Chinese Textiles

Traditionally dyed Chinese cotton

Silk production, characteristic of China's earliest civilization, has been an enduring feature of Chinese tradition and a distinctive aspect of China's interaction with other cultures. From China's Neolithic era, hemp and ramie were cultivated and woven into textiles for clothing and other uses. Wool textiles played a minor role, associated with border peoples of the north and west. Cotton cultivation began at least by the eighth century. By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), it had become an industry to rival silk production. Though silk retained its role as a luxury fabric and a symbol of Chinese culture, cotton cloth ultimately became a widespread material and an economic staple.

From the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), silk manufacture comprised a major state-controlled industry. For thousands of years, along land routes through Central Asia and sea routes along the coasts of East and Southeast Asia, silk was both a major commodity and at times a standard medium of exchange. In China's diplomacy, silk played a stabilizing role, bringing large areas of Inner Asia into the Chinese sphere of influence. At home, silk production was viewed as a moral imperative as well as a practical necessity. The Confucian adage, "men till, women weave," expresses the essential role of the women in a household in preparing silk yarn and cloth. Later, an increase in industrial specialization encouraged a shift of women's efforts from weaving to needlework, and yet the spirit of the phrase was preserved. As late as the seventeenth century, the state collected taxes in silk as well as in grain, underscoring the essential value of this human endeavor. Ultimately, the uses of silk expanded to include textiles made for appreciation as art as well as for clothing and furnishings.

Elaborate techniques were developed for producing complex designs, both in the woven cloth itself and in embellishments worked onto the surface. Brocades, weaves with supplementary weft yarns creating complex patterns, were employed in many variations, including the complex lampas weave with its extra binding warps. Kesi, a tapestry weave, perhaps originally developed by Central Asians with wool yarn, came to be highly refined in the works of Chinese weavers of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and later. Embroidery, a means of embellishing a woven fabric with stitches made using a threaded needle, flourished throughout the history of silk textiles in China.

Silk and Diplomacy

The value of silks for diplomatic gifts was recognized early. Confucian texts of the third century B.C.E. mention the practice. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), some diplomatic gifts to border peoples included 200,000 bolts of silk.

In the first century C.E., Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History (Book XII, translation by H. Rackham, 1952, p.3): "This inspires us with ever greater … wonder that starting from these beginnings man has come to quarry the mountains for marbles, to go as far as China for raiment, and to explore the depths of the Red Sea for the pear."

In 1912 Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943) described the textiles found in the "walled up temple library," at Dunhuang, including a large embroidery of a Buddha with bodhisattvas, an embroidered cushion cover with scrolling floral motifs, "a number of triangular head-pieces … detached from their painted banners … composed either in their body or in their broad borders of pieces of fine silk damask," and "a silk cover … intended for a manuscript roll" (Stein, pp. 207-210). The objects collected by Stein are now in the British Museum and the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities in New Delhi, India. Textiles were also collected at Dunhuang by the French archaeologist Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), now preserved in the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Another group of Dunhuang materials is in St. Petersburg, and more recent finds are kept in Chinese collections.

The Manila Galleon

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 disrupted trade and led Europeans to find their own sea routes to Asia. Chinese silk textiles were included in the earliest voyages of the Manila galleon in 1573. According to the inventory by Antonio de Morga, president of the audiencia at Manila, Spanish traders bought:

"raw silk in bundles, … fine untwisted silk, white and of all colors, … quantities of velvets … others with body of gold and embroidered with gold; woven stuffs and brocades, of gold and silver upon silk … gold and silver thread … damasks, satins, taffetas, … linen … cotton. (Schurz, p. 73) "

Historical and Archaeological Evidence

Needles have been found in some of China's earliest inhabited sites. Abundant evidence of the making of fabrics from hemp and ramie has been found in sites of the fifth millennium B.C.E. Spindle whorls of stone or pottery found in these sites confirm the spinning of hemp or ramie fibers into threads for weaving and sewing. Components of what may have been a backstrap loom have also been identified. Impressions of woven materials on the bases of pottery vessels, such as those found at Banpo, Shaanxi province, suggest the varied uses of coarse cloth or matting, in this case to create a simple turntable for pottery making. Remains at sites of the Liangzhu culture of the Lower Yangtze River region confirm the initiation of sericulture by the third millennium B.C.E. Here can be found the earliest confirmed evidence of the development of the complex process of raising silkworms (Bombyx mori), harvesting the filaments from their cocoons and then reeling the silk and weaving it into cloth.

silk farming
silk production

Shang (C. 1550 B.C.E.-1045 B.C.E.) and Zhou (C. 1045 B.C.E. -221 B.C.E.) Dynasties

Tombs of China's Bronze Age provide evidence that silk, like bronze and jade, was a luxury commodity, important for ritual use. The royal tombs at Anyang, Henan province, reveal that ritual bronze objects and also ritual jades were wrapped in silk before being buried as grave goods. In the tomb of Lady Fu Hao (twelfth century B.C.E.), more than fifty ritual bronzes are known to have been wrapped in silk cloth. Anyang silks included various weaves, damasks as well as plain (tabby) weave, and some examples were embroidered with patterns in chain stitch.

