Suzhou—Cradle of Hand-Fashioned

Feb 21, 2019

The creation of costumes for the stage is a traditional handicraft of Han Chinese, one unique to Suzhou and dating back over 500 years. It came into being together with Kunqu opera—a refined genre of oriental performing art steeped in Chinese culture—that was popular in the Kunshan area (now part of Suzhou). Every kind of Suzhou stage costume has its own technical features and has to be handmade piece by piece even today. At every step of the way—embroidery, composition and seaming—checks are needed because of the different specifications and colors required. Traditional artistic expressions and cultural elements are manifested in the choice of patterns and colors that directly reflect the serene elegance of this water town. If Chinese stage art is a flower, its costumes are the supporting foliage.
Records of the stage costume trade first appeared in the Tianqi reign period (1621-1627) of the Ming Dynasty. A memorial from court officials to the emperor concerning the silk weavers’ rebellion led by Ge Cheng in Suzhou writes: “There are many unemployed people in Suzhou, but they engage in grinding jade, kingfisher craft [inlaying blue feathers in jewelry], weaving and embroidering if they can find jobs.” The foregoing are mostly process elements in making stage costumes, and are still in use today. In A Dream of Red Mansions the Jia family’s purchase of actors’ costumes in Suzhou for its private opera troupe points to the existence of such a trade in Suzhou back then. So far, no records from the same period concerning stage costume production have been found elsewhere in China. So it is reasonable to say that the rise of Kunqu opera in the Ming Dynasty is also the beginning of up-scaled production of stage costume in Suzhou. The 500-year-old Suzhou stage costume-making crafts were listed in the first group of national intangible cultural heritage items in May 2006.
During the Ming and Qing periods, professional Kunqu opera troupes were found throughout China, but particularly in the Jiangnan region. Thanks to the great many troupes and the intricate costume demands, theatrical costumiers flourished. Suzhou held many cards, being a fashion leader with well-developed silk making, embroidery and handi-craft industries. Such advantages helped it become a national center of stage costume production and sales, with a style of its own. By the early 20th century, Suzhou’s stage costume trade had expanded considerably, and theatrical costume shops lined the street of Xizhongshi, Zhuanzhu Lane and Wuqufang area within the Changmen Gate. These shops and workshops produced and supplied costumes to virtually every theatrical troupe in China. The Lihongchang shop run by Li Rongsen’s grandfather Li Honglin was among the best known of these old businesses. As the historical geographer Gu Jigang wrote in Notes on Suzhou History, “The stage costume trade was most flourishing in Suzhou, and so attracted a great many practitioners. So many rural women took up this activity as sideline work. Even with the decline of Kunqu opera and Suzhou losing its position as a center of theater, the city remained the center of theatrical costume.” At the start of the 1930s, Suzhou boasted 60 or more household workshops producing costumes for the stage. Peking opera’s four great dan actors Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Xun Huisheng and Shang Xiaoyun all had their costumes tailor-made in Suzhou.
In 1958, over 60 private workshops were combined to create the Suzhou Stage Costume Factory, among them the studio operated by Li Honglin, grandfather to Li Rongsen 李荣森. Li Honglin, his apprenticeship completed and armed with the skills and techniques of a theatrical costumier, opened the Lihongchang Stage Costume Shop in Beijing. The 1950s and 60s was an important period in the development of the stage costume industry, with the formation during that time of three bases—Suzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Those bases established three distinct styles, represented by Xie Xingsheng in Shanghai, Yin Yuanzhen in Beijing and Li Honglin in Suzhou. The historical context, however, led to the decline of the trade in Beijing and Shanghai, leaving Suzhou as the only major manufacturer of stage costume, its output representing virtually half the national total.
Having grown up in the trade, Li Rongsen developed a special bond with stage costume in his childhood. During the “cultural revolution” period (1966-1976), he accompanied his father Li Shiquan, who was sent to work at Binhai County in Jiangsu Province, and became a worker at an embroidery factory. He enjoyed doing needle-work for stage costumes with workers in the work-shop. His father taught him that tailoring is purely technical but design is more crucial for producing stage costumes. It takes superb skills and some artistic attainment to be a good designer. With this, he began to learn costume design from his father and within four years became a “technical backbone” of the factory. In 1979, at the age of 24, Li Rongsen joined the Suzhou Stage Costume Factory and continued learning the trade from his father and other masters.
The last years of the 1970s, with the comeback of traditional operas to the Chinese stage, breathed new life into opera costume production. Thanks to the skills passed down through his family and his passion for the trade, Li Rongsen became a mature craftsman and was promoted, progressing from worker to technical office director and to deputy factory director. His wide experience covered virtually every type of work in the factory, from manufacturing to designing, from management to administration, from research to innovation.
With the 1990s and the advent of modern diverse cultural influences, the number of professional theatrical troupes dwindled, so demand for stage costumes shrank. The Suzhou Stage Costume Factory’s products faced an ever tougher market. When the factory became a joint stock cooperative company in 2000, Li Rongsen was elected its president and general manager. To ensure the company’s survival, he expanded its business scope from serving opera troupes and stage to supplying costumes and props for movies and TV dramas. Costumes for films and TV dramas are more complicated and call for more sophisticated designs and must satisfy the esthetic tastes of people today whilst also respecting history and tradition. Li and his colleagues put everything they had into completing the tasks—their superb skills, depth of experience, precise designs and exquisite craftsmanship—as well as extensive study and continual improvement of technique. Their period costumes have appeared in: costumed martial-arts films such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes, The Deer and the Cauldron; the TV series Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang—a Secret History and The Secret History of the Crown Prince; in grand stadium performances of the opera Turandot; and in the taijiquan (tai chi) performance at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Li has also ventured into the overseas market, supplying Japanese and South Korean film makers.
As a traditional handicraft industry, stage costume production in Su-zhou is still a handmade process, so the training of skilled workers is key to passing down the craft. Since the listing as national intangible cultural heritage items, Li has paid great attention to recruiting and training young workers. It’s worth mentioning that, as well as doing a great deal in-house to ensure a solid foundation for passing down the craft from master to ap-prentice, his company has also hooked up with schools in related disciplines on technical exchanges and promotion. A prime example of this is the co-founding with the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts of a rehearsal base, allowing several groups of students a year to come to the company for onsite experience and learn techniques under the guidance of the technicians and veteran workers in the factory.

About the Column

Suzhou-Silk City

Suzhou-Silk City is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. Suzhou, though associated with classical gardens, is even more the city of silk. The peaks and troughs experienced in Suzhou’s silk making and embroidery worlds are an important aspect of the enduring brilliance of China’s silk art.

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Columns Suzhou-Silk City

Suzhou-Silk City is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. Suzhou, though associated with classical gardens, is even more the city of silk. The peaks and troughs experienced in Suzhou’s silk making and embroidery worlds are an important aspect of the enduring brilliance of China’s silk art.

View more...