The Crafts Museum of China Academy of Arts is celebrating the authentic style of Suzhou arts and crafts in its beautiful gardens.
The museum has set out and designed an exhibition space to imitate 18 varieties of Suzhou arts and crafts, original layouts and arrangements, making visitors feel as if they are entering an ancient, authentic Suzhou garden.
Suzhou, in Jiangsu Province, is the epitome of the classical Jiangnan region culture because of its exquisite gardens, enriched arts and ample craftsmanship that were deeply adored by literati throughout the old dynasties. In history, it was once considered a mecca for scholars, who longed for the city’s cultural vibe and dedicated lifestyle.
By virtue of its prosperous economy and fine ambience, Suzhou attracted swarms of craftsmen from the Jiangnan region, on the lower reaches of south Yangtze River. According to historical archives, the city was dotted with numerous stores selling calligraphy, paintings and handicrafts, including: Silk fans, embroidery, bonsai, Chinese zither, nianhua (Chinese New Year painting), furniture and sculpture.
Taihu Lake stone
Chinese New Year pictures are traditional art that usually appears in homes during the Spring Festival. They differentiate from other painting styles thanks to the bright colors and auspicious Lunar New Year symbols, or images of a child, as well as the door and kitchen gods.
The colored woodcut printed paintings were particularly popular among rural residents in the past. People posted them on walls, doors and the kitchen stove and prayed for good luck and harvest. Generally these pictures would get replaced with new ones in the following lunar year.
Suzhou is the production center of nianhua in Jiangnan region. Family run workshops gathered in Taohuawu, and they produced millions of New Year pictures every year during its heyday in history.
Nowadays, nianhua is no longer popular and machine printing has already replaced the handmade crafts. Nonetheless, artisans did teach the craft to family members and they have kept the art form alive today. At the exhibition, visitors can view Taohuawu nianhua and imagine the auspicious scenes of Spring Festivals in the past.
When visiting the exhibition, visitors must see the Taihu Lake stones, in the Suzhou gardens. They are beautifully eroded, containing hollows and holes and take fantastic shapes. A classic Suzhou garden is more than just a pretty facade outside a mansion. It is a statement about an inhabitant’s social status and reflected their aesthetics.
Taihu Lake stones and bonsais are two indispensable parts of authentic Suzhou gardens. The bonsai, or “potted landscape,” creates miniature landscapes in a container. Rocks or tree gnarls form the main body of a bonsai, which is decorated with green plants. In essence, these cultivation feats represent the beauty and power of the mountains in a small pot.
Suzhou bonsais are often made of small pines, bamboos and plum trees. As symbols of winter and a harbinger of spring, they flourish vigorously in the snow, while most other plants are bare and before many other blossoms appear. Therefore, the three trees are dubbed “three friends of the cold.”
Another highlight of the exhibition is Suzhou embroidery. Being a gem of a silk product, it is known for its characteristic stitching techniques and use of split silk threads.
The so-called “double-sided embroidery,” where a single image can be viewed from both sides of a piece of embroidered fabric, epitomizes the exceptional techniques.
Creating an image on a piece of extremely thin and nearly transparent silk fabric requires dexterity, since all thread ends need to be skilfully concealed between the layers of stitch work.
A hair-thin silk thread could be split into two to 16 thinner threads. Different thread thicknesses are used for alternative parts of a subject in embroidery to create subtle hairs, smooth color transition and a vivid effect.
Suzhou embroidery features rich colors, inspiring designs, refined needlework and smooth finishes. Some masters could even stitch embroidery on two sides of a single piece of silk. It would take months and even years to complete such a work.
Taihu Lake stone is an indispensable part of authentic Suzhou gardens.
Another craft that testifies to the city’s vibrant handicrafts industry is Chengni inkstones. It joined the writing brush, Chinese art paper and the inkstick as one of the famous “Four Treasures of the Study” in Chinese calligraphy.
Inkstones are mortars for grinding and contain ink that’s made from water and traditional inksticks made from condensed and solidified ink. Traditional Chengni inkstones are made in two places, Shanxi Province and Suzhou.
Inkstones fell out of use as bottles of ink and then modern writing instruments replaced traditional utensils for most uses. However, quality Chengni inkstones are still used by calligraphers and modern scholars.
Date: Through November 18, closed on Mondays
Address: 352 Xiangshan Rd