This combination is not about turning intangible cultural heritage to contemporary art or vice versa. Suzhou Embroidery does not need to become conceptualised contemporary art. In fact, the team of Yao Huifen has no intention to do so. What they do is to explore the question of how to contemporize Suzhou Embroidery. What is contemporaneity? It is something the community of contemporary art often talks about. Some believe only conceptual art can be considered contemporary art; others hold that any art created in the contemporary age is contemporary art. Neither of these two views is complete. The former seems to tie contemporary art to certain patterns; while the latter makes the concept of contemporary art meaningless. In the academic context both home and abroad, contemporary art refers to art with contemporaneity, which means the artistic creation shows an understanding at the forefront of our time. In the present age, various understandings of art coexist side by side, so do knowledge systems originating from different times in history (e.g. “fine art” since the Renaissance). Which one of them can be said to have contemporaneity?

The only possibility for the concept of contemporaneity to make sense is to read it as the character of being pioneering and transcending. In this sense, contemporary art that has contemporaneity refers to art that leads and transcends other arts in the same age in terms of knowledge system; in others words, it refers to art that can go beyond the limits of its time. As a result, Suzhou Embroidery also has the potential to gain this contemporaneity, thus contemporizing itself. Obviously, the contemporization of Suzhou Embroidery does not necessarily mean incorporating it into contemporary art; instead, it means Suzhou Embroidery will reflect upon and overcome the limits of the present time to transcend the existing Zhen Lake model or the four major embroidery styles.

Of course, Suzhou Embroidery may contemporize itself in more than one way. The artworks created by the team of Yao Huifen for the Venice Biennale represent a disruption to the incumbent paradigm of embroidery. But it is not the only way to go. Yao Jianping with her daughter Yao Lan and others in Zhen Lake are taking another way, i.e. combining Suzhou Embroidery with fashion design. In addition, for the team of Yao Huifen, the Venice Biennale was not the end of their exploration, but the beginning. This new starting point will not only benefit the successors of embroidery painting, but also inspire all people engaged in traditional crafts relating to sculpture and painting.

Before photography shows up, almost all visual arts originated from traditional crafts. In the West, painting and sculpture that spun off from traditional crafts were included in the framework of fine arts and subject to aesthetic interpretation and assessment. This process happened much earlier in China, where the rise of a unique literati class enabled the separation of pure art for appreciation from decorative art and functional crafts a long time before modernization. Originally this separation was natural. In books about art appreciation such as Superfluous Things, many things other than calligraphy and painting were considered elegant art. During the modernization process in the last hundred years, an oversimplified version of the fine art system from the West has displaced the original art system in China, leading to chaos in both theory and practice. A salient example would be the blind imitation of fine arts by crafts.

Mr Yuan Yunfu tried to gloss over the conflict between crafts and fine arts using the concept of “General Fine Arts”. [3] In this new era, we should be bolder in our exploration and practice to upgrade and innovate the knowledge system about art and redefine art by drawing a new line between various forms of arts or crafts. As views become ever more diverse and our cultural confidence continues to strengthen, the knowledge systems behind contemporary art with its bias toward conceptuality and social criticism, representational art with its mission of propaganda and narration, and abstract art that favours spirituality and aesthetic quality all need to be restructured and reconstructed. We need to find new paths for the self-revolutionized Suzhou Embroidery and other traditional crafts relating to painting and sculpture under the new knowledge framework.

This article was published in the first issue of Art and Design Research in 2018


[1] Pang Xunqin. “On Decorative Art”, Zhuangshi, 1997(10), p.66.

[2] Lyu Pintian. “Design and Decoration: Necessary Tension – The Education Philosophy of the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts”, Zhuangshi, 1996 (05), p.22.

[3] Yuan Baolin. “Historical Progress – An Overview of the Art Outlook of Yuan Yunfu”, Journal of Nantong Normal University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition), Jan. 2013, p.148.


Anying CHEN is the chair of the Art History Department, Academy of Arts and Design, Tsinghua University, associate professor and PhD supervisor for art theories, aesthetics, intangible cultural heritage and traditional crafts, modern and contemporary art. He is also the deputy director of the Key Laboratory of Traditional Craft Techniques and Materials Research, Ministry of Culture and Travel. He took charge of several research projects such as Contemporary Developing of Chinese Traditional Crafts, Traditional Crafts and Internet Promotion and so on. He co-curated many events such as the 1st Beijing International Design Triennial (2011), Reproduction: Chinese Contemporary Arts and Crafts Seminar (2014), Youth Forum of Traditional Crafts (2016- ), and a series of exhibitions and forums on traditional crafts and intangible cultural heritage since 2015. He won the second prize of Education Ministry’s Sixth Outstanding Scientific Research Achievement Award and “National Excellent Individual for Intangible Culture Heritage Safeguarding” awarded by Ministry of Culture and Travel, China.



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