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Eternal blossoms made with silk and wire

Upsurge of interest in art of velvet flowers leads to a renaissance in ancient Jiangsu tradition, Lin Qi reports.

By Lin Qi | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-19 06:02

Velvet flowers in various colors and shapes made by Zhao Shuxian and his team. [Photo by Wang Qiqi/China Daily]

Mutually inspired

Li Lu, a full-time artisan in her 20s at Zhao's workshop, stumbled into the trade a few years ago during a visit to the museum. She was taken by the magical way hands can turn silk into long-lasting blossoms that are graceful and serene.

"I majored in calligraphy at university, but I was confused about my future career as a professional calligrapher," she says. "Then one day, an encounter with the velvet flowers made me feel that maybe I could develop a career out of it.

"Because, you see, practicing calligraphy and making handicrafts are the same in many ways. They both require a peaceful mind, diligent fingers and imagination, in which I had been trained for years."

Li didn't know at the time that back in the late 1990s, her future mentor faced a similarly difficult situation. For a time, he made chickens, eggs and other items ordered by clients abroad, mostly in Europe and the Americas, who needed pieces for Christmas and Easter decorations. When business dropped sharply, he left the factory to make a better living and found a job as an editor at a map-publishing house.

Things changed in 2006 when the craft was recognized as part of the cultural heritage of Jiangsu. As a master of the overall process, Zhao was given the accolade of provincial-level inheritor and opened his own studio.

"I threw myself back into the trade," Zhao says, "not only because I wanted to revive it, but also to train new generations so that young people would fall in love with velvet flowers."

One of the changes he has made is to replace highly-saturated colors — traditionally favored to create a festive mood — with lighter hues with an undertone of gray that suits the tastes of the younger generation.

He also makes velvet flower paintings in which he infuses the rich palette of oil paintings with the tranquil, poetic mood of Chinese paintings through the use of liubai, a technique that introduces areas of blank space to pictures.

The broadcast of the phenomenally successful historical series The Story of Yanxi Palace in 2018 placed velvet flowers in the limelight. Several of the female characters wore hair ornaments made by Zhao and his team, which were modeled on original examples found in old photos in the collection of the Palace Museum.

Velvet flowers in various colors and shapes made by Zhao Shuxian and his team. [Photo by Wang Qiqi/China Daily]
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