Beijing appliqué work in danger of extinction

Zhang Xinchao Photo: Billie Feng

Appliqué work is popular all across China, but Beijing appliqué work (北京补花), which originated from embroidery, is the most famous. It reflects the profundity of local culture and fuses with Western elements. “That just reflects the Innovation of the Beijing Spirit (北京精神),” said Zhang Xinchao (张新超), director of the intangible cultural heritage division of Beijing Bai-gong-fang (京城百工坊).

Zhang, in his late 40s, is writing a book on Beijing appliqué work, which has been listed as an intangible cultural heritage at the municipal level. “There is not much historical material about this subject to refer to so I have to write from my own memories and experiences,” he said.

Although Zhang hasn’t been registered as an inheritor of Beijing appliqué work, he has made up his mind to devote the rest of his life to the protection and transmission of the traditional Beijing handicraft.

Zhang likes drawing from childhood and began to teach himself even before starting school. “I once drew something in my older brother’s sketch book and his teacher said it was the best he had seen in his class,” he said, with some pride in his voice. Later, he was chosen to learn drawing systematically at a Children’s Palace (少年宫). Drawing laid a solid foundation for his future career in appliqué work.

Zhang learned drawn work (抽纱, a skill in embroidery) and appliqué work in a vocational middle school in Beijing. “I wasn’t interested in it in the beginning because I thought there were jobs done by women,” he said. Most students were assigned to work as manual workers in textile factories after graduation at that time, but Zhang started his career in the design department of a state-owned factory. “I was very lucky to have the opportunity to design appliqué patterns just after school,” he smiled. After years of hard work, he was promoted to the head of the department when he was only 27.

Beijing appliqué work used to be very popular both at home and abroad during the 1980s and 90s.

“We received a lot of orders every time we promoted our appliqué patterns on a trade fair,” Zhang said, “We were always busy thinking about new designs.”

Nowadays, appliqué work has little practical value in use. Zhang thinks that it is no longer possible to make a living out of doing appliqué work. Another barrier for passing on the skill is that the needlework involved in it is hard to master. “But I hope people can learn to do appliqué work as a hobby and use it as a method to cultivate their temperament. It is definitely not restricted to females,” Zhang said.

Zhang is still collecting pieces of appliqué work created by him or other masters. “What we need to do first is to exhibit the works and give future generations the opportunity to understand what Beijing appliqué work is,” he said. Zhang also mentioned that he will mobilize other people who have mastered the skill to give public classes so that the skill won’t be completely lost.

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