Zhang Jian (张謇 1853-1926)


In the 13th Chapter on Shen Shou, Zhang Jian is mentioned as the man who set up The Nantong Embroidery Academy for Women and put Shen Shou in charge there. Zhang Jian was a pioneer in many things in the closing years of the Qin and the early days of the Republic. The Embroidery Academy was only one minor project , and Zhang Jian was the man responsible for many “firsts”. A native of Nantong, a city on the north shore of the Yangtse River, directly across the water from Changshu, Zhang Jian passed the imperial exams as Zhuangyuan (the highest ranked scholar), and then returned to his hometown and became a pioneer industrialist and educator. He started the first large cotton spinning mill, the first cotton supply base, the first school for textile industry, and other schools, and even promoted cotton cultivation, to name just a few of his many faceted contributions. To this day, Zhang Jian is revered by the people of Nantong. In the center of this booming industrial port city is a museum which features him prominently. Not far from it stands the museum in honor of Shen Shou and the art of embroidery. A new bridge over the Yangtse now connects Nantong with Shanghai by expressways. Travelling time has been cut to one and half hours from four hours or more. Today Nantong is one of the most promising cities in the whole of China. Although his ventures did not achieve commercial success, Zhang Jian sowed the seeds that eventually transformed Nantong. A truly great man.


Shen Shou and Embroidery in photos


Portrait of Shen Shou


Embroidery class in Changshu, 1930s.

李娥瑛 十鹤双面绣地屏

Double-sided embroidery work “Ten Cranes”, by Li E’ying


Master embroiderer Cai Meiying demonstrating her art, taken in January 2010,  in Suzhou

Chapter 13 Shen Shou – The Great Innovator in the Art of Embroidery

In Chapter 12 it is mentioned that Shen Cuizhen learned embroidery from her aunt, first in Beijing, then at the  Nantong Academy of Embroidery where she stayed on as a teaching assistant after graduation.

Who was her aunt?

Her aunt was none other than the legendary artist Shen Shou (沈寿1874—1921), who pioneered the new style Suzhou Embroidery and uplifted  the art  to the world stage.  When we are on the topic of women in the Jiangnan  region, we must talk about embroidery. The two are almost inseparable.

In Zhang Rong’s  memoir, she wrote:

“My second elder sister was brought up to be a good wife and mother. She was intelligent and was very skillful with her hands. When she was still at the junior secondary school, she had already filled one trunk with her own embroidery work including bedding covers and pillow cases, and was ready for marriage.”

For women of that era, being good at embroidery was almost a prerequisite for a good marriage.

The topic of embroidery inevitably leads to the Suzhou-style, which in turn leads to Shen Shou and her life story.

Suzhou embroidery had been well known for ages. Almost every household in the suburb Mudu was engaged in this handicraft. Shen Yunzhi, a native of Suzhou, visited her maternal grandmother in Mudu often when she was young, and became interested in this traditional handicraft. She was both intelligent and diligent. From the age of 7, she studied embroidery, and by the age of 16 she was already well known as a master embroiderer. She often did work based on paintings done by master artists. At 20, she and Yu Jue were married. Yu Jue was good at painting. The young couple complemented each other with their skills.

In the year 1904, the Empress Dowager celebrated her 70th birthday. Yu Jue selected three paintings from his private collection. Yunzhi then turned them into embroideries which were presented to the Empress Dowager. The old lady was overjoyed when she saw the artwork, and she wrote the characters of “Fu” (福bliss) and “Shou”(寿longevity) as gifts for Yu Jue and Shen Yunzhi. Hence, Yunzhi changed her name to “Shen Shou”. She then went to Beijing to teach embroidery. Her niece Cuizhen followed her.

In 1911, Shen Shou’s work “The Queen of Italy” as a gift to Italy won her fame in Europe. In 1915, her work “Jesus” won first-class prize at the Panama Pacific Exposition.

In 1914, Zhang Jian  founded  the Nantong Embroidery Academy for Women. Shen Shou was appointed the Director and Chief Instructor. Her niece Cuizhen was among the students. The Academy was the first such school in China. Shen Shou taught many outstanding students. When she fell ill, Zhang Jian made sure she received the best medical treatment available. At the same time, he personally took down notes dictated by Shen Shou and compiled the book “Xuehuan Embroidery Art”.

Cuizhen was with her aunt  from Beijing to Nantong  for a total of 10 years. When Shen Shou fell ill, Cuizhen was at her side. When her aunt passed away, Cuizhen left Nantong and returned to  her hometown Suzhou.  There she taught embroidery at the Employment Skills Training Academy for Women for three years. In 1924, she followed her friend-cum-student  Yu Mengzhen to Changshu where she met Yu Mengying. She and Mengzhen ran an embroidery school at the Zhang residence.

In January 2010, I visited Suzhou Museum (designed by I.M.Pei, another Suzhou native). I saw a few pieces of Shen Shou’s work. I also saw some work by modern masters. My conclusion is that the art of Suzhou Embroidery has been making further progress since Shen Shou’s times. I also watched Master Embroiderer Cai Meiying working on a portrait modeled after “Mona Lisa”. After about 20 minutes of intensive concentration and handiwork, I could not detect any difference in the portrait. I could not help but marveled at the intensity and precision of the work involved in even a small piece. The women of Suzhou and of all Jiangnan did this work day after day , year after year, and generation after generation. How could one not be moved by their work and by them!

It is worth mentioning that Shen Shou and Yu Mengying’s  mother were of the same generation. The next generation lived to see the liberation of  women in China.







The Sworn Sisters in pictures


The first photo is a portrait of Shen Cuizhen, date unknown. The original is hung on the wall at Zou Taofen Residence in Shanghai.



