When tradition meets fashion: Rare Shanghai embroidery show opens in Milan

An exhibition featuring a traditional Shanghai-style embroidery art kicked off in Milan on December 9.

Embroidery is an art with a history of thousands of years in China, with almost any image able to be stitched on a piece of cloth. Today it’s a fashion symbol used more and more on dresses worn by models on the catwalk.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Milan and Shanghai becoming sister cities in June, 1979, Shanghai is taking examples of the Gu-style embroidery, a local intangible cultural heritage it is most proud of, to the Italian city of fashion.

Guided by the Information Office of Shanghai Municipality, the “Let’s Meet Shanghai: Gu-style Embroidery Exhibition” will run for one week at Palazzo Durini Via Santa Maria Valle 2 Milano with a themed salon about the inheritance and development of the craftsmanship spirit in the East and the West during this period.

The exhibition, organized by Shanghai Daily, Songjiang District government and the Milano Zhejiang China Friendship Association — a community of Chinese and overseas Chinese people in Milan, is part of the “Chinese Culture Going Abroad” program initiated by the Information Office.

"As an international metropolis, Milan is an economic center of Europe and financial center in Italy. It’s also a world-famous ‘capital of art’ and historical and cultural city " Jin Xingming, vice chairman of the Shanghai committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said during the opening ceremony.

"Today’s cultural exchange with Gu-style Embroidery being carried to Milan is believed to evoke the resonating among citizens in Milan."

Lamberto Bertole, chairman of the Council of Milan, said: “It’s a record of Shanghai and Milan’s cooperation and a good opportunity to look into the future.

“China and Italy are both countries of rich history and culture. In the past four decades, China had gone through great changes as cities in Italy,” he added.

“This exhibition is an important testimony of the deep collaboration between Shanghai and Milan.”

Supported by the two city governments and Shanghai United Media Group, eight rare embroidery works have been brought to Milan on display, along with traditional Chinese performances.

Gu-style embroidery, or guxiu, was created by women in the Gu family in 1559 in Shanghai's Songjiang District. It has been passed down and developed for more than four centuries, surviving to the modern times with its unique artistic style and aesthetic characteristics.

Old Songjiang chronicles describe guxiu as: “The birds and flowers can be embroidered on a small handkerchief while the figures can be embroidered on a tiny sachet. Such exquisite skills have never been found in the other areas."

The style is also called huaxiu, or painting embroidery, because it incorporates the art of Songjiang-style paintings. For guxiu craftsmen, the needles are pens and the strings are the lines, helping them "paint" the picture in their mind.

The patterns on the eight exhibits, which are hard to distinguish from traditional Chinese ink paintings, include flowers, grass and insects, human figures, fish and weeds, calligraphy, fans and fishing scenes.

At the scene of the exhibition, foreigners and Chinese in Milan were seen carefully watching 36-year-old Zhang Li, a Xiuniang — one who designs and makes the embroideries — of guxiu, to demonstrate her embroidery skills on a wooden frame.

On her fingertips, a very thin string can be divided into at most 32 strands for the embroidery work, which makes the pattern look extremely delicate and vivid. The thinnest strand is used on embroidering things like the lines on a dragonfly’s wing.

The work she is bringing to Milan is an embroidery version of “Painting of Peony,” a painting from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) which is now stored in the Palace Museum in Beijing. One difficulty in its embroidery is the overlapped petals, which require various stitching methods.

After it was finished, the peony on it looks even more vivid and glossy than in the painting.

Zhang said she had been making guxiu for 17 years. “I used to be a student of a vocational school in Songjiang and once the guxiu workshop of the Songjiang Electronic Instrument Factory tried to find some inheritors in my school,” she said. “I attended the orientation and was deeply attracted by the embroidery at the sight of the guxiu works. Then I signed up for its training courses and make it my career now.

“I feel very honored to show my work in Milan, a world-renowned metropolis and ‘City of Fashion.’ I hope this exhibition can leave a deep impression in Milan and let foreign friends enjoy the charm of traditional Chinese culture.”

Songjiang began to promote the renaissance of guxiu from the past century and has cultivated more than 20 guxiu craftsmanship inheritors. Their embroidery works are popular across Europe, North America and Asia.

Each year it held more than 400 events, including exhibitions, shows, speeches and trainings, in campus to promote intangible cultural heritage among students. Meanwhile, in residential communities, there are monthly courses given to residents.

“I believe having a Gu-style Embroidery exhibition in Milan will promote the combination of traditional Chinese art and Milan’s creative modern fashion,” Song Xuefeng, Chinese consul general in Milan, said during the opening ceremony.

In recent years, Shanghai has issued several new policies on cultural development. A three-year plan released last year on building "Shanghai Culture" brand shows that it will further promote Shanghai-style culture and lay emphasis on inheriting traditional cultures and enhancing the protection of cultural heritage in Jiangnan (the region to the south of the Yangtze River).

"Shanghai is a city where cultures in Jiangnan converge. The remains of history and culture, which contain ancient wisdom, are an important symbol of the city's character and charm," said Chen Qiwei, general manager of the Shanghai United Media Group, during the exhibition.

Cristina Volpi, an artist in Milan, told Shanghai Daily that she has been particularly interested in embroidery since she was in university. Once she saw the exhibition poster, she couldn't help stopping by to admire the works there.

She admitted that she is usually shy and doesn't often go to an unfamiliar place alone. However, seeing her deep interest for embroidery and Asian culture, she felt the urge to know more about the exhibition. She was impressed by the exhibits and the ability of the embroidery master Zhang Li.

She hopes to come back before the exhibition is over and was excited to share her experiences with friends on social media.