A long forgotten style of embroidery that today has captured the heart of many, each stitch represents the soul and spirit of the city of Wuhan.
On "Hubei Day”, an event held at the China Pavilion of the Expo of Milano in 2015, the "Chu Style", or the style of Hubei, an ancient Han Embroidery technique, was displayed to the Italian people for the first time ever. And this is where our story starts.
But first, what is so peculiar about the Han Embroidery?
It’s a style of embroidery known for its gorgeous colors and stunning ornamental stitching, that in each piece of masterfully created embroidery conveys the culture of the people that created it, and the sacred symbols that they are devoted to. This style of embroidery is particular because it features a phoenix in most of its artworks. A typical animal pattern of the Han Embroidery and the Chu people, who worship this sacred creature, as part of their culture for thousands of years.
How is this style of embroidery connected to Wuhan?
Wuhan is the capital of Hubei Province.
I settled down in Wuhan in the mid-1970s, and it has been so long since my arrival that I now regard myself as a native citizen.
In my childhood memories, the city was nothing but ordinary to non-Wuhan residents and the people of Wuhan were thought to be bold, audacious, often expressing themselves in a loud and firm way.
At that time, China still hadn’t opened up with any reforms.
Most people were busy trying to make a living, they would never think of owning a piece of expensive silk clothing, let alone one with fine embroidery, patterns and decorations.
High-end products, like embroidered garments, could most probably be found in the Hankou Department Store for Arts and Crafts.
For this reason, the phrase "Han Embroidery" sounded very much strange to me throughout my childhood and adolescence.
After I got my first job, I had many opportunities to meet celebrities from the art circles.
Among them, the names of Huang Shenghui and Ren Benrong were ones that I heard often, and of course, their names are related to the Han Embroidery.
When I was young, I had no knowledge of this art, mainly because it was being forgotten by many, a steady decline that accompanied it with the passing of time.
However, this oblivion was just temporary.
As the pattern that characterizes this style of embroidery, the Han Embroidery would eventually be reborn with renewed glories from the ashes of its disappearance. Just like a phoenix, the pattern it always displays.
The place where Wuhan is located was called "Jingchu" in ancient times. "Jing" and "Chu" had the same original meaning, vine branches, metaphorically referring to thorny problems or obstacles.
It indicates that the Chu people are tenacious in the face of danger and dare to go through hardships and never surrender. The development of the Han Embroidery resembles the bold characters of the Wuhan people, unyielding but delicate, and reflects the city's temperament featuring the "pioneering spirit and relentless pursuit of excellence."
The Han Embroidery is known for its bold choices of colors, which produce strong feelings in the onlookers mind; the patterns are rich in details and highly decorative, demonstrating the charm of the Chu style.
Wooden green, fiery red, yellowish brown, jet black and bright white are the five main colors, among which red and black are in sharp contrast to represent the magnificence and elegance of the Jingchu culture.
The embroidery Masters, say that the Han Embroidery has a history of about 2,200 years as it has been found in the unearthed cultural relics of the Mawangdui Han Tombs. Wuhan has three towns: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. During the Xianfeng Period of the Qing Dynasty, there was a weaving and embroidery bureau in Hankou, attracting embroiderers from all over the country.
In the late Qing Dynasty, a large number of embroidery shops were opened in Wuchang and Hankou. At that time, there was an embroidery street in Hankou composed of nearly 40 shops with tens of thousands of embroiderers. It was said that "every family and household embroidered".
However, the street was destroyed in the War of Resistance against the Japanese Aggression. After these events, the art of Han Embroidery started diminishing, and the techniques were lost to the younger generations.
After the 1980s, the Han Embroidery gained some development. In addition to small art pieces and clothing used in theatrical plays, it was used to decorate a number of items such as curtains, cloaks, quilt covers, pillowcases, clothes, and screens. At that time, a craftsman named Ren Benrong, seized the opportunities brought by the reform and opening-up, and resumed his embroidery business.
Ren, a provincial representative that inherited the technique, was born to a family specialized in the Han Embroidery. He has mastered 50 different types of stitching. He was born in the Hankou embroidery street, in 1935.
At the age of 12, he became an apprentice and then the 4th-generation inheritor of the Han Embroidery in modern times. When he was learning this art, he worked hard from early morning to late night to perfect his skills. Others would finish their apprenticeship in four years, but he did in nine.
In 1959, Ren was responsible for the design and production of a huge mural in the Hubei Hall of the Great Hall of the People. In the 21st century, with meticulous management efforts, his studio has grown to an impressive scale. And regardless of the success, Ren would not allow himself to slow down working, instead he started training the younger generations into the art of Han Embroidery, as he felt the need to pass this art on.
Influenced by the city’s inclusive and open character, Ren, a senior artist, has not only embroidered all the patterns that he mastered and passed them down to younger generations, but he has also travelled from place to place to collect the fragments of embroidery that were produced during the Qing Dynasty. Thanks to years of efforts, he sorted out and produced more than 2,000 patterns. He even took a few apprentices from other countries.
Under Ren’s influence, his daughter and granddaughter have also become municipal representatives, inheritors of the Han Embroidery. The three generations once worked together to pass down this art.
On June 14, 2008, Han Embroidery was approved by the State Council as the second batch of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritages that numbered VII-75.
After this great achievement, I’ve kept hearing many news about Ren from time to time: his works were collected, he published books, took international apprentices, and released the standards of the Han Embroidery as the main draftsman.
Unfortunately, I heard that Master Ren passed away this April at the age of 87. I could only imagine him leaving this world with a huge smile and a lot of pride, because thanks to his passion the next two generations of his family have all devoted themselves to the Han Embroidery, and his successors will be able to pursue greater excellence and achievements.
He must be satisfied with the development of this intangible cultural heritage as there have been 22 "master" inheritors of different levels, and the traditional art has been revived with renewed glories into a new era.
Now everyone in Wuhan knows of the Han Embroidery, and all its citizens take pride in the revival of this local art. It has been called the "chief representative of intangible cultural heritages" of the city. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC Presenting Hubei Province in 2018, it was the only national-level intangible cultural heritage demonstrated on site.
In this light, the Han Embroidery has become the best representation of the city, especially in its international cooperation with the rest of the world.
The Han Embroidery has been invigorated thanks to the inheritors who continue to give classes, blaze new trails, and take the techniques to rural areas to improve people’s income. These are the efforts that have made possible for its name to be heard again. These amazing masters of the craft, have also managed to export the Han Embroideries to a broader international market, so that the world gets to know it and fall in love with it and the city of Wuhan.
And this is how, on "Hubei Day”, the Han Embroidery art was shown at an event held at the China Pavilion of the Expo of Milano in 2015.