Ex-convicted stitches together a new life, thanks to art and books

Tian Shengjie
A prisoner who learned traditional embroidery in jail and how reading expands the mind is making his way on the outside.
Tian Shengjie

An ex-convict with the pseudonym Xu Hua sits at a desk, separating thread into 1,024 filaments thinner than a human hair.

It’s the first step in the art of Gu embroidery, a delicate Chinese cultural heritage that originated in Shanghai during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Looking at the gentle, quiet Xu, it’s hard to believe he committed a violent crime in 2006 when he was 19 years old. He spent 14 years in Qingpu Prison.

“I was quick-tempered when I was young,” the Henan Province native told Shanghai Daily. “After being jailed, the only thing that concerned me was filling time.”

In prison, the young man took advantage of rehabilitation services, which include cultural arts like bamboo carving, calligraphy and Chinese tea ceremony.

Ex-convicted stitches together a new life, thanks to art and books
Ti Gong

Xu Hua does Gu embroidery in his art studio in Henan Province.

Xu learned how to play guitar and do Chinese painting in his first six years of incarceration.

Qingpu Prison warden Li Qiang said such classes aim to help reform prisoners and give them skills that might be useful upon their release.

One day in 2012, Xu visited an art exhibition in the prison. He stood silently admiring one artwork.

A policeman standing beside him told him that the work was Gu embroidery and that it was becoming a lost art.

When the prison started a course in Gu embroidery, Xu was one of three prisoners chosen for the inaugural class. He hesitated.

“Someone might ridicule me, saying that a man who does needlework is effeminate,” Xu said.

Jail staff persuaded him that was not the case and told him he was selected because of his artistic taste and individuality.

Ex-convicted stitches together a new life, thanks to art and books
Ti Gong

The Chinese traditional painting is made by Xu Hua.

“Though he received only middle-school education, he had learned other crafts, like painting, and showed great perception,” said Shen Lili, a teacher from the Songjiang District Cultural Center who taught the prison class.

Every Wednesday, Shen came to the prison to teach the three embroidery students. She said she was surprised that Xu always raised questions, such as how to create certain patterns by using different stitches.

“It was commendable that he had his own ideas,” Shen said. “I encouraged Xu to try everything he thought of doing.”

Xu embroidered hours at a time, often missing meals, Shen said.

Embroidery changed him, giving him new purpose in life.

Six months later, he completed his first artwork, an embroidered bird. The pattern was copied from a painting by Chinese artist Li Anzhong in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Ex-convicted stitches together a new life, thanks to art and books
Ti Gong

This is Xu Hua's first Gu embroidery artwork, an embroidered bird.

Exquisite stitchwork made the feathers of the bird vivid and smooth. The Songjiang Cultural Center displayed it as evidence that Gu embroidery still had a future.

Xu received much praise for his work, boosting his self-confidence. Shen told him that if he really wanted to improve his skills, he needed to learn more about art, culture and even religion.

“There is no end to learning,” she told him, which became a mentor for Xu.

He followed her advice and started doing a lot of reading.

In 2017, he replaced Shen as the jail’s embroidery teacher. When she left, they agreed to keep in touch by mail.

Over the following three years, though they were separated by the high prison walls, they exchanged 40 letters. At first, Xu shared some negative feelings but their correspondence evolved into discussions of books he read. As his release date approached, he wrote that he was looking forward to his new life.

Ex-convicted stitches together a new life, thanks to art and books
Ti Gong

Some letters are written by Xu Hua to his teacher Shen Lili during the past three years.

Ex-convicted stitches together a new life, thanks to art and books
Ti Gong

Two letters written by Xu Hua to his teacher Shen Lili can show that his handwriting has improved a lot during recent years. The left is the original handwriting and the right one is after several years' practice.

“He was eager to turn what he learned in jail to support himself,” Shen said. “I think he oversimplified what he was facing. The country had developed so rapidly during his years in jail that returning to the society wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought.”

Xu made a plan for the future with his teacher. After he was freed, he visited his hometown in Henan Province.

“My relatives were dumbfounded when they saw me embroidering and going around town talking with shop owners about art, culture and many other things,” Xu said. “I know it is hard to believe that art is powerful enough to turn a person holding a machete into a man who can do delicate needlework.”

Xu recently opened a studio in Henan for mounting artworks. In his free time, he continues to do Gu embroidery and is writing a book about prison life.

On January 19, he was hired as a tutor at the cultural center in Songjiang to teach embroidery. When he signed the contract, he had tears in his eyes.

Ex-convicted stitches together a new life, thanks to art and books
Ti Gong

Xu Hua is employed as a tutor at Songjiang District Cultural Center in January.

“I gradually realized what is truth, goodness and beauty and what is ugly and evil after I came into contact with art,” he said.

Xu is not the one who has benefited from rehabilitation services in Qingpu Prison. Many former prisoners have become master craftsmen and are able to support themselves after release.

“As of now, nobody who has taken part in the art program has committed a crime after release,” warden Li said.

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