Spectacular finds of Zhou dynasty silks from the Warring States period (453-221 B.C.E.) are identified with the distinctive Zhou culture centered in China's middle Yangtze River valley. A tomb at Mashan, Hubei province (datable to the fourth century B.C.E.), yielded the following silks: a coffin cover, a silk painting, bags of utensils, costumes on wooden tomb figures, and nineteen layers of clothing and quilts around the corpse itself. Plain silks, brocades, and plain and patterned gauzes were included as well as embroidery in cross-stitch and counted stitch. Analysis of the complex and densely woven Mashan silks has led scholars to suggest that an early form of the drawloom must have been used to produce them.

Other well-known finds from the Zhou culture confirm the early use of silk as a ground for painting, specifically in two third-century B.C.E. pictorial banners used in funerary rituals and then buried with the deceased. A work known as the "Zhou Silk Manuscript," dated to circa 300 B.C.E., documents the tradition that early Chinese texts were written on silk cloth and bamboo as well as cast in bronze or carved on stone. Examples of shop marks have been found on silks of this period, including a brocade with an impressed seal, suggesting a growing respect for distinctive workshop products and the commercial value of textiles.

Archaeological finds outside China's traditional borders confirm the scattered early references to China's export of silk to neighboring lands. In the Scythian tombs at Pazyryk in the Altai mountains of Siberia (excavated in 1929 and 1947-1949) silks datable to 500-400 B.C.E. were found together with textiles of Near Eastern origin. This evidence gives credence to the belief that the Greeks had imported Chinese silk by the fifth or fourth century B.C.E.

Qin (221-206 B.C.E.) and Han (206 B.C.E. -220 C.E.) Dynasties

Having built the first empire of China, Qin Shi Huangdi (best known in the early 2000s for the 1974 discovery of his "terra-cotta army") built a great palace. Among its remains have been found silks, including brocade, damask, plain silk, and embroidered silk. After the reconsolidation of the empire under Han imperial rule, silk production became a primary industry, with state-supervised factories employing thousands of workers who produced silks and imperial costumes. Officials were sometimes paid or rewarded with silk textiles. As stability declined at the end of the period, textiles and grain replaced coinage as a recognized medium of exchange.

The legacy of the former state of Zhou continued to flourish, as shown by the rich treasures found at the noble tombs at Mawangdui, Hunan province (second century B.C.E.). Here was preserved silk clothing in fully intact robes. In addition there were manuscripts, maps, and paintings on silk, including elaborate funerary banners showing a portrait of the deceased entering an afterworld of cosmic symbols and signs of immortality. Embroidered silks follow patterns seen in the earlier Mashan silks, using chain stitch worked in cloud-scroll patterns. Printed silks found at Mawangdui correspond to a relief stamp found in the tomb of the Second King of Nan Yue (in Guangzhou, datable to before 122 B.C.E.), providing confirmation that techniques and styles had spread throughout the empire.

Han tombs have yielded a variety of silks, including plain weave, gauze weave, both plain and patterned, and pile-loop brocade similar to velvet. More than twenty dyed colors have been identified. Embellishment of woven fabrics included new techniques of embroidery incorporating gold or feathers, as well as block-printing, stenciling, and painting on silk. Later Han silks include a striking number of woven patterns with texts, usually several characters with auspicious meanings. From pictorial representations, scholars have deduced that Han weavers used treadle looms.

Chinese silken banner
Han Dynasty silken banner excavated from tomb in Hunan

Finds in remote areas have added to our understanding of production and commerce relating to silk textiles. Sir Aurel Stein found in Western China a strip of undyed silk inscribed by hand stating the origin, dimensions, weight, and price. A seal impression designates its origin in Shandong province in Northeast China. Other finds established the standard selvage-to-selvage width of Han silk, at between 17½ and 19½ inches (from 45 to 50 centimeters). At Loulan, in the Tarim Basin in the far Northwest of modern China (Xinjiang province), excavated by Stein (1906-1908 and 1913-1914), Han figured silk textile fragments (datable to the third century C.E. or earlier) were found together with an early example of slit tapestry woven in wool. The latter may be a precursor of the later kesi slit tapestry in silk. Finds at Noin-Ula, in northern Mongolia, dated second century C.E., give further evidence of the widespread exchange of silks throughout Asia. Although details of the trade are yet to be fully understood, comments by early writers make clear the admiration for Chinese silks in the Roman world.

