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A queen of embroidery creates a royal portrait

Updated: 2012-06-04 15:39
By Zhang Chunyan in London ( China Daily)

A queen of embroidery creates a royal portrait

Yao Jianping, a well-known artist from Suzhou in China's Jiangsu province, is delighted that her embroidery of the queen's portrait will be collected by Buckingham Palace. Provided to China Daily

As Britain gears up to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, one Chinese artist, known as the "queen of Su embroidery", is also jubilant.

"I'm delighted that my embroidery of the queen's portrait will be collected by Buckingham Palace," Yao Jianping, a well-known artist from Suzhou in China's Jiangsu province, told China Daily.

In Yao's piece, which is 40 centimeters high and 30 centimeters wide, the queen radiates elegance and royal dignity.

"This was achieved by using extra fine silk threads, some of them as thin as a hair," Yao said. With a history of more than 2,000 years, Su embroidery is the general term for embroidered products from areas around Suzhou.

The craft has a strong folkloric flavor and has been passed down from generation to generation by artisans. Yao, who is in her 40s, has been influenced by Su embroidery from an early age.

The unusual feature of her work is that she has not only inherited the tradition but has also integrated many modern techniques and themes into it.

In 2001, Yao had an idea to create a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. "I admire the queen and the way she performs her duties," Yao said. Based on a few available photographs, Yao spent 14 months working on the portrait, employing various sophisticated embroidery techniques.

"It was difficult. In order to reflect the wisdom and kindness of the queen, I had to divide each thin silk thread into 64 equal portions, with each strand hardly visible to the naked eye."

The nuanced change of light in the original photograph is skillfully captured in the piece. The light and shade form striking contrasts, though a coherent balance has been maintained.

"This is one of my most satisfying embroidery works," Yao said. The artist said she felt she should also do something to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United Kingdom, which has coincided with the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics.

Yao said she wanted to present her artwork as a gift from the Chinese people to the British royal family. But contacting the Britons was a problem for her. Yao then thought of Ma Weihua, president and CEO of China Merchants Bank, which has been developing rapidly as a commercial bank in China. She met the banker occasionally.

Ma, who is enthusiastic about Chinese culture and art, is known for strongly supporting cultural exchanges between China and the world. Ma has met the queen's second son, Prince Andrew, who is the Duke of York.

He wrote a letter to Prince Andrew to introduce Yao's fine piece, and asked how the offer could be appropriately made and the likelihood of a meeting with the monarch. Buckingham Palace later replied and confirmed that the royal family had agreed to collect Yao's work in early June.

"I was very excited to learn of this," Yao said. "I will fly to London and witness the cultural exchange between China and the UK." Like many girls in Suzhou, Yao's first tutor was her mother, from whom she learned embroidery at the age of 8.

"At that time, I almost spent all my time learning embroidery," Yao said. After more than 30 years of practice, Yao has made significant achievements as an artist. In 1998, Yao founded the Embroidery Art Gallery in Suzhou.

In a nationwide campaign to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of Su embroidery, Yao was selected as one of the few inheritors of the art. UNESCO awarded her the title of "Master of Folk Arts and Crafts" in 2004.

"Su embroidery is my hobby, my life and my world. I still spend a lot of time thinking about and creating embroidery each day," Yao said. She has won several domestic and international awards. Her works have been exhibited by many museums and are sought after by collectors.

Encompassing some of the most detailed and beautiful pieces, Su embroidery is one of the world's finest crafts, Yao said. "However, many people around the world haven't discovered the beauty and artistry inherent in these pieces," she said.

"In the future, I want to continue to produce more wonderful embroidery works and bring them to more palaces of art like Buckingham Palace. Working together with many other embroidery artists, I hope to make Chinese embroidery more famous worldwide."

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