Chinese embroidery

Fragment of Chinese embroidery from No. 1 Chu tomb at Mashan, Jiangling, Hubei Province. Warring States period, 475-221 BC). Tiger design in chain stitch. Fragment of Chinese embroidery from No. 1 Chu tomb at Mashan, Jiangling, Hubei Province. Warring States period, 475-221 BC). Tiger design in chain stitch.

Embroidery has been popular in China for thousands of years. It is generally called xiuhua or zhahua ('making decorations with a needle'; xiu referring to embroidery itself). Most of the Chinese embroideries are made of silk. Documents from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) refer to embroidered robes. In the Shujing history book, which is even older, embroidery is also being mentioned.

The traditional official dress of the emperors, as first described in the Shujing, included an upper garment with painted decoration in six colours, and an undergarment with embroidered ornaments, also in six colours.

Impressions of embroidery have been found on a bronze wine vessel from the Shang Dynasty (c. 1500-1066 BC), and there is an impression of chain stitch embroidery that dates back to the Western Zhou (c. 1066-771). Extant examples of embroidery date back to later centuries. They are mostly worked in chain stitch, which was the dominant embroidery technique until the early first millennium. Later, the satin stitch became popular, especially to depict realistic images of the Buddha, but also of human faces, animals, plants, etc. 

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), apart from various forms of the satin stitch, use was also made of gold thread: the craftsmen glued leaves of gold onto paper or sheepskin, and then cut it into thin strips, which were subsequently used for embroidery.

A tomb of the Liao Dynasty nomadic rulers of the Qidan, and dating to c. 960, included garments embroidered in the characteristic Tang Dynasty traditions, but also with consecutive stitches and couching.

During the Northern Song (960-1126), a professional embroidery workshop was set up in the imperial capital. At the same time, the popularity grew of embroidered pictures and embroidered calligraphy. This development continued during the Southern Song (1127-1279) and Yuan Dynasties (1279-1368), when embroideries were worked as forms of art. A famous embroidered picture from the Southern Song is 'Riding a Crane over a Beautiful Terrace', which was based on a painting by a famous artist. This embroidery made use of a multitude of different techniques.

Southern Song Dynasty embroideries also use gauze embroidering and what is called chuosha. Both forms correspond to the petit point technique in Europe.

Yuan embroideries are characterised by the use of gold. Some of the few extant examples are housed in the Liaoning Provincial Museum, and include the Lotus Sutra and the Prajnaparamita Sutra embroideries.

Trying to imitate pictures crated by famous artists, embroiderers went to extremes to achieve the effect of original paintings. The Gu family in Luxiangyuan, Jiangsu Province (Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644) used the 'hair embroidery', whereby hairs of newborn babies were used in the design, in order to create extremely fine lines.

In the succeeding Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the use of embroidery flourished among all ranks of the population. New techniques were developed, including the 'split-colour floss' method. Commercial firms were set up everywhere to sell embroidery tools and materials.

Important contemporary Chinese embroidery traditions include Gu embroidery, Shu embroidery, Suzhou embroidery, Xiang embroidery, and Yue embroidery.

Source: WANG, Yarong (1985). Chinese Embroidery. A World of Fable and Color. New York: Kodansha International.

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 16 October 2016).



Last modified on Thursday, 13 May 2021 18:04