Six Dynasties Period (220-589) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Political disunity during the third to sixth centuries brought close interaction with Central Asia, leading to new styles and techniques relating to textile production. Tang silks reflect these closer contacts established during the previous centuries. The Tang maintained an open capital with foreigners among its merchants and varied ethnic and religious groups among its populace. A general shift in weaving techniques distinguishes Tang silk from that of the Han dynasty. While Han patterns were warp-patterned, the weavings of Tang came to be weftpatterned.

Some of the best Tang textiles survive in temples in Japan, where Chinese fabrics have been carefully preserved in Buddhist temples since before the eighth century. The most important of these holdings is that of the Shōsōin (a storehouse dedicated at Tōdai-ji, Nara, in 756, for the donated collection of Emperor Shōmu), which contains various garments and other textiles believed to have been brought back to Japan by Buddhist monks returning from China.

Investigation of Chinese textiles was stimulated by stunning discoveries of well-preserved ancient textiles in Central Asian sites, including Sir Aurel Stein's expeditions in northwest China and inner Asia (in 1900, 1906-1908, 1913-1916 and 1930). Discoveries at Dunhuang's Buddhist cave temples yielded a new range of textiles for study, and brought about an early appreciation of the importance of textiles in Buddhist ritual. Such textiles were probably pious offerings made by Buddhists from Central Asia, especially Sogdiana, as well as from China. Many of the silks were sewn into banners or other adornments for Buddhist chapels, or into wrappers for sacred texts (sutra scrolls). A mantle (kashaya) for a Buddhist priest, its patchwork symbolizing the vow of poverty, was also found. Many of the silk textiles have bright patterns, woven or embroidered, while others were adorned after weaving by painting, printing, stenciling, or by dyeing using resist techniques including clamp-resist, wax-resist and tie-dyeing. The weaving techniques documented in these finds include silk tapestry (kesi), gauze, and damasks, as well as compound weft-faced and warp-faced weaves that were probably woven on a drawloom. These finds confirm that patronage of Buddhism encouraged creation of pictorial textiles either woven in the kesi technique or embroidered with highly refined use of stitches (often satin stitch) to create representational effects.

Important examples of Tang silks have been found at Famen Temple, Shaanxi province. Here, a ritual offering datable to C.E. 874 included about 700 textiles including brocades (many with metallic threads), twill, gauze, pongee, embroidery, and printed silk. Among them was a set of miniature Buddhist vestments including a model of a kashaya, an apron (or altar frontal), and clothing, all couched with gold-wrapped threads on a silk gauze ground in patterns of lotus blossoms and clouds.

Tang Dynasty embroidery on plain-weave silk
Tang Dynasty embroidery on plain-weave silk

Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Song weavers brought refinement to textile technology, especially the weaving of satin and of kesi tapestries. Generally the use of gold and silver increased both in embroidery and in woven brocades. Needle-loop embroidery, a detached looping stitch sometimes combined with appliqué of gilt paper, came into use. In Song times as in the Tang, embroidery and tapestry were used for devotional Buddhist images, but now the techniques were also employed to create items for aesthetic appreciation, like paintings, in the form of scrolls or album leaves.

Jin (1115-1234) and Yuan (1279-1368) Dynasties

Silk played a major role in trade, diplomacy, and court life under the Jin dynasty, founded by the Jurchen, a Tatar people, and the Yuan, founded by the Mongols, both non-Chinese ruling houses. Jin and Yuan brocades, notable for rich patterning with gilt wefts of leather or paper substrate, have been a focus of recent exhibitions. Due to the open trade connections encouraged by the Mongol conquests, these silks spread widely. Examples reached the pope through trade and diplomatic gifts. Thus, the cloth of gold favored by Mongol leaders had its counterpart in the panno tartarico of fourteenth-century Europe.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

By Ming times, weavers employed elaborate drawlooms using up to forty different colored wefts and incorporating flat gold (gilt paper) strips, gold-wrapped threads as well as iridescent peacock feathers to produce their brocades. The Yongle reign (1403-1424) saw a tremendous dedication of resources to the production of diplomatic gifts including textiles for Buddhist purposes, a practice carried over into the Xuande reign period (1426-1435). Excavations at the tomb of the Ming emperor Wanli (reigned 1572-1620) yielded two complete sets of uncut woven silk for dragon robes, as well as silk brocades and patterned gauzes marked as products of the imperial workshops in Nanjing and Suzhou.

