Saturday, June 22, 2013

Silk, The Silk Road and the Art of Embroidery[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Embroidery is the art of decorating a fabric or other materials by stitching designs using thread or yarn and a needle. Often, other materials such as metal strips, precious and semi-precious stones, and sequins are also used to adorn the fabric.

Chinese embroidery has a long history since Neolithic age. Due to the quality of silk fiber, most Chinese fine embroideries are made in silk. Some ancient vestiges of silk production have been found in various Neolithic sites dating back 5,000 - 6,000 years in China. Currently the earliest real sample of silk embroidery discovered in China is from a tomb in Mashan in Hubei province identified with the Zhango period (5th - 3rd centuries BC).

After the opening of Silk Road in the Han Dynasty silk production and trade became flourishing industry for China. In 14th century, the Chinese silk embroidery production reached its highest peak. Several major silk embroidery styles had been developed, like Song Jin (宋锦 Song embroidery) in Suzhou, Yun Jin (云锦 Cloud embroidery) in Nanjing and Shu Jin (蜀锦 Shu embroidery) in Sichuan.

Chinese Su Embroidery.

The Cambridge University Press has and will publish a large number of monographs as an “Introduction To Chinese Culture”. Of interests to the readership of this blog are such monographs as:
Chinese Clothing
China’s Museums
China’s Cultural Relics
Chinese Folk Arts
Chinese Painting
Chinese Arts And Crafts

…just to mention a few!

This art essay focuses on Chinese Silk, The Silk Road and the Art of Embroidery - one of the chapters in monograph - Chinese Clothing, authored by Hua Mei [1] – a must buy in the Cambridge University Press series!

Silk, The Silk Road and the Art of Embrodiery
At one time China was the only country that was producing and using silk. Chinese legend has it that a royal concubine of the Yellow Emperor, Leizu, was the first to cultivate silkworms and to produce silk. Ancient Chinese Emperors worshiped her as the silkworm goddess.

The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) (2698-2598 BC) is a legendary ruler and ancestor of the Chinese people who is said to have lived for 100 - 118 years. He is credited with having invented Chinese medicine; various religious practices, including worship of the sun, moon, and five planets; and technological inventions, like the compass and calendar.

On the other hand, archaeological evidence shows that silk was used in China long before the days of Leizu. In 1958 at the Liangzhu historical site some silk textiles were excavated from 4,700 years ago, including silk threads, silk ribbons, silk strings, and pieces of silk - all held in a basket. These historical relics have been carbonized and so are barely discernable. Nevertheless, the warps and wefts patterns were still evident.

A historical site comprising of a system of dams has recently been found in Liangzhu Town in Zhejiang Province. This has been identified as the earliest example of hydraulic engineering in China, and extends the history of China’s water conservancy back to more than 4,800 years ago.

As early as 3,000 years ago, the Shang Dynasty (1766 – 1121 BC) bone and tortoise shell inscriptions had characters that represented the silkworm, mulberry tree, silk and gauze, thereby indicating that silk terminology was very much in use even in the lexicon of the Chinese language.

A great deal of knowledge of the Shang Dynasty has been learned from the studies of the oracle bone inscriptions. From the studies of many scholars, about 2,000 characters among the more than 4,500 different characters found on the bones have been identified.

In the Spring, Autumn (722 - 403 BC) and Warring States (475 – 221 BC) periods, agricultural development reached new levels of importance. With agriculture, men and women labor was realigned - men were allocated to the more physical taxing chores of farming and women, who were child bearing, child rearing or family supervising, were assigned domestic duties. Hence women were responsible for cloth making and so collecting raw material for weaving. Weaving became a labor-intensive chore.

Detail from the Song Dynasty silk scroll – “Silkworm Breeding”. The painting shows the silkworm breeding scenes in Jangsu and Zhejiang Provinces.
Courtesy by Wang Shucun – see reference[1].

The oldest cloths ever found date back to the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC) and were unearthed in Hebei province, as in the case of this unlined garment with the tiger below on the left (detail view) and the phoenix.

