20080303-Chinese imperial robe  panel toranahouse.jpg
Imperial robe
Embroidery has traditionally been a skill practiced by nearly all Chinese women. Silk embroidery developed very early in China, perhaps as early as 2200 B.C. Up until the Tang dynasty (618-906), it was used mainly to decorate clothing and other objects. From the Tang Dynasty on, it was also used to represent calligraphy and paintings.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““Embroidery is one of the oldest and most elegant of the textile arts in China. It involves weaving colored silk with a needle onto a background. By embroidering images from painting and calligraphy, an endless variety of decoration and patterning is possible, thereby giving full reign to the artistic potential of this medium. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“In China, embroidery and other sophisticated forms of weaving are closely related because they all use thread derived from the silkworm. The Chinese culture, in fact, was the first to invent the use of silkworm thread. From early in China's history, the art of sericulture (raising silkworms and preparing silk) developed along with the techniques of embroidery. For example, designs for embroidered court robes made of silk are mentioned in the Book of History, which purports that embroidery existed already by the time of the legendary Emperor Shun (fl. 23rd c. B.C. ). By the Eastern Zhou (770-256 B.C.), a state office was established to regulate its production, and palace-made embroidery already existed in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-AD 220). From then on, embroidery became one of the refined arts of ladies at court, and famous embroiderers began to enjoy a prominent position along with other artists. In China, there are also hand knitted and hand tufted carpets.

The ancient craft of embroidery can be understood by analogy as the art of "adding splendor to beauty." Actual examples of embroidery unearthed from the Warring States and Qin to Han period (475 B.C.-220 CE) is mostly done in the chain stitch method, the lines of the forms succinct and fluid. By the Tang dynasty (618-907), embroidery became intimately associated with religion and was rendered often in the chain, knot, and satin stitch techniques. Combined with gold- and silver-wrapped strands as well as the application of gold couching, this art underwent ever-increasing innovation, bringing its skills to a higher level of maturity. Embroideries of the Five Dynasties (907-960) and Northern Song (960-1127) period further developed on the foundation of those from the Tang dynasty.

Websites and Sources: China Online Museum ; University of Washington ; China -Art History Resources ; Art History Resources on the Web ; ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts / ; Asian ; Qing Art Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Beijing Palace Museum ;Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Sackler Museum in Washington ; Shanghai Museum; Crafts : Kites ; Furniture ; Furniture ; Jade: Chinatown Connection ; International Colored Gem Association

History of Embroidery in China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The earliest surviving embroidery is in the form of two pieces excavated from a Ch'u tomb of the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) in the southern Hunan site of Ch'ang-sha. Detailed study of the needlework shows that they were done with braids on silk in what is known as “chain embroidery.” The needlework is already exceptionally meticulous and the choice of colors refined and elegant. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Han examples of embroidery follow mostly in this technique. The silk base became filled with patterns and the composition increasingly crowded. Needlework is just as even and meticulous and the lines flow with grace. By the Tang dynasty (618-907), techniques had begun to change towards that of “plain embroidery,” and patterns came to be more closely related to those of paintings, which at the time was dominated by figures as well as landscapes and birds-and-flowers.

“The art of embroidery was encouraged by the court in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and a specialized subject of embroidered pictures even emerged under Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125). Consequently, famous embroiderers started to appear at this time, taking the field of embroidered pictures to its peak of development. As objects of function and appreciation, the addition of subject matter from painting and calligraphy further lifted the art to a unique position in the history of Chinese art.

“Very few examples of Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) embroidery survive. Those seen today follow mostly in the Sung style. However, Yuan embroiderers used inferior thread, and their needlework was often not as refined as the exceptional detail and finesse of their Sung counterparts. It was not until the Chia-ching period (1522-1566) of the Ming dynasty that embroidery was revived to its former glory by the Ku clan in the Shanghai area, hence the name “Ku embroidery.” The needlework in Ku embroidery follows mostly after sophisticated Sung techniques, but with variations in material and technique that perfected the art for a true “grand synthesis.” The use of multiple colors of silk create an effect unmatched except for Sung embroidery. Based on the subject, different types of material were freely added without being necessarily confined to embroidery techniques. Some of the finest pieces of embroidery during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) were made for the court, which demanded works of exceptional elegance and quality. However, outside the court, many regional centers of embroidery also emerged, such as in the Suzhou, Sichuan, and Canton areas — each with their own distinctive style. Among them, Suzhou embroidery is the most famous.

