Intangible Cultural Heritage Craftsman | Zhang Xue: A Young "Su Embroidery Gentleman"

Intangible Cultural Heritage Craftsman | Zhang Xue: A Young "Su Embroidery Gentleman"

In spring, flowers bloom at the touch of jade fingers, while birds grow feathers following the golden needle." This is how the Tang Dynasty poet Luo Yin described the skills of embroidery craftsmen. Today, a young post-85s generation individual, known as the "Su Embroidery Gentleman," Zhang Xue, integrates traditional embroidery techniques into modern aesthetics, exploring new avenues for the inheritance and development of Su embroidery culture.

Originating over 2000 years ago, Suzhou embroidery was listed in China's first batch of national intangible cultural heritage in 2006. Suzhou embroidery is known for its "exquisite elegance," with Zhenhu embroidery being the most renowned.

Born into a family known for Zhenhu embroidery, Zhang Xue grew up witnessing his mother's skillful needlework in front of the frame, immersed in the world of Suzhou embroidery with its vibrant or elegant and timeless works. Traditionally, embroidery was considered a women's craft, and as a man, Zhang Xue initially did not inherit the family business. He majored in international economics and trade in college and worked in futures investment after graduation, a life seemingly unrelated to traditional handicrafts. However, during a visit to his hometown, Zhang Xue discovered that despite its past glory boasting "eight thousand embroidery artisans," Zhenhu had few practitioners from his generation. "Among our generation, there are less than 50 people under 35 engaged in Suzhou embroidery," Zhang Xue told reporters.

Regretting the lack of successors in traditional crafts, Zhang Xue resolutely picked up the silver needle, embodying the spirit of a "master embroiderer." Teaching Zhang Xue the art of Suzhou embroidery was none other than his mother, Xue Jindi, a representative inheritor of Suzhou embroidery intangible cultural heritage. Without discouragement, his mother secretly rejoiced at her son's desire to inherit the craft of Suzhou embroidery. She meticulously imparted her skills, teaching him with utmost care and dedication.

As Zhang Xue diligently pursued her craft, she pondered continuously: the creators of exquisite Suzhou embroidery, the artisans, work tirelessly, yet their income remains low, and there is a serious loss of talent; the craftsmanship involved in creating high-quality Suzhou embroidery is exquisite, time-consuming, and costly, destined to be a niche market, while low-end machine-made embroidery floods the market, posing a threat to traditional crafts.

With the changing times, people's aesthetics evolve constantly. How can the art of Suzhou embroidery, which has always been closely linked to classical fine arts, keep pace with the times? After nearly seven years of exploration, Zhang Xue found a unique answer.

"Suzhou embroidery traditional needle techniques comprise 9 major categories and over 40 varieties," Zhang Xue said. "But in everyday Suzhou embroidery works, less than 10 of these techniques are commonly used."

After compiling all the Suzhou embroidery needle techniques, Zhang Xue had been pondering: besides the commonly used ones, were these needle techniques invented and passed down by predecessors destined to be forgotten? How could these precious cultural heritage be revitalized? One day, while watching a documentary about the stars, an inspiration struck Zhang Xue.

"Seeing the orbits of the planets, it felt like seeing rings of silver threads, and I immediately thought, the orbits could be depicted using the Suzhou embroidery technique of 'Panjin Xiu' (coiling gold embroidery)," Zhang Xue said. "Seeing the sun radiating light around it, it resembled the 'Jitao' (collective stitches) technique in Suzhou embroidery... And like that, each planet corresponded to a different needle technique, gradually coming to life." Thus, a masterpiece titled "Starry Sky," showcasing the rich needle techniques of Suzhou embroidery with a touch of futurism, was born under Zhang Xue's embroidery needle. It won the Gold Award at the Jiangsu Province Art Expo.

Diverging from the densely packed traditional Suzhou embroidery patterns, Zhang Xue created a series of impressionistic pieces titled "Four Seasons" with extremely simple and tranquil compositions. Due to their dynamic and fresh creativity, these pieces brought him back the honor of a gold award.

Not content with creation solely on a two-dimensional plane, Zhang Xue also introduced Suzhou embroidery into the world of three-dimensional modeling, crafting the sculptural piece titled "Mountains." This year, he collaborated with the renowned Czech artist Petr Písařík, using classical Chinese Suzhou embroidery techniques to express modern themes, resulting in the fusion of ancient and modern art from both East and West — their collaborative piece, "Source."

Under Zhang Xue's innovative efforts, Suzhou embroidery has appeared on watch dials, headphones, and even jewelry, serving as a traditional yet novel decorative art element that re-enters the modern lifestyle of contemporary people. "Innovation is not about abandoning tradition, but about integrating tradition better into modern life," Zhang Xue said.

In the future, this Suzhou embroidery inheritor hopes to build a Suzhou embroidery brand that reaches out to the world. On one hand, they aim to create more excellent works, and on the other hand, they will continue to promote Suzhou embroidery culture, allowing more people to understand and participate.

Just as the beauty of embroidery is woven stitch by stitch with diligence and patience, spreading the inheritance and innovation of Suzhou embroidery, Zhang Xue said, "It will be a slow and steady journey, step by step."

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