By the late sixteenth century, cotton cultivation, which had been encouraged under the Yuan dynasty and expanded further under the Ming, became a major part of the Chinese economy. From at least Tang dynasty times, cotton had been used to make clothing for the lower classes (Cahill [p. 113] observes that "cotton-clad" meant a commoner in medieval Chinese poetry). In subsequent centuries, cotton cloth was associated with the virtues of humility. Ginned cotton was transported south from Henan and Shandong provinces, or shipped north from Fujian and Guangdong, to the Jiangnan region where it would be made into thread and woven into cloth. Cotton thread is noted among Chinese exports to Japan, and white cotton cloth as well as cotton garments of blue or white are recorded among the items exported on the Manila galleon.

Domestically, cotton found wide use in undergarments and in linings for silk (such as in silk garments for ceremonial use), and it also came to be dyed in bright colors and calendered to an attractively polished surface. The most distinctive artistic developments in Chinese cotton textiles are those that survive primarily in rural traditions and folk art relating to minority groups, including the Miao of Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. The primary techniques, resist dyeing (using stencils to apply a paste that would retain white undyed areas), and batik (using wax to reserve undyed areas), had been known in China, along with block printing, tie-dyeing, and clamp-resist, since the Han dynasty, and are found in silk examples preserved from the Tang period. The characteristic blue from indigo, typical of dyed cotton, also reflects an ancient tradition, recorded in detail in Ming dynasty texts.

Anthropologists and historians have noted a shift in importance among China's women from activities in weaving to embroidery in the seventeenth century. Increasing specialization meant that finished yarn and finished cloth could be purchased routinely. This spurred a rising interest in embroidery among the gentry, and a related rise in the status of embroidery to verge upon that of the fine arts of painting and calligraphy. The Gu family of Shanghai, for example, came to prominence for their distinctive pictorial embroidery style. A manual of embroidery designs compiled by the scholar-calligrapher Shen Linqi (1602-1664), published in woodblock-printed form, set out themes and patterns that inspired embroiderers for centuries.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Study of Qing textiles has focused on the court collections, now in Beijing's Palace Museum and in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, including wall decorations, curtains, desk frontals and upholstery fabrics, ceremonial and informal costumes, and works of art. When the Qianlong emperor, inspired by scholar-collectors of the late Ming as well as by the precedent of the Song Emperor Huizong (reigned 1101-1125), commissioned scholar-officials to catalog his art collections (producing the Bidian Zhulin and the Shiqu Baoji, published in 1744-1745, 1793, and 1816) these catalogs included examples of kesi and embroidery alongside painting and calligraphy. Qianlong himself may have selected works to be "reproduced" in kesi, including his own painting and poetry and works in his collection of painting and calligraphy.

The Qing emperors were Manchus whose homeland was in the far Northeast beyond China's traditional borders. When they conquered China, they were quick to adopt the Chinese practice of using gifts of silk, particularly cloth for dragon robes, as a means to bring the powerful leaders of vassal states into their own military bureaucracy. The Qing forebears had been on the receiving end of this practice during the late Ming period. Silk had long been used to pacify border peoples; Song examples are striking, but the practice began before the Han dynasty. Most visible among textiles surviving up to the twenty-first century are the lavish silk brocades bestowed upon Tibetan nobles and preserved in Tibet's dry climate until recent years.

Qing Dynasty Tapestry
Qing Dynasty tapestry

Collecting and Study of Textile

Until recently, the study of Chinese textiles revolved around Beijing's imperial palaces, a focal point for interest in Chinese culture after the end of Qing dynasty rule in 1911. In the years before the formal establishment of the Palace Museum within the former Forbidden City in 1925, many court costumes and other textiles were dispersed into collections worldwide. Western scholars took a keen interest in Chinese textiles as they came to know them through these court robes and interior furnishings. In recent years, collections have been technically analyzed and historically documented in studies carried out at the Association pour l'Étude et la Documentation des Textiles d'Asie (AEDTA), Paris; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; Hong Kong Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Cleveland Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Phoenix Art Museum; the Chicago Art Institute; and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

See also China: History of Dress; Silk.


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Chinese Textiles