Embroidery in China
Embroidery is a brilliant pearl in Chinese art. From the magnificent Dragon Robe worn by Emperors to the popular embroidery seen in today’s fashions, embroidery adds so much pleasure to our life and our culture. As a folk art with a long tradition, Embroidery occupies an important position in the history of Chinese arts and crafts. It is, in its long development, inseparable from silkworm-raising and silk-reeling and weaving.
5000 years ago
Silkworms were domesticated. The production of silk thread and fabrics gave rise to the art of embroidery. According to the classical Shangshu (or Book of History), the “regulations on costumes” of 4000 years ago stipulated among other things “dresses and skirts with designs and embroideries”. This is evidence that embroidery had become an established art by that remote time.
The oldest embroidered product in China on record dates from the Shang Dynasty. Embroidery in this period symbolized social status. It was not until later on, as the national economy developed, that embroidery entered the lives of the common people.
Court embroidery was set and specialization came into being. The patterns of embroidery covered a larger range, from sun, moon, stars, mountains, dragons, and phoenix to tiger, flower and grass, clouds and geometric patterns. Auspicious words were also fashionable. Both historic records and products of the time proved this.
Embroidery was widely used to show honor to Buddha statues .Besides Buddhist figures, the subjects of Chinese painting such as mountains, waters, flowers, birds, pavilions and people all became themes of embroidery, making it into a unique art.
Embroidery developed into an art by combining calligraphy and painting. New tools and skills were invented. The Wenxiu Department was in charge of embroidery in the Song court. During the reign of Emperor Hui Zong, they divided embroidery into four categories: mountains and waters, pavilions, people, and flower and birds. During this period, the art of embroidery came to its zenith and reputed workers popped up. Even intellects joined this activity, and embroidery was divided into two functions: art for daily use and art for art’s sake.
The religious touch of embroidery was strengthened by the rulers of Yuan Dynasty who believed in Lamaism. Embroidery was much more applied in Buddha statues, sutras and prayer flags. One product of this time is kept in Potala Palace.
Traditional auspicious patterns were widely used to symbolize popular themes: Mandarin ducks for love; pomegranates for fertility; pines, bamboos and plums for integrity; peonies for riches and honor; and cranes for longevity. The famous Gu Embroidery is typical of this time.
New ingredients from Japanese embroidery and even Western art were absorbed. New materials such as gilded cobber and silvery threads emerged. According to The Dream of the Red Chamber, a popular Chinese novel set during the Qing Dynasty, peacock feathers were also used.
Silk embroidery is practiced nearly all over China. The Four Famous Embroideries of China refer to the Xiang embroidery in central China’s Hunan Province, Shu embroidery in western China’s Sichuan Province, Yue embroidery in southern China’s Guangdong Province and Su embroidery in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province.