Dwindling group of artists depict tapestry of life
By Qu Zhi
AMID balls of wool in hundreds of colors, Wang Liping sits, holds a silver needle and skillfully goes about her work. Once in a while, she pauses and looks up at the photograph she is using to create her tapestry. Sometimes she splits a thread into four strands. After that she carefully blends three strands of different colors into one and twists them together for a vivid presentation.
When the work is done, it will be an elaborate piece depicting a section of the Dunhuang grottos. The work is so detailed that it even shows the subtle gradation of light and shade and signs of age on the sculptures.
“It will probably take me a year to finish this one,” says Wang, a leading Shanghai tapestry maker.
In a two-story building with a grey facade adjacent to the riverside in the Pudong New Area, Wang and three others are quietly focused on their needlepoint works. It’s the city’s only tapestry workshop.
As one of the famous Chinese arts and a Shanghai intangible cultural heritage, Shanghai needlepoint tapestry uses pure wool to be stitched through a stiff cotton mesh fabric. Unlike others who use satin and silk, wool produces no glare under light and features richer colors.
“They look like an oil painting,” the 52-year-old tells Shanghai Daily.
Needlepoint is an exotic art in China, according to Bao Yanhui, the workshop’s art director.
“A prototype of needlepoint appeared in Germany as early as the 14th century,” Bao says, adding that Europeans started using linen and hemp fabrics in the 16th century to embroider tapestries, table mats and bedspreads.
European tapestry prevailed around the 17th century, when Louis XIV of France made extensive use of tapestries to decorate his palaces and royal gardens. However, England was the center of European tapestry. Women from aristocrats to ordinary housewives practiced the art. After the Industrial Revolution, machines largely replaced handmade tapestries. But not before European merchants introduced the craft to China.
After the first Sino-British Opium War in 1840, St. Ignatius Cathedral (now Xujiahui Cathedral) nuns in Shanghai taught Western needlepoint techniques to followers and rural inhabitants as a way to spread Christianity. According to Bao, this was the origin of Shanghai tapestry.
Chinese women soon became skilled in tapestry due to their knowledge of local embroidery skills. They began turning colorful British wool into patterns on unacquainted linen meshes, adding some traditional varieties of stitches and needlework.
Although the craft originated in Europe, Bao says Chinese perfected it and call it rongxiu.
“Rongxiu can’t be done by machines. It needs to be handmade. There are more than 10 procedures, everything from picking the wool and dying colors to splitting and twisting treads. Each finished work is unique,” Bao says.
Even a simple step requires much effort. Wool is imported from either New Zealand or Australia and accompanied by silver threads and cross-stitch floss. The wool needs to have a somewhat furry texture to ensure each tapestry has a solid shape.
A Shanghai tapestry can sell for between 50,000 yuan (US$8,150) to 100,000 yuan per square meter.
On the first floor of the workshop, a gallery displays various tapestries featuring grand Chinese landscapes to Western-like paintings.
Tang Mingmin, the inheritor of the Shanghai Tapestry project in the National Intangible Cultural Heritage, says the hardest part to do is human figures as artists need to arrange the threads in a small area to perfect facial features. Tang, also one of the artists in the workshop, says they often use more than 100 colors just to do a lip.
In 1943, Shanghai’s Liu Peizhen invented the technique of blending different threads to make color transitions more natural.
Today’s remaining needlepoint masters once worked at Red Star Needlepoint Company and Bao was the head of the company.
“Shanghai tapestry was glorious during the 1970’s and 1980’s,” Bao says. “Back then most works were exported and we had countless orders. We had more than 300 employees.”
However, in the 1990s many tapestry companies went bankrupt, including Red Star, sine the government didn’t support the industry, Bao adds.
Now their workshop has only 12 artists, who have an average age of 60. The youngest is Wang at 52.
“With the low pay, the job here is tough. Plus we are getting old,” Bao adds.
When Wang started as an apprentice at Red Star Needlepoint Company she was only 17.
“At first it was so boring and I thought about quitting many times,” she says. “You did the same thing repeatedly for eight hours every shift.”
But after three years of practice on basic images and imitating tapestry works from her mentor, Wang became hooked.
“The sense of achievement is huge when you finish a work,” she says, smiling. “Once I grasped the key to using colors and dealing with complicated images it became very interesting.”
In recent years, Wang has learned how to dye wools. Previously, they had specialists who did it but they all retired.
“No one would take the torch so I had to learn it myself,” she says.
Wang has had many apprentices over the years, but none of them had the passion and determination to stick with the craft. This is arguably the biggest challenge facing Shanghai tapestry art. All the needlepoint masters in the workshop want to pass on their experience and skills to the young generation for free. But since the work is laborious and it’s difficult to make money without experience, no one is willing to learn these days, according to Bao.
“Sometimes I worry that no one is going to carry on this culture,” Wang says, “and Shanghai tapestry will gradually fade away.”