In the Qing Dynasty, embroidery was extensively distributed in China with a wide variety in great numbers and different styles. Moreover, official institutions got involved in management, hence leading to the maturity and development of artistic embroidery for appreciation, i.e. four major schools of embroidery gradually took shape.
Suzhou in Jiangsu Province was the center of embroidery from the middle and late Qing Dynasty. The embroidery that came from that region was known as Suzhou Embroidery (su xiu). Sichuan Embroidery (shu xiu) was produced in Chengdu in Sichuan Province. Hunan Embroidery (xiang xiu) was created in Changsha in Hunan Province. Guangzhou Embroidery (guang xiu) came from Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. Chaozhou Embroidery (chao xiu) was from Chaozhou. Guangzhou Embroidery and Chaozhou Embroidery were both called Guangdong Embroidery (yue xiu). In fact, it was not an accident that they became popular.
Let’s first take a look at Suzhou Embroidery, which is one of the four famous embroidery schools with a two- thousand-year history. As the earliest real object of Suzhou Embroidery, an embroidered coffin poll was unearthed in 1981 in Gaoyou, Jiangsu Province, from the tomb of Madame Liu, wife of Liu Xu, Guangling King from the Western Han Dynasty (about 135 BC–87 AD). This cover was embroidered by means of chain stitch needlework, presenting vivid and smooth flowing clouds, birds, animals, flowers, grass, and curved tree-branches. In the 1950s, remaining parts of embroidered Buddhist scriptures were also unearthed from under the pagoda of Yunyan Temple (built in 961) in Huqiu, Suzhou. In Suzhou in the Song Dynasty, there were such workshops of embroidery as Court-Dress Lane (gunxiu fang), Brocade Embroidery Lane (jinxiu fang), Embroidered Clothes Lane (xiuyi fang), Embroidered Flower Lane (xiuhua nong), and Embroidery Thread Lane (xiuxian xiang), etc. where embroidery works were produced. In the Ming Dynasty, Suzhou became the center of the silk industry marked by “Silkworm-breeding in every household and embroidery in every family,” basically forming a style of meticulousness, elegance, and cleanness. In the Qing Dynasty, a variety of Suzhou Embroidery and lots of embroidery shops emerged. In Suzhou alone, there were over 150 embroidery shops with more than 40,000 embroiderers (FIGS. 25, 26, 27).
The establishment of the position of the Sichuan Embroidery school as the most famous one leaves no room for doubt. The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji) writes that Sichuan Province developed silk-weaving industry thanks to popular silkworm-breeding. In the Spring and Autumn Period, people in Sichuan Province were already trading their silk-woven products with present-day Thailand, which created necessary conditions for the emergence of embroidery. In the Eastern Jin Dynasty and Western Jin Dynasty, Sichuan embroidery, Shu brocade, gold, silver, gem, and jade were reputed as treasures of Sichuan. In the wake of the Tang Dynasty, there had been great demands for Sichuan embroidery among royal family members and people of all walks of life, hence making it famous across the country. In the Qing Dynasty, Sichuan Embroidery became outstanding from among those kinds of embroidery of local production. At that time, noted painters got involved with the design of the embroidery. Painters and embroiderers worked together, having constantly enhanced the art and techniques of Sichuan Embroidery. Thanks to its prosperity, Sichuan Embroidery naturally developed into one of the four famous schools in China (FIG. 28).
The formation of Hunan Embroidery was also inevitable due to its long history. In the Warring States Period, chain stitch of embroidery was frequently seen in Hunan Province. With a history of over two thousand years, it is marked by vivid patterns and meticulous craftsmanship. In the Song Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty, patterns and needlework of Hunan Embroidery became increasingly mature, quite similar to its style nowadays. In the Qing Dynasty, Hunan Embroidery was seen all over the rural and urban areas of the province, with noted embroiderers coming into being successively (FIG. 29). As pointed out by some art connoisseurs in the Qing Dynasty, Hunan Embroidery was free from the manuscripts of Chinese paintings. Instead, it underwent revision according to the needs of embroidery craftsmanship. As a result, works of Hunan Embroidery not only kept the strong points of paintings, but also gave better play to the beauty and exquisiteness of embroidery, hence having formed a unique style of art.
Guangdong Embroidery, including Guangzhou Embroidery and Chaozhou Embroidery, also has a fairly long history. Guangzhou Embroidery is fond of applying strong colors, prosperous scenes to bring about a joyful and bustling atmosphere (FIG. 30). Chaozhou Embroidery is featured by gold thread couching stitch, forming an unrestrained and bold bas-relief effect, which is different from other kinds of embroidery (FIG. 31). The craftsmanship of embroidery in Guangdong Province in the Tang Dynasty was already quite extraordinary. In the mid-Ming Dynasty, thanks to convenient transportation of costal trade in Guangdong Province, Guangdong Embroidery became world- famous. For a period of time, Guangdong-embroidered articles were reputed as “Chinese gifts for the West.” Works of Guangdong Embroidery are preserved in British, French, German, and American museums, having promoted the popularity and development of embroidery in British and French royal courts (FIGS. 32).