Handicrafts and Imperial Embroidery

Handicraft companies and travel agents in China have long recognized the commercial potential of its handicrafts to foreigners. Markets around Beijing such as the Pearl Market at Hongqiao or Panjiayuan provide an array of things China: fans, silk embroidered mats, paper cuts, calligraphy brushes, jade rings, pieces of bare cloisonné and so on. It is easy to forget that amid the maddening crowds of shoppers, you can still find places where traditional artisans work away at their craft. At the Baigongfang Handicrafts Centre, a twenty minute work from The Temple of Heaven, you can observe a carpet weaver pulling and tying wool across the strings of a carpet loom, a glassmaker fashioning small objects from slender tubes of glass or an embroiderer working on the finishing touches of an imperial crane.

In this day and age, when traditional art forms are very much an endangered species, it is wonderful to see so many artisans talk passionately about their craft. There"s a certain playfulness in what they do. Most of the fun comes about during the process of making. "Awards and recognition are important," said Yao Fuying, an embroidery maker, "but the joy I get from my craft is simply working away here in my workshop."

Yao comes from a family of embroiders that goes back to the late Qing period. There are many major schools of traditional embroidery in China, among them jingxiu (lit: "capital embroidery"). The history of jingxiu dates back to at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when special embroidery workshops were set up in the capital. Because jingxiu was made for the imperial household it was called gongtingxiu (lit: "court embroidery") or gongxiu for short.

Yao started to embroider flowers at the age of fifteen and, though he served some time as a solider and took a course at the Central Conservatory of Music, he has pretty much been crafting pieces for the last forty years. He has been an avid fan of Western art music since he was a child. "I listen to a Beethoven sonata or a Mozart symphony," he tell me, "when I'm working on one of my pieces at home."

Much of our memories today and some of the most important events in our lives are captured on film—events such as weddings, births, anniversaries and graduations. Yao's craft reminds us that hand embroidery can preserve memories of special occasions as well. He is especially passionate about embroidering the cultural legacy of Beijing into his works. "Traditional handicrafts are going through a pretty rough patch these days," says Yao, "Some would even say they are on the verge of extinction. I'm just doing my bit to ensure that the art form will continue."

Yao's self-effacing attitude toward his career reminded me of a poem written by the early 20th century Japanese poet, Saneatsu Mushakoji, who compared the artist to a flower. "People may look at me, or they may not. I will still bloom."

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