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Chengdu Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum showcases silk artistry

( China Daily )

Updated: 2016-09-22

Peng Shiping looks attentively as her 28-year-old daughter Peng Lin is embroidering a fish on silk.

The 55-year-old master of Shu embroidery would stop her daughter if she found her stitches were imperfect.

The scenario takes place in the Chengdu Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum in the capital of Sichuan province, where the Pengs are staff members.

Caroline Portsmouth, an English teacher from Britain, enjoys visiting the museum, which has joined the must-see list of many other sights in Chengdu.

"I like the museum because I like silk. The museum narrates the history of the Chinese silk industry and displays exquisite works of Shu embroidery and brocade, two important symbols of the 3,000-year-old city," she said.

China is the cradle of the silk industry and people began using silk in primitive cultures at around 7,000 years ago. Silk fabrics have been produced in the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys for over 5,000 years.

Sichuan's history of sericulture can be traced back to more than 4,000 years ago, when the province was called Shu.

More than 2,000 years ago, Sichuan's brocade was exported throughout Asia via the South Silk Road during the Warring States Period (403-221 BC).

The ancient silk trade route started in Chengdu, passed through Yunnan province and then on to Myanmar, India and Central Asia, ending in Europe. It started 200 years before the North Silk Road, said professor Tu Hengxian of the College of Textiles of the Shanghai-based Donghua University (formerly China Textile University).

Together with the Song and Yun brocades of Jiangsu province and Zhuang brocade in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, Shu brocade is one of China's four most famous schools of brocade. It is the oldest school, from which the other three evolved.

So important was Sichuan’s brocade trade by the time of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), a special official bearing the title Brocade Officer was appointed by the emperor.

The Brocade Officer is like today’s minister of textiles. Instead of working in the capital Chang'an, which is today's Xi'an in Shaanxi province, he stayed in Chengdu, said Huang Nengfu, a professor of arts and design at Tsinghua University.

Brocade refers to the colorful silk woven textiles. It is the most elaborate and gorgeous textile treasure.

"Due to its complex production technique, high cost of time and labor, the price of brocade used to be as high as gold," said Xie Huiru, a 90-year-old former weaver, who started learning brocade-making at the age of nine because of poverty.

In 2006, Shu brocade weaving techniques were included on the list of China's Intangible Cultural Heritage by the State Council.

In the Chengdu Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum, visitors can see brocade featuring the giant panda, flowers and birds, famous works of calligraphy and paintings, as well as China's folk customs.

One of the most eye-catching sights is dahualou, which literally translates as big jacquard platform. It is a wood loom built in the late 18th century. Made entirely of wood, dahualou does not have a single nail to connect different parts. It can be detached and reassembled easily.

There are only three original dahualou looms still in existence in the country. They are in the National Museum of China, Sichuan Provincial Museum and Chengdu Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum.

To enable visitors to see how workers weave brocade, the Shu Brocade Academy which owns the Chengdu Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum has made five replicas of the dahualou looms.

Visitors to the museum can see He Bin, a 52-year-old master weaver, and his apprentices weave with dahualou looms just as their ancient counterparts.

Holding the highest professional title in the country's brocade industry, He has worked as a weaver for 34 years.

One of the most impressive displays in the museum is a red silk dragon robe modeled on the garment on the bronze statue of a barefoot man with anklets and clenched hands in the Sanxingdui Museum in Guanghan, Sichuan.

The 2.62-meter-high, 180-kilogram statue is thought to represent a king of the Shu Kingdom.

Dating back 3,100 years, the king's statue is crowned with a sun motif and coated with three layers of tight, short sleeved bronze "clothing," which is decorated with a dragon pattern and overlaid with a checked ribbon.

Huang Nengfu, an eminent researcher in Chinese clothing from different dynasties, considers the garment to be the country's oldest existing dragon robe.

Thinking the pattern is the work of the famous Shu Embroidery, he has had the red silk dragon robe made on the basis of the garment of the king and donated the robe to the museum.

The robe has changed the traditional view that Shu Embroidery began in the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Instead, it shows Shu Embroidery appeared in the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC), according to Wang Yuqing, a Taiwan-based Chinese clothing historian.

The skill of Shu Embroidery was included on the list of China's Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006 by the State Council and the Ministry of Culture.

Shu Embroidery is one of the four schools of embroidery in China together with the Su Embroidery in Jiangsu province, the Xiang Embroidery in Hunan province and the Yue Embroidery in Guangdong province.

Works of Shu Embroidery featuring the giant panda, crane, golden carp, hibiscus, peony, lotus, bamboo as well as Chinese landscape paintings grace the eye in the museum.

Some of the works have been embroidered by Peng who is best known for his double-sided embroidery – his needlework depicts two ancient celebrities on one side and two pandas on the other.

Peng started learning embroidery techniques from his father Peng Yongxing at 15. The elder Peng was the first in the Shu embroidery sector to win the title of China Embroidery Art Master from the China National Arts and Crafts Society.

Due to hard work and low income, not many people learn to be embroiders.

To Peng's delight, his only daughter Peng Lin likes stitching. The English major at Xihua University in Chengdu used to work in the hospitality industry in Chengdu.

Because of her like for embroidery, she started working in the museum together with her father.

Visitors interested in how embroiders work on the spot can see the father and daughter working together in a quiet corner of the museum.

Contact the writer at zhangzhiling@chinadaily.com.cn

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