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.