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.
China is the first country in the world that discovered the use of silk. Silkworms were domesticated as early as 5000 years ago. 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 (1600-1046 BC). 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.
Through progress over Zhou Dynasty (1046-221BC), the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) witnessed a leap in embroidery in both technique and art style. 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.
The authentic embroideries found in Mawangdui Han Tomb are best evidence of this unprecedented proliferation of embroidery. Meanwhile, unearthed embroideries from Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, the Astana-Karakhoja Ancient Tombs in Turpan and northern Inner Mongolia further strengthen this observation.
As Buddhism boomed in China during the Wei, Jin, Sui and Tang Dynasties (from 220-907), embroidery was widely used to show honor to Buddha statues. Lu Meiniang, a court maiden in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), embroidered seven chapters of Buddhist sutra on a tiny piece of silk! New skill in stitching emerged during this period.
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.
The religious touch of embroidery was strengthened by the rulers of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) 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.
As the sprout of capitalism emerged in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese society saw a substantial flourish in many industries. Embroidery showed new features, too. 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.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) inherited the features of the Ming Dynasty and absorbed new ingredients from Japanese embroidery and even Western art. 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.
Today, 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.
Su embroidery is the general name for embroidery products in areas around Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. The craft, which dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period, became a sideline of people in the Suzhou area during the Ming Dynasty. Well known for its smoothness and delicateness, Su embroidery won Suzhou the title City of Embroidery in the Qing Dynasty. In the mid and late Qing, Su embroidery experienced further developments involving works of double-sided embroidering. There were 65 embroidery stores in Suzhou City. During the Republic of China period (1912-1949), the Su embroidery industry was in decline due to frequent wars and it was restored and regenerated after the founding of new China. In 1950, the central government set up research centers for Su embroidery and launched training courses for the study of embroidery. Weaving methods have climbed from 18 to the present 40.
Su embroidery features a strong, folk flavor and its weaving techniques are characterized by the following: the product surface must be flat, the rim must be neat, the needle must be thin, the lines must be dense, the color must be harmonious and bright and the picture must be even. Su embroidery products fall into three major categories: costumes, decorations for halls and crafts for daily use, which integrate decorative and practical values. Double-sided embroidery is an excellent representative of Su embroidery.
In addition to the four major embroidery styles there are Gu embroidery of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province; Bian embroidery of Kaifeng, Henan Province and Han embroidery of Wuhan, Hubei Province.
Also called Guang embroidery, Yue embroidery is a general name for embroidery products of the regions of Guangzhou, Shantou, Zhongshan, Fanyu and Shunde in Guangdong Province. According to historical records, in the first year of Yongyuan’s reign (805) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a girl named Lu Meiniang embroidered the seventh volume of the Fahua Buddhist Scripture on a piece of thin silk 30 cm long. And so, Yue embroidery became famous around the country.
The prosperous Guangzhou Port of the Song Dynasty promoted the development of Yue embroidery, which began to be exported at that time. During the Qing Dynasty, people animal hair as the raw material for Yue embroidery, which made the works more vivid. During Qianlong’s reign (1736-1796) of the Qing, an industrial organization was established in Guangzhou. At that time, a large number of craftsmen devoted themselves to the craft, inciting further improvements to the weaving technique. Since 1915, the work of Yue embroidery garnered several awards at the Panama Expo.
Influenced by national folk art, Yue embroidery formed its own unique characteristics. The embroidered pictures are mainly of dragons and phoenixes, and flowers and birds, with neat designs and strong, contrasting colors. Floss, thread and gold-and-silk thread embroidery are used to produce costumes, decorations for halls and crafts for daily use.
Also called Chuan embroidery, Shu embroidery is the general name for embroidery products in areas around Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Shu embroidery enjoys a long history. As early as the Han Dynasty, Shu embroidery was already famous. The central government even designated an office in this area for its administration. During the Five Dynasties and Ten States periods (907-960), a peaceful society and large demand provided advanced conditions for the rapid development of the Shu Embroidery industry.
Shu embroidery experienced its peak development in the Song Dynasty, ranking first in both production and excellence. In the mid-Qing Dynasty, the Shu embroidery industry was formed. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Shu embroidery factories were set up and the craft entered a new phase of development, using innovative techniques and a larger variety of forms.
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