The townhouse in Shanghai which Zou Taofen and Shen Cuizhen called home.  Please note the bamboo fence (called “Spear Bamboo Fence” in Shanghai) which has since been replaced by a cast iron fence.


Three  young girls. The one in the middle is Yu Mengzhen. The one standing is Ye Xiaowan who later married Yu Qimin, number 5 of the Yu siblings. The other girl is yet to be identified. The three wore school uniforms of the Suzhou Skills Training School for Women. The photo is dated June 1923. I surmise that one year later, Mengzhen and her teacher-cum-friend Shen Cuizhen went to Changshu. Who took the photograph? It could be a Yu brother.


This is a portrait photo of Dr Yin Muqiang cropped from the group photo taken at his son’s wedding in Shanghai.


A thousand roses bloom in my childhood garden overnight,

delicate and radiant in the morning sun light.

Picking up a huge flower I run and shout “Ma, look!”,

only to catch a whiff of sweet fragrance waking up

with tears on my cheeks, but roses nowhere in sight.

Sworn Sisters

Mengying was the eldest child in the Yu family. She had three brothers and two sisters. The youngest sister, Mengzhen ,ranking number six,  studied at the Suzhou Skills Training School for Women. The year she graduated, she left Suzhou for Changshu. Together with her was her close friend Shen Cuizhen who was an instructor teaching embroidery at the School. The two of them then set up a school for embroidery in the vacant rooms  at the back of the Zhang residence.  In those early years of the Republic, women eagerly sought financial independence. Acquiring the skills of embroidery was considered as  a feasible path to this goal. Mengying, Cuizhen, and Mengzhen  then took  solemn vows in a ceremony that bonded them as sworn sisters.

My father still remembers Liu Jiujiu and her best friend Shen Jiujiu ( Note: It is a Changshu custom to address mother’s brothers and sisters all as Jiujiu). They stayed in a room across the small courtyard from his room.  Shen stayed with the Zhang family   for over a year, most likely from mid-1924 to end of 1925.

Shen Cuizhen(沈粹缜1901-1997), a native of Suzhou, followed her aunt to Beijing when she was very young to study embroidery. Later she again followed her aunt to Nantong. After graduating from Nantong Academy of Embroidery, she stayed on as an assistant to her aunt who was in charge of the Academy. She was twenty when she left Nantong and returned to  Suzhou where she taught at the Skills Training School for Women.  “Baidu” and other sources are silent about how long she taught at this school. I surmise that Cuizhen was in Changshu in 1924-25. It follows that she stayed at the Suzhou school for 3 years. Shortly after leaving Changshu, Cuizhen and  Zou Taofeng were married  in January 1926, and settled down in Shanghai. In October of the same year, she gave birth to their first child, a boy.

For Zou Taofen (邹韬奋 1895-1944), 1926 was a pivotal year. He got married in January, and became a proud father in October. Also in the month of October, he took over the editorship at “Shenghuo Weekly”. He used his sharp pen to promote  social  justice. In only 7 years, this weekly became the most popular journal in China with an astonishing circulation of 150,000! Zou was totally immersed in his work. Cuizhen had to take on the task of running the household and raising their three children almost single-handedly. Zou had to go on exile a few times. Life for Cuizhen was far from being peaceful.

After “8.13”, Zou left Shanghai first for Wuhan, then Chongqing, and continued to publish newspapers  and journals  in support of the war against Japan.  Cuizhen and her children also reached Chongqing by way of Hong Kong. On April 6, 1940, Yu Mengying’s second daughter Zhang Shu  got married in Chongqing. Shen Cuizhen attended the wedding dinner with her eldest son. This is the last time Yu Mengying and her sworn sister Shen Cuizhen met. At that time, Yu’s granddaughter was  just short of being 11 month old. Shen’s son, then a 13-year old, carried her in his arms at the dinner while his mother and Yu Mengying chatted in their native Suzhou dialect.

While in Chongqing, Sung Chingling  (宋庆龄) introduced Cuizhen to her sister Meiling(宋美龄). Cuizhen and Meiling then worked together in various programs for relief of war orphans and wounded soldiers. They got along very well and made significant contributions  towards the war effort.

On July 24, 1944, Zou Taofen  died in Shanghai of illness. He was only 49. Shen Cuizhen’s two sons were taken to Yen’an and Subei by Chinese Communist Party for their education. Cuizhen and her daughter went into hiding in Wuxi.

After the founding of the People’s Republic, Cuizhen continued her work with Sung Chingling in children’s welfare and women’s affairs. During the Cultural Revolution, Zou Taofen and his Shenghuo Book Store were vilified, and Shen Cuizhen was prosecuted.

In May 1981, Sung Chingling fell seriously ill. Shen Cuizhen travelled to Beijing from Shanghai to keep Sung company day and night. The two of them had heart-heart long talks. Sung Chingling had Cuizhen promise that, if her sister Meiling should come back to Beijing, she would take good care of her.

On January 12, 1997, Shen Cuizhen passed away in Shanghai.

Cuizhen’s  best friend in her youth and sworn sister Yu Mengzhen married a medical doctor, a native of Changshu. Dr. Yin Muqiang(殷木强 1901-1976),who had a doctorial  degree from the Imperial University in Japan, was a renowned dermatologist. For many years, he had his own clinic in Shanghai. At one time he marketed the “Shenghuo Weekly” for Zou Taofen in Japan. From 1957, Dr. Yin was the director of the dermatology department at the Number 6 People’s Hospital in Shanghai. From his research work, he discovered that a Chinese herb Tujinpi could be used to control moulds.

Dr. Yin and his wife had two sons and one daughter.