Royal stitch

Updated: 2012-06-01 11:16

By Zhang Chunyan (China Daily European Weekly)

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Artist presents British monarch with valuable piece of her Chinese heritage

As Britain gears up to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee, one Chinese artist, known as the "queen of Su embroidery", is also jubilant. "I'm delighted that my embroidery of the queen's profile will be collected by Buckingham Palace," says Yao Jianping, a well-known artist from Suzhou in China's Jiangsu province.

Royal stitch

Yao Jianping, a well-known artist from Suzhou, Jiangsu province, with her embroidery of Queen Elizabeth II. [Provided to China Daily]

In Yao's piece, which is 40 cm high and 30 cm wide, the queen radiates elegance and royal dignity.

"This was achieved by using extra fine silk threads, some of them as thin as a hair," Yao says.

With a history of more than 2,000 years, Su embroidery is the general name for embroidered products in areas around Suzhou. The craft has a strong folkloric flavor and has been passed down from generation to generation by artisans.

Yao, in her 40s, has been influenced by Su embroidery from an early age. The unusual feature of her work is that she has not only inherited the tradition but has also integrated many modern techniques and themes into it.

In 2001, Yao had an idea to create a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

"I admire the queen and the way she performs her duties," Yao says.

Based on a few available photographs, Yao spent 14 months working on the portrait, employing various sophisticated embroidery techniques.

"It was difficult. In order to reflect the wisdom and kindness of the queen, I had to divide each thin silk thread into 64 equal portions, with each strand hardly visible to the naked eye."

Through her hands, the nuanced change of light in the original photograph is skillfully captured in the piece. The light and shade created by it form a big contrast, while at the same time a coherent balance has been maintained.

"This is one of my most satisfying embroidery works," Yao says.

Royal stitch

The artist says she felt she should also do something to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United Kingdom, which has coincided with Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee and the London Olympics.

Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee marks 60 years on the throne and is only the second in the UK's history after Queen Victoria's in 1897.

Yao says she wanted to present her artwork as a gift from the Chinese people to the British royal family. But contacting the Britons was a problem for her.

Yao then thought of Ma Weihua, president and CEO of China Merchants Bank, which has been developing rapidly as a commercial bank in China. She met the banker occasionally.

Ma, who is enthusiastic about Chinese culture and art, is known for strongly supporting cultural exchanges between China and the world.

Ma has met Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, who is the second son of the Queen.

He wrote a letter to Prince Andrew to introduce Yao's fine piece and asked how the offer could be appropriately made and the likelihood of a meeting with the monarch.

Buckingham Palace later replied and confirmed that the royal family agreed to collect Yao's work early in June.

"I was very excited to learn of this," Yao says. "I will fly to London and witness the cultural exchange between China and the UK."

Like many girls in Suzhou, Yao's first tutor was her mother, from whom she learned to embroider at the age of eight. "At that time, I almost spent all my time learning how to embroider," Yao says.

After more than 30 years of practice, Yao has made significant achievements as an artist. In 1998, Yao founded the Embroidery Art Gallery in Suzhou.

Suzhou, a city between Nanjing and Shanghai in East China, is famous for its well-preserved old gardens. It is often described as "paradise on earth" by the Chinese, a reference to its prosperity and glory in ancient times.

In a nationwide campaign to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of Su embroidery, Yao was selected as one of the few inheritors of the art. UNESCO awarded her the title of "Master of Folk Arts and Crafts" in 2004.

In 2008, Yao's embroidery work Harmony: A Hundred Year Olympic and a Chinese Dream was collected by the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games.

Critics called her "the dancer on the point of a needle" and "the queen of Su embroidery".

Su embroidery is one of the four most renowned Chinese embroidery types, with the other three being Yue embroidery (in Guangdong), Shu embroidery (Sichuan) and Xiang embroidery (Hunan). Su embroidery is listed as part of China's National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

It is a style characterized by brightly colored silk, embroidered with well-proportioned and uncluttered representations of pastoral scenes, people and animals.

"Su embroidery is my hobby, my life and my world. I still spend a lot of time thinking about and creating embroidery each day," Yao says.

Yao includes modern elements into her work.

Her portraits of dignitaries, such as famous Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, as well as former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan, are considered unique among artists.

Yao has also woven her thoughts, emotions and passions into her embroidery works and portrayed through them the beauty and love that she finds in life.

She has won several domestic and international awards. Her works have been exhibited by many museums and are sought after by collectors. Art critics say that Yao's works "have soul and meaning".

Encompassing some of the most detailed and beautiful pieces, Su embroidery is one of the world's finest crafts, Yao says.

"However, many people around the world haven't discovered the beauty and artistry inherent in these pieces," she says.

Su embroidery products fall into three major categories: costumes, decorations for halls and pieces that integrate decorative and practical values.

In Yao's mind, Su embroidery is an exquisite technique that should grow and develop constantly.

As 2012 is the Chinese Year of the Dragon, Yao has also embroidered a golden version of the mythical creature.

"This dragon embroidery is specially made for the Year of the Dragon. In the past, embroidered dragons had only one color. But I have improved the embroidery stitch and adopted a new color-matching method to make it more three-dimensional," she says.

"In the future, I want to continue to produce more wonderful embroidery works and bring them to more palaces of art like Buckingham Palace. Working together with many other embroidery artists, I hope to make Chinese embroidery more famous worldwide."