Art of Embroidery History


Embroidery is considered to be the quintessence of Chinese culture. Combining elements of painting and calligraphy, embroidery is actually a form of traditional Chinese art.

As one of the ancient handicrafts of China, embroidery has greatly contributed to the progress and enhancement of China's material civilization. Archaeological finds, however, place the beginnings of embroidery at some point during the Shang dynasty (1766 B.C. to 1122 B.C.).

Originally used to signify one's caste position, embroidery later came to have a purely ornamental value and common people. As embroidery developed, its artistic features multiplied. Archaeological discoveries reveal that while embroidery remained crudely simple throughout the Chou dynasty, it became increasingly sophisticated during the Warring State Period (475-221 B.C.), and reached an aesthetic peak in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-221 A.D.)

The economic prosperity of the Han dynasty supported the rise of numerous cottage industries, one of which -- the silk weaving industry -- was crucial to embroidery. Furthermore, as the number of rich and privileged people increased, so did the demand for embroidery. With a strong supply of raw materials and robust market demand, embroidery flourished.

In the Han dynasty, embroidery was used for more than just decorating clothes. Numerous specialized applications for embroidery were devised, and tremendous advances were made in embroidery techniques. Works from the Han dynasty are elegantly designed pieces of great intricacy and variety. Their success laid an excellent foundation for the development of embroidery throughout the next two millennia.

TANG DYNASTY (618-907 A.D.)

Since then the development of embroidery continued, and the trend towards functional diversification intensified. The hallmark of embroidery in the succeeding centuries was the introduction of religious motifs. Buddhism was introduced into China from India over the seven hundred years ago. To show their sincerity and respect, Chinese Buddhists chose embroidery, which was a symbol of honor and diligence, as their favorite media for portraying Buddhist imagery. Large in size and scope, the colossal works of "Buddhist embroidery" were in great demand during the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Today, museums in England and Japan still have some masterpieces of Buddhist embroidery from the Tang dynasty. The pieces have been crafted with the strictest attention to detail and employ an inspiring palette of colors. Buddhist embroidery is thus considered to be one of the distinct successes of classical embroidery. Another Tang dynasty accomplishment was the development of new embroidery stitches. Prior to the Tang dynasty, the chain stitch was the only way commonly used in embroidery. Then, in the Tang, the satin stitch was invented and quickly replaced the chain stitch. The satin stitch has been popular with embroiderers ever since because it frees them to use different stitching styles and to create artful new patterns. The technical innovation ushered in an era of unprecedented development in embroidery.

SUNG DYNASTY (960-1280)

The artisans of the Sung dynasty (960-1280) were able to create purely aesthetic embroidery of a quality and quantity far surpassing anything seen before and certainly never seen since. The tremendous success of the Sung embroiderers was due to three phenomena. First, the satin stitch was permutable and many other new stitches were derived from it. Second, tools and materials used in embroidery were greatly improved during the Sung dynasty. For example, Sung artisans used delicately-made steel needles and thread as thin as hair. Third, the art of embroidery completely merged with the art of painting. Embroiderers would actually stitch duplicates of paintings by noted painters. The exquisite masterpieces of Sung embroidery comprised hundreds of thousands of intricate stitches in a vast spectrum of pleasing colors. The resulting images are strikingly vivid and lifelike.

MING DYNASTY (1368-1644)

Handicraft arts, especially embroidery, continued to flourish during the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Ming embroidery had three major distinctive features. First, embroidery was very popular and was used extensively by people of different social classes for a wide variety of purposes. Second, the quality of embroidery for practical uses was greatly improved as embroidery materials were refined and embroidering techniques matured. Although carrying forward the tradition of excellence established in the Sung dynasty, embroidery in the Ming dynasty saw many innovations. Professional embroiderers and even whole families gained fame for their embroidery skills. For example, the well-known "embroidery of the fragrant dew garden" was established by the Ku family of Shang-hai. The Ku family is known for using embroidery to "paint" pictures. Their style of "embroidery painting" was popular up through the late Ming and early Ching dynasties. The third major development in Ming dynasty embroidery was the introductions of materials other than silk. For example, translucent embroidery was stitched with silk gauze; hair embroidery used human hair for thread; paper embroidery used paper thread; flannel embroidery was made by gluing and then stitching flannel patterns on cloth; lace embroidery was stitched along the little holes in lace; and gold embroidery used threads of pure gold. These innovations greatly extended the artistic range of embroidery.

CHING DYNASTY (1644-1911)

Embroidery in the Ching dynasty (1644-1911) maintained the momentum gained during the Ming dynasty. Flourishing throughout the 260 plus years of the China, embroidery underwent two noteworthy changes during this period. First, it became more regional in style, with embroidery from Kiangsu, Kwangtung, Szechwan, Hunan, Peking, and Shan-tung enjoying special acclaim at the time. Each of these local embroidery styles strove to set itself apart from the others through technical and thematic innovation. Second, some embroiderers in the late Ching dynasty began working within the aesthetic framework provided by western painting. The former was represented by "fine art embroidery" developed by Shen Shou, and the later by "random stitched embroidery" developed by Yang Shou-yu from Kiangsu province. The new blood introduced by these two embroiderers infused traditional Chinese embroidery with a new vitality.


In feudal china, the ethnical code of Confucianism manifested itself in everything, and the ways people were dressed were clearly distinctive of their differences in social status. All dynasties had a set of rules specifying every minute detail of clothing worn by people of each class or social strata, ranging from the style, pattern and materials of the clothes and hats to the kind of ornaments people were allowed to use. Silk cloth was reserved for ranking officials and aristocrats. In ancient Chinese vocabulary, "buyi" and "baixing" were synonyms. In the Han dynasty, red was the color for aristocrats, and in the Tang dynasty, purple. And from Tang dynasty to Qing, yellow was meant exclusive for emperors and their direct relatives, and the colors of commoners'clothing were limited to blue, white and black. And for this reason, persons with neither official nor aristocratic titles were often referred to as "baiyi", which literally means "persons wearing white clothes". Ranks and status were often indicated in patterns on cloths.

Dragon pattern was meant for emperors exclusively. Official gowns of the Qing dynasty had embroidered patches on chest and the back, and on the patches there were designs of different birds and animals to denote the different ranks of the wearers. Generally speaking, patterns of legendary or real birds were embroidered on patches for civilian officials, and military officials were entitled to fierce-looking animals either real or legendary.

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