Carrying the banner for Suzhou silk

2019-12-28 China Daily Editor:Gu Liping

A year and a half — that was how long Qi Qiulan, an expert in Suxiu, or Suzhou embroidery, and her team took to recreate a centuries-old Chinese painting with one of China's oldest traditional techniques.

The Suzhou embroidery artwork, titled The Propitious Lotus and based on the original work of renowned Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) artist Li Shida, was featured at this year's annual gala dinner of the National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR) in New York last month. It was a present for the committee's 2019 honoree, Ray Dalio, founder and co-chairman of Bridgewater Associates LP.

It was not the first time that the work of Qi, the third generation in her family of experts in Suzhou embroidery who started a business dedicated to developing the Chinese silk industry, shined on a global stage.

In 2010, her silk fashion brand Xiu Niang — which means "embroidery craftswomen" — exhibited at the Shanghai World Expo and has been a frequent presence at the world's fairs ever since.

Four years later, she and her team designed costumes for world leaders who attended the Beijing Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. And in 2016, the team created an official gift set for the Hangzhou G20 Summit.

"Silk culture and Suzhou embroidery are brilliant treasures of China," Qi told China Daily in a recent interview.

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized sericulture and silk craftsmanship of China as an intangible cultural heritage. Southeast Chinese city Suzhou has long been a hub for China's silk industry.

"I'm especially thankful for our city Suzhou and its thousand-year culture and history, which led us to those important occasions," she said.

Suzhou embroidery was founded in the southeast Chinese city around 2,000 years ago. In the early 20th century, the silk-weaving factory in Suzhou accounted for half of the world's silk exports.

"We take a lot of pride in passing down such a culture," said Qi. "We always make sure to keep the spirit of the craftsman, sticking to handcrafting our products."

Qi is devoted to restoring the traditional weaving techniques and production process. Recognized as the inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage of Chinese silk garment creative crafting, she founded the China Jiangnan Weaving Research Institute in 2016, hoping to preserve the craft.

"We are impressed from the bottom of our hearts when we learned how delicately our predecessors performed the tasks centuries ago," said Qi.

She said that her team is devoted to creating every piece of work with the same level of delicacy and craftsmanship.

"We do every piece of work inch-by-inch — we make sure that we never forget where we came from," Qi said.

For Qi, who was the youngest laureate of the National Cocoon Silk Industry's lifetime achievement award, preserving and reviving the traditional techniques are meaningful even in an age when proficiency seems all the more important.

"We cannot risk losing those techniques because seeing is believing — only when you witness firsthand how delicate the techniques are can you resonate with that part of the culture and history," she said.

She said that her workshop and the traditional crafts her team performed impressed Stephen A. Orlins, president of the NCUSCR, when he visited China earlier this year. That led him to introduce her on the stage in New York to prominent guests, including former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

The piece that she brought to the states is part of a project that Qi takes much pride in — remaking some renowned artists' masterpieces with embroidery techniques.

Qi said that next year she would bring to the Dubai International Expo a large-scale artwork adapted from Ming Dynasty artist Qiu Ying's well-recognized piece Along the River During the Qingming Festival. The project took her team three years to finish.

Three decades since its establishment, Qi's brand Xiu Niang has established more than 100 stores, including online stores on major Chinese e-commerce platforms.

"There are two perspectives to what I'm doing: tailoring the traditional crafts to today's everyday lifestyle and preserving a culture and a spirit," she said.

"I'm living in an age with great opportunities — our country is calling on the rejuvenation of traditional culture. So we want to pass on the techniques and the spirits and culture of craftsmen," she said.

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