Zhou Yinghua: master of hair embroidery

China Plus Published: 2019-08-15 09:58:48
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Written by Yin Xiuqi, narrated by Wu Jia.

Suzhou Museum, in the center of the old town of Suzhou, is always packed with tourists and visitors during its opening hours.

Tapping into the rich cultural heritage of the city, the various kinds of exhibitions in the museum are fascinating to people from home and abroad, who want to find out about Suzhou's history and culture.

In one of the exhibition halls, Nell Greenhouse, from England, is impressed with what she's seen:

"It's fascinating! …You can use hair to bring out such lively embroidery. It's really interesting. And I'm quite stunned by how.... At first look, it looks like being drawn. So intricate. And then you look closer, you suddenly realize it's actually been sewn."

Greenhouse is talking about an exhibition of famous traditional Chinese paintings re-created through embroidery.

Called "Zhou Yinghua's Art of Hair Embroidery", the exhibition has on show some 20 artworks depicting Buddhist images or scenes of daily life in ancient China.

Zhou Yinghua, creator of these artworks, says Buddhism was the original source of inspiration for hair embroidery:

"Originally, hair embroidery was connected with Buddhism. In ancient China, hair embroiderers were very pious about their work. Before they sat down and began to stitch, the embroiderers had to wash their hands, and get the incense burning to show their respect to Buddha."

Hair embroidery dates back about 1,300 years, and originates from the Tang Dynasty.

Then, women Buddhist believers used their hair to embroider Buddhist images to show their piety.

In ancient China, hair was seen as a sacred part of the human body.

Cutting hair and using it to embroider Buddhist images with it showed great respect and devotion by embroiderers who believed in Buddhism.

Zhou Yinghua, herself a Buddhist, says most of her early works are reproductions of existing historic paintings.

But she says the process still involves changes and creativity:

"Some of the source paintings we've discovered can be easily adapted to hair embroidery. But for others, we have to re-create their lines and patterns. Take this Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara image for example, we had to re-create the lines of the original painting. It's a color mural of the Fahai Temple in Beijing. So the original painting was about color and had few sharp lines. When we embroidered this painting, we had to sketch the lines and then use hair to emulate the painting."

Sixty-one year old Zhou Yinghua is a native of Suzhou.

When she was a teenage girl, she found out about hair embroidery from her father, one of the founders of the Suzhou Embroidery Institute, which came into being in 1954.

Having mastered the craft in the 1970s, Zhou kept it as a part-time hobby for about three decades.

In 2000, then 42 year old Zhou began to devote more of her time to preserving and promoting the traditional craft.

In that year, she set up her own workshop.

Five years later, the Suzhou city government conducted a city-wide survey to find out how many traditional crafts the city had.

The investigation signaled a move to increase government support for preserving and promoting traditional crafts.

Zhou says the government survey helped her and her workshop focus only on hair embroidery.

Since 2005, Zhou Yinghua has devoted herself to creating her embroideries while promoting the craft among ordinary people.

Though a reproduction of a historic painting, Huolangtu—one of Zhou Yinghua’s masterpieces demonstrates creativity of the crafts-woman. [Photo: Chinaplus]

Though a reproduction of a historic painting, Huolangtu—one of Zhou Yinghua’s masterpieces demonstrates creativity of the crafts-woman. [Photo: Chinaplus]

One of her masterpieces, Huolangtu, won a golden prize in a national competition held by the China Arts and Crafts Association in 2011.

Huolangtu, or The Knickknack Peddler, is a painting by a Chinese artist who lived some 800 years ago. It depicts a peddler selling various kinds of daily wares, toys, snacks etc., in a village, attracting kids and women.

The painting depicts incredible details of the items carried by the peddler and the delicate expressions of the children, women and dogs. It offers a useful glimpse into the rural life of ancient China.

Zhou's version of the painting has a three-dimensional effect of the various small objects depicted in the original.

Zhou says her piece is a creative work, not just a copy:

"After a long period of time, the original colors of a painting change or fade. So during our re-creation, we have to determine what the particular colors are for every tiny part of the work according to what we understand. With the objects depicted in the original painting, we have to determine what they are and their colors and shapes. With regard to the historic figures in the painting, we have to determine what kind of clothes they wore and how they should look. So we have to add our own understanding of related history and paintings. We need to accumulate this kind of knowledge day by day."

The Knickknack Peddler hair embroidery took Zhou 10 months to finish. Such time-consuming craft means that her six-member team can only make about 10 quality works a year.

As Zhou's art is seen as high-end, the price ranges from several thousand yuan for a small piece to millions of yuan for a long scroll.

Like most traditional craftsmanship, hair embroidery also faces a shortage of talent supply:

Zhou Yinghua says it takes years, even a decade, for an apprentice to master the skills to finish a quality and marketable work.

On top of that, Zhou says the ideal apprentice has to possess special qualities:

"To sustain the craft, I don't want younger hair embroiderers to be illiterate or low-educated women. I hope future inheritors will be well-educated in various aspects. They should be good at drawing and able to use a computer for assistance, as well as embroidering. The most important thing is that they should have a tranquil temperament and be able to concentrate on the work on their own."

Luckily for Zhou, she has recruited a good apprentice.

"Ms. Guo came to learn hair embroidery with me in her spare time when she was a sophomore. After she graduated from college, she joined us as a full-time member. Why did I choose her? First, she is young. Second, she has mastered the skills of drawing as she majored in a painting-related subject at college. Although she didn't study Gongbi painting, she has an instinct for color. So it was easy for her to learn Gongbi painting and needlework," says Zhou.

Zhou's apprentice is Guo Xiaoqi, and she has been learning hair embroidery for four years.

The young woman says Zhou Yinghua is strict with her:

"My teacher is very strict with my skills. Since the very beginning, she has been tutoring me to a high standard. I think this is good for me. She has also asked me to master not only embroidering and painting, but also designing."

With well-educated members like Guo, Zhou Yinghua and her team are exploring new themes as well as reproducing famous paintings.

Zhou has been designated a provincial-level master of traditional arts and crafts in Jiangsu Province.

She joins some 3,200 craftsmen holding such titles across the country according to statistics from the China Arts and Crafts Association.

It's hoped that her apprentice Guo Xiaoqi will one day join them and bring forward the craft of hair embroidery.

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