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.

About the Bound Feet

Chapter 10 About the Bound Feet

Yu Mengying was born in 1892, the 18th year of the reign of Guangxu Emperor, two years before the China-Japan War of 1894-95. At that time, all well-born girls of respectable families had to have their feet bound. Mengying was no exception. But her mother loosened the binding cloth from time to time so that Mengying would suffer less pain, and her  feet were considerably larger than most of her peers. In November 1937, the Japanese brought war to China. Mengying, then 45,  walked  from Liyang in Jiangsu Province all the way to Tongling in Anhui Province, a direct distance of 240 km. There  she and her family found a boat that took them to safety. Her feet, bound though they were, saved her life.

When Mengying was eight years old, the eight-power army invaded Beijing and the Empress Dowager escaped to Xi’an. That year, 1900, Zhang Youyi was born.  When Youyi was five, the Qing government abolished the examination system. The whole old structure shook to its roots. The five-year old cried and fought until her mother gave up binding her feet. The young girl won! She grew up, married and then divorced the poet Hsu Zhimo. She went overseas to study ad returned to have an illustrious career of her own.

Another seven years passed. In 1907, Hu Ruihua was born. She followed her father who worked on the Beijing-Shenyang Railway. When she was five, Xinhai Revolution brought  down the Qing. Like many of her contemporaries, she did not have her feet bound. In 1923, the girl was 16 and found herself in Shanghai, where  the new movie industry just began to boom. She metamorphosed into the Butterfly (Hu Die, her screen name), movie queen, and public idol.

Shanghai of the 1930s — that is the place and the time still missed by many as a golden age. Is it because of the appeal of a glittering metropolis? Or the movies and songs ? Yes, all these and more, but the most important reason is found in the beautiful modern women on and off the screen that became the symbol of a new era.

Of course I am talking about Shanghai. What about an obscure county town named Changshu?

In The Annals of Changshu 1990 edition, there are a few lines on this subject:

1908           A Changshu woman Yin Hu Jingfang formed “The Society for Natural Feet”                          calling on women to resist foot-bing.

1916           October 21, the county government reissued an order from the Ministry of                            Education, banning all foot-binding.

The elegant Qipao, modified by the fashion-conscious women of Shanghai, began to be associated with the new-age women of China in the 1930s.  Women’s  hairstyle  also went through a revolution. The awkward “liuhai” gave way to the Hollywood-inspired  style of short wavy hairs. With high heels and Max Factor cosmetics, Chinese women seemed to have astonished the whole world overnight with their beauty and style.

A  Shanghai  studio designed in the 30s the wall calendar advertisements for a popular brand of dyed fabrics. The “Miss Happiness” model is the epitome of the new image of a modern Chinese woman. You look at her, she smiles back at you, and you are excused if you forget that 70  over years separate her from you.

Organ in Pictures


This organ is of the “Ming Feng” (Singing Phoenix) brand, manufactured in Shanghai , probably in the 1930s. It can produce a flute-like sound if one of the four knobs is pulled out. The organ has a built-in chair which can be pulled out as shown in this picture. This piece of instrument is currently displayed at “Old Shanghai Tea House” in the old shopping area called Lao Chenghuan Temple in Shanghai.


This picture circa 1920  shows a primary school, the pioneering Xueqian School in Changshu, music class in session. An organ is used to accompany the singing by the pupils.

An Organ in Mengying’s Dowry

Chapter 9

An Organ in  Mengying’s Dowry

Zhang Yuhe took the boat to Suzhou for his bride. He traveled on Yuanhetang canal. About ten years ago, steam-powered  boats replaced the man-powered wooden boats. One wheel ship would have two or three wooden boats in tow. It was called “lunchuan”, wheel ship, because it carried  an enormous  wheel on the starboard. Later  the wheel was replaced by the screw, but the name “lunchuan” stayed in the new Chinese vocabulary.

Competition for passengers was fierce among the shipping lines that plied the rivers and canals. The boiler of a ship could not take the pressure and exploded in one incident, killing and wounding some passengers and crew. Yuhe’s boats returned to Changshu the next day, again towed behind a wheel ship, with the bride and her dowry on board. In addition to the mandatory rosewood wardrobe, chest of drawers, the eight-immortal table and chairs, there was a “feng  qin”, a wind qin, qin being the name for many  music instrument, that is, of course, the organ. A piano is a steel qin.

Yu Mengying could pedal the organ  (yes pedal, because the two foot pedals produce the wind, and thus the music). She learned it in a girls job-skill school. She was probably on one of  the earliest batches of girls going to this school which taught basic skills such as embroidery, organ playing, in addition to Chinese and even some elementary English. If not for the marriage, she would have learned to be a midwife.

Keyboard instruments are not indigenous to China. The introduction of organ can probably be traced to 1600 when Mateo Ricci, who lived in Macao at that time, presented the “Great Western Qin” to Emperor Wanli of Ming Dynasty. The church organ was then simplified and adapted for use in China, first for church services, then church affiliated schools and finally  the public and private schools. The success of the organ as an instrument for the common people in China  is well worth further study, and I believe, it is connected with the introduction of the numerical music notation which was introduced also from Europe.

The wind qin in Mengying’s dowry was definitely the fashion in upper middle class Chinese families in 1910-1930s. It is cheap and light in weight and was manufactured in China. It is easy for a young woman to learn to play. My mother could also pedal the organ and sing. She acquired this skill in the same girls’ school in Suzhou. After she graduated, she became a school teacher, first in Changshu, then in Chongqing during the war. I remember my mother singing a song while pedaling an organ. She must have taught the same song to her school pupils.

(Please see the book for the song.)

Early Masterpieces of Pang Xungqin

Such is Paris 如此巴黎 1931

“Such is Paris”, oil on canvas, is a collage Pang painted in 1931, collage being a  popular art form in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. The original work  was destroyed by the artist himself during the “Anti-Rightist” movement in the late 1950s.

Daughters of the Times时代的女儿 1934

“Daughters of the Times”, oil on canvas dated 1934, was also destroyed by the artist himself.