Suining, a city in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, is renowned for its production of brocade tapestries and carpets. Several brocade antiques, which were produced in Suining, have been housed in the Palace Museum for years. Given the superb workmanship, Suining brocade tapestries and carpets have won the favor of countless people, in China and around the world. Suining's traditional craft of making brocade tapestries and carpets was added to the list of Sichuan's items of intangible cultural heritage in 2009.
Records indicate the craft of weaving brocade products in Suining dates back more than 2,000 years. The items originated during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 25 AD), and the craft was at the height of its popularity during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. During the dynasties, the exquisite works of art were offered as tributes to members of the imperial families.
Due to historical reasons, the art form began to wane during the late 1970s. But revival was imminent. Given the rapid development of foreign trade, especially during the 1980s, an increasing number of brocade tapestries and carpets were exported for China. As a result, the traditional craft underwent its rejuvenation.
To make a brocade tapestry, craftspeople must complete more than 10 complicated procedures, including designing patterns on the item, dyeing and weaving silk threads (into the tapestry) and washing the item.
Various geometrical figures and other figures, animals, plants, scenes and/or buildings are common patterns on brocade tapestries and carpets. Craftspeople also create patterns of scenes and figures from folk tales and historical allusions.
Chen Yu, an inheritor of the craft, has been creating brocade tapestries and carpets for 30-plus years. By drawing inspiration from life and traditional Chinese culture, Chen has created unique weaving and artistic-design styles.
Chen began learning how to make brocade tapestries when she was a little girl. In 1975, when she was 17, Chen was employed, as a technician, by Suining Carpets Manufacturing Plant. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills. Within a few years, she was promoted to head of a workshop, and then to section chief. In 1979, she was appointed director of the plant.
In 1980, two years after China implemented its reform and opening to the world, the Chinese Government promulgated a notice on encouraging Chinese to establish their own businesses. Chen recognized the business opportunity and she quit her job at the State-owned enterprise. She raised enough money to establish Hongfa Carpets Manufacturing Plant in Suining. She recruited many young female apprentices. Chen and other craftswomen taught the women the skills needed to make brocade carpets.
During the past few years, Chen has invested much time and energy in leading craftswomen to develop the skills needed to both make the crafts and expand the market. As a result, the plant's products have sold well, both at home and abroad.
Given the amount of work, and given the fact that craftspeople receive very little pay, few people are willing to learn the craft. As a result, there are few successors to the traditional Chinese craft. Aware of that situation, Chen has strived to keep the intangible cultural heritage alive. During the past nine years, Chen's plant has been cooperating with Suining Wenxige Tourist Crafts Co., Ltd., to provide training to women who want to earn money by creating crafts. Many disabled women and left-behind women (whose husbands have left home to work elsewhere) have benefited from the training. The company has also helped the plant promote sales of its products.
"To me, the craft is as dear as my daughter. I'll try my best to keep the intangible cultural heritage alive," says Chen.
Both Chen and Sun Hong, chairperson of the company, have reportedly said they hope more people, especially youngsters, will understand the beauty of the art form, so the traditional craft will be handed down from generation to generation.
(Executive Editor: GU WENTONG, Women of China English Monthly December 2016 Issue)
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