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Reviving a Cantonese folk art

Guangdong embroidery has a history of more than 1,000 years, and—together with its counterparts in Jiangsu, Hunan, and Sichuan—is one of the four major schools of embroidery in China. But the Cantonese folk art has languished of late, and only a concerted effort can revive it.

Xu Chiguang, 84, was born into a family of embroiderers in Guangzhou city. He first learned the skill aged six, with the help of his father and grandfather.

The folk art has since been an indispensable part of his life and helped him and his family survive through difficult times. But ten years after retirement, Master Xu was invited to work as an instructor in an embroidery factory.

“In 2003, the factory gathered me and six other masters to complete this piece of work as an attempt to retrieve the traditional industry. Since then, the folk art has begun to regain its fame little by little, after decades of neglect,” Xu said.

Guangdong embroidery was among China’s first intangible cultural heritage items that were listed in 2006. Flowers, fruit and birds are the most common subjects captured by the folk art. These exquisite works usually take two to three artisans several months or even a year to finish.

The complicated process in the embroidery means that production cannot be rushed. The factory director says the work pattern here is more like a workshop rather than a highly efficient production line. As the embroidery is all made by hand, the annual output is no more than a few dozens. But the taxes are a real problem.

“The tangible costs of the embroidery are the thread, the needles and above all, the time spent on the work. This time is priceless and is a major factor in deciding the final price. And this price gives the false impression that we’re making huge profits and hence have to pay heavy taxes,” said Zhang Baohong, director of Guangdong Embroidery Handicraft Factory.

Another problem for the factory is the few employees it has. The number of artisans working in the base workshop is no more than a dozen, and only those who are truly passionate about the artform stay here for some length of time.

“At first, my family opposed me doing this because they thought the traditional art has little space for development. It was only after I insisted that they changed their attitude. But still I’m the only one among my friends who has chosen this as a career,” said Liang Huping, Guangdong embroidery artisan.

But the factory is not giving up. It has asked some local artists for authorization to make the embroidery according to their patterns, in the hope of attracting more customers. But as Master Xu says, it is still going to take some time to restore this folk art to its past glory.