The summer is fading away

At the West Lake in Hangzhou, there is a quiet corner with a large patch of lotus plants. Ling spotted two late blooming flowers and I found  a “shower head” with lotus seeds inside which will soon fall back into the mud. Next spring the seeds will germinate and in summer the lotus blossoms  will be back in their full glories. For more than a thousand years, the lotus, the plant with its leaves and the flowers, has symbolized purity against its muddy origin, and  has attracted generation after generation of Chinese poets and painters. The lotus pond is also a small ecosystem. Wait! What is stirring underneath the leaves? Ah, a duck peddles in the forest of lotus plants searching for her next meal.

In Shanghu Lake in Changshu, workers  picked up buckets of lingjiao (water chestnuts) early in the morning. Our hosts bought a few kilos and we ate the tender ones right away. So fresh, so juicy!

In the wetland countryside of the Yangtse River delta, water-born plants will soon  shed their leaves  and  go to sleep. The summer is fading away…



Liangzhu Culture (良渚文化)

Liangzhu is a small rural town about an hour’s drive from Hangzhou city center on the way to Huzhou. In 1938, archeologists made significant findings in several neolithic sites around this town. More sites around the Lake Taihu later were found to be of the same age , that is, 3000-2000 bce, and similarly contain black pottery and very finely worked jade objects. In 1959, the term Liangzhu Culture was officially recognized.
Finally, in 2005, an earthen wall, or what is left of it, measuring 1800 meter by 1500 meter was discovered near the town. At the base it measures 40-60 meters. Today we can view the archeological findings in a beautiful new museum near the wall, and an area of 38 sq km which covers many sites has been put under control.
All the school textbooks tell us that the Chinese civilization originated in the Yellow River basin. The Yangtse River delta and the Lake Taihu region were said to be barbaric and made no contribution to it. Now we know that it is not true.
A friend in Hangzhou brought my wife and myself to the museum a few days ago. Next to the wall are green rice paddies. The people who lived here five thousand years ago were already planting rice.
Now I am reading about Liangzhu, which means “A Good Isle in the Water”.

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.

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.