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2,000-year-old embroidery regains luster

Updated: 2016-08-05

It is not common in China to see a young man doing embroidery.

But Jiang Tongwan, in his 20s, owns a workshop in Hunan province. He is one of the first 11 male vocational school graduates major in Hunan style embroidery.

"Many people did't understand my choice," he said. "I would then tell them that Hunan embroidery is part of our traditional culture which we should pass on."

Chinese embroidery boasts a long history of several thousand years. Xiang Xiu, or Hunan embroidery, is one of the four major styles. It features light and shading that give the picture a three-dimensional effect.

The industry peaked in the 1970s and 1980s but began dwindling after an embroidery plant in Changsha, which employed about 30,000 craftsmen, closed down. The revenue of the plant was more than one million yuan (about $152,200).

"The craftsmen worked at home," recalled Zeng Yingming, general manager of the Hunan Embroidery City Group. "Almost every household had someone doing embroidery."

The situation changed in the 1990s, when many plants, including the one in Changsha, closed.

"There were many causes for the depression," said He Chun, an expert in cultural industry. "Fake products, obsolete designs and high prices were the main causes, which resulted from lack of intellectual property awareness and shortage of talents."

In the worst days, the Hunan Embroidery City Group had only two workshops and four workers.

Zeng then cut the production of traditional ornamental pieces by 80 percent and turned to manufacturing articles for daily use.

"Capes to Spain, shoes to Italy, dresses to Japan and school uniforms to the Republic of Korea," he said. "We do everything to meet the needs of our customers." Daily use commodities now account for up to 95 percent of the company's products.

After finding that local people liked roses at an exhibition in Spain, Zeng changed the traditional embroidery pattern of peony to rose.

Now the group has grown into a modern enterprise with more than 10,000 workers and an output of 1.5 billion yuan a year. Its products are sold to more than 10 countries. The export stands at about 30 million U.S. dollars last year.

The reform was not without criticism.

A Xiang Xiu master, who declined to be named, told that it was a pity for an art form with a history of 2,000 years to be used for cheap commodities.

"I really don't want to see the brand of Xiang Xiu lose its taste," the master said. "The traditional art form is not in the museum," Zeng said.

"For the traditional handicraft art, the only way to survive is to combine art with marketing, develop new products that can meet a variety of demands nowadays," Zeng said.

Success of the companies generated job opportunities.

To provide workers for embroidery companies like Zeng's, the Hunan Embroidery Research Institute and the Hunan Arts and Crafts Vocational College helped train traditional skills.

Wu Jianmei, a 56-year-old Hunan embroidery master, has taught more than 7,000 people in the past three decades.

"From color matching to threading the needles, I taught them everything," she said. "I would like to see them create their own masterpieces, so that the art form can be passed on."

Source: Xinhua