The planting of mulberry trees, the cultivation of silkworms as well as silk reeling, was highly developed technology of these times. Silk reeling derives from the twisting and spiraling movements of the silkworm larva as it wraps itself in it's cocoon, and to the metaphorical principle of "reeling the silk from a silk worm’s cocoon”. In order to draw out the silk successfully the action must be smooth and consistent without jerking or changing direction sharply. Too fast and the silk breaks whereas if too slow it sticks to itself and becomes tangled. Thus silk reeling movements are continuous, cyclic, spiraling patterns performed at constant speed with the "light touch" of drawing silk. Silk reeling is trained in solo forms and stances as well as in pushing hands with a partner.

Turkestan in 1862. The men are reeling silk. The older man on the right is boiling the silk cocoons and feeding the silk strands up over the wooden frame leaning over the pot. The younger man is guiding the strands onto the charkha for winding.

By the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) the art of spinning and weaving moved even further forward with yarns made from 4 or 5 strands of thread, and each thread was spun from 14 to 15 pieces of fibers, so that each yarn was made up of 54 pieces of fiber. Developments in spinning also advance the art of dyeing and embroidery, giving the finished garment extra embellishment.

Han Dynasty Embroidery.

From the evolution of the Bronze culture (3000 – 1900 BC) trade began between China and its neighboring countries as early as 2000 BC - in central and western Asia. Exchange among different peoples with different cultures and regions informed and enhanced garment development. By the fifth century BC, Chinese textiles started to appear in Western Europe.

Silk was so adored and expensive in the West that In 273 AD the wife of Emperor Aurelian ordered a Purpura dyed silk garment. The Emperor decreed that the sale be canceled. The silk was imported from China (using the China "silk road" trade route, which was established just before this date). The cost of the silk garment for Aurelian's wife would have cost its weight in gold; that is how much the various traders charged for silk per order.

Silk Road(s).

The Greeks and Romans called China “Serica” and the Chinese people were known as “Seris”, both of which were derived from the word “Serge” or silk. Chinese silk was also imported into India very early in history. For example as early as the second century AD, there was already in place a law in India prohibiting the theft of silk.

Above, a cloth with Buddhist images, Northern Wei period (386 - 534). The technique of weaving under the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 - 581) remained essentially unchanged, being just a prosecution of the Han weaving tradition; the most notable innovation is the introduction of Buddhist motifs.

By 482 - 565 AD two monks returning from China brought Justinian I silk worm eggs hidden in a stick. As a result Byzantium was able to free itself from the enormous cost of transporting the material and the high duties levied by the Persians. By the mid-sixth century AD, the entire process of silk making – from the production of raw material to weaving of the finished product – was known in the East Roman Empire.

Eastern Roman Empire. It finally collapse in 1453 with Constantinople taken and looted by the Roman Catholic Crusade.

What is known as the Silk Road started from Chang’an (today named Xi’an) – then the capital of the Western Han – and extended all the way to the Baltic Sea. As one portion of the road extended to the West, another portion of the road headed eastwards to Japan. In 107 AD the Japanese Emperor sent a delegation of 160 people to China to learn the art of embroidery, sewing and the weaving of brocade. For the next 100 years many artisans from Japan were sent to China to learn specific crafts, while China sent weavers to Japan significantly developing the art of silk in Japan.

Mary Wood’s Book - The Craft of Temari – The Ancient Japanese Embroidery.

In ca. 457 AD Emperor Yuryaku Tenno is said to have been extremely enthusiastic about th craft of textile and embroidery, and ordered his concubines to raise silkworms so that he could realize his dream of Japan becoming the “kingdom of garments”. On his deathbed he mourned that his dream was not realized in his lifetime.

Legendary Emperor Yuryaku Tenno.

In the “Lectures on the Art of Clothing” which was published in Japan, garments of various Japanese periods of Asuka (538 – 710), Nara period (710 – 794) and the early Heian period (794 – 1185) were basically imitations from the age of Sui and Tang. In particular clothing of the Chinese period strongly influenced Japanese decorative patterns and so included such motifs as the crane, ocean waves, dragon, turtle shells, phoenix and the qilin. These motifs were specifically used on garments made for highly ranked Japanese government officials during the Heian period.

Raifuku – Front of the outer robe of the ceremonial court costume of Emperor Komei (1846 – 1866) 19th century (Imperial Collection of Japan) - illustrating Japanese adoption of Chinese motifs.

A gentlewoman in a court-style costume; Tang dynasty (618 - 907).

The “Silk Road over the sea” refers to trade between China and the coastal and island regions of South East Asia and Africa. Such trading began in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The Roman Empire at the time offered for silk such items as ivory, rhinoceros horns and turtle shells, whereas Persia, India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia added different items for trade such as pearls, feathers, spices, glass and cotton for silk fabrics. The Silk Road over the sea reached its peak in the Yuan (1231 - 1368) and Ming (1368 - 1644) Dynasties.

Short top with long skirt tied with a silk waistband; Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644).

Embroidery reached new heights in the Qin (221 – 206 BC) and Han (206 BC – 220 AD) Dynasties. For example, a workshop set up in Linzi, capital of the Qi Kingdom, was dedicated exclusively for making official court uniforms – with thousands of weavers hired to achieve this. All the rich wore the “five colored brocade” and decorated their furniture with silks and embroideries.

The five colors used for the Han (206 BC – 220 AD) pattern woven silks.

The Song (960 - 1279) dynasty is the peak of Chinese embroidery both in terms of quantity of garments produced and their quality. The social pressures created an atmosphere for this to occur. In this agricultural age, all women were required to learn needlecraft. Hence embroidery was a basic skill needed in order for women to be accepted by society and moreover, embroidery itself was seen to be an art form, indicating a cultivated voice of taste and creativity. Moreover, many of the embroidered ideas originated from depicting works of art by painters, thereby indicating a cultured education.

Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). This upper-class woman wears a narrow-sleeved wrap top over an underskirt. The long skirt is held at the waist by an embroidered pocket. The long scarf serves as a shawl. Her “double bun” hairstyle is adorned with jewels and clasps.

In the Ming (1368 - 1644) and later Qing (1644 - 1911) Dynasties, embroidery reached its peak in popularity. In two hundred years spanning the Qing (1368 - 1644) Dynasty local schools of embroidery were commonplace, the most famous being the Suzhou, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing and Shandong Schools. All of these schools borrowed heavily from their local and ethnic cultures.

Formal robe with dragon pattern on the dark blue background. Ming (1368 - 1644) Dynasty in Kong’s family collection.

Five colors used in the Ming (1368 - 1644) brocade silk.

An embroidered red satin robe for women; Qing (1644 - 1911) dynasty.

A purple satin robe with double sleeves; Qing (1644 - 1911) dynasty.

A blue satin imperial with golden dragons; Qing (1644 - 1911) dynasty.

Today machines have replaced the human hand and fashion is now internationally connected. The art of Embroidery has been preserved asa part of China’s great cultural heritage. What is often not recognized in the West is that China is a pluralistic society which contains many ethnic minority people who have their own voice in using embroidery – a taste of which is given below.

Yi women of Chuxiong Prefecture,Yunnan Province,in their ethnic clothes.

Embroidered Woman's Velvet Mandarin Jacket. Uygur Nationality Kashi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Qing Dynasty.

Braided embroidered material for making sleeves. Miao Nationality Taigong, Guizhou Province. Late 20th century.

Women of Dong ethnic group make embroidery works at Tongle Village in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

A Tibetan woman displays her Tibetan embroidery, a special genre of embroidery featuring Tibetan decorative patterns, in Guinan County, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, southeastern Qinghai Province.

Mongolian robes in Zha Lute region.

Kazakh embroidery.

China, Yunnan, near Kunming, Yunnan Nationalities Village, close-up of skirt of Jingpo woman.

[1] H. Mei, Chinese Clothing, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne (2011).


Flora Fascinata said...

Another great resource for me and the students, Marie Therese. We actually write an essay about China's cultural heritage in relation to silk. Very excited to read this comprehensive and illustrated medium. :)

Anonymous said...

For art of embroidery, i recommend JatSew - a website for Shu Embrodiery

Anonymous said...

JatSew - a website for Shu Embrodiery

Art Quill Studio said...

Thanks for your kind comment Flora. Great to hear that your students may find this blog post informative with respect to their essay and research !

Thanks Jim for the Shu Embroidery webite information.