Major Chinese Embroidery Stiching Techniques

Split Stitch is a method of straight needlework in which the stitches are connected to form lines. The latter stitch of each is embroidered through the former, creating a straight and smooth line. The smooth straight embroidered lines are used for hair and willow leaves. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

Long-and-Short Stitch is used to express variations of washes and colors, an irregular reel arrangement involves alternation of long and short stitches embedded together. According to their direction and length, there are parallel, concentric, and scattered types. The embroidery surface is fine and smooth, the changes to the threads natural and colors rich. This is the most common stitch method for more complex wash techniques in flowers, leaves, and feathers.

Knot Stitch is also known as "seed" stitching. The embroidered lines form small circles. After stitching a circle, a knot is made on the embroidered surface like a seed. With one stitch for one dot, this is an early form of needlework. A variety of methods are often used for such details as the flower pistils, cockscomb, and red crest of the crane as well as the flowers and gems.

Thread-Couching Stitch and Gold-couching Stitch are methods in which gold- and silver-wrapped threads form various applied patterns fastened with similarly colored thread to the surface, creating a majestic and resplendent effect. This was already widely used in the Tang dynasty. This is applied extensively in "The Three Star Gods", (See Below) such as for decorating the clouds, crowns, hairpins, and outlines to the clothing, patterns, and flowers.

Pine-needle Stitch is an embroidery method used to render pine needles and grass, forming fan or ball shapes. It is used mainly for pine needle clusters, with fan-shaped pine-needle stitching also applied to the grasses and water plants.

Network Stitch is a an embroidery method to render network geometric decoration, the pattern for the embroidery network is first stitched. Then a variety of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines form triangular, rhombic, hexagonal, and other geometric shapes, to which variations are made and thread couching stitches used to affix the pattern. Though orderly, the pattern still is quite varied. There is much network stitching in "The Three Star Gods" (See Below). First orderly threads were embroidered to bring out a variety of surfaces and then network embroidery for the different patterns. Examples include the cloud and floral patterns on the robe of the God of Happiness, the " knit gold"decoration of immortal mountains on the four-sided rhombic pattern of the God of Longevity, the scale-like openwork of the rock pedestals, other rhombic forms creating a fine network, the cloud pattern on the drum surface and the flowers on the silk, and the irregular and honeycomb patterning. The opulent decoration enriches the surface with a volumetric effect.

“Three Star Gods" Embroidery

left"The Three Star Gods" embroidery of the Five Dynasties (907-960), by an anonymous artist or artists, is considered a masterpiece based on its age and beauty. Chinese embroidery that are this old and in this good of condition are rare. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ “In this embroidery are shown three star gods seated under a pine tree with groups of immortal maidens playing music and dancing, the sizes of the figures shown relative to their status. The top row of figures features, from right to left, the Gods of Prosperity, Happiness, and Longevity. The Star God of Prosperity holds a feather fan and has a deer kneeling by his side, the word for "deer" in Chinese being a homonym for "prosperity." The Star God of Happiness is holding a flywhisk, his crown forming a gourd shape as female immortals hold a fan and carry peaches in attendance behind to the left. The Star God of Longevity, with his benevolent countenance and long eyebrows, holds a jade tablet as a red-crowned crane with a character for "longevity" has before him to make an offering. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“The second row of figures below consists of immortals playing music. They are shown with such instruments as a waist drum, bamboo flute, pipa, large drum, and clapper, with one of the maiden immortals listening to the music and dancing. Below them is another gaily dressed immortal maiden standing in front of a cauldron offering incense. Two servant maidens carry a treasure vase and peach of immortality in attendance. The lowermost level shows five bare-footed maiden immortals with canopies over their heads, each with an auspicious animal by her side. A tall pine tree rises in the background dotted with various auspicious flowers and fruits as well as swirling wisps of clouds. A profusion of colors creates an atmosphere that truly echoes the joyous realm of celestial beings.

“The embroidery technique throughout this work is spontaneous, the stitching at the time not restricted to the pattern of the original draft, the ink outlines of which are still barely discernible. The stitches are fine, everywhere exhibiting the consummate skill of early embroidery. The faces and limbs of the figures, for example, were done using a combined method of long-and-short and split stitch techniques, their eyes and eyebrows dotted with brush and ink. Furthermore, knot stitching was employed to embroider the floral foils, wrapped gold stitching for the golden phoenix crown decoration, network embroidery for the floral patterning of the robes, and gold couching needlework to outline the forms. The threads in this embroidery are mostly blue, green, and orange. Combined with a large number of golden strands, the coloring here is classically elegant and gorgeously resplendent, fully echoing and radiating the splendor associated with the Three Star Gods shown here.

Story of the “Three Star Gods"

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The Three Star Gods refer to the three immortals of happiness, prosperity, and longevity, popular deities representing common aspirations of the people. Since the origins of these gods are quite ancient, any attempt to determine a definitive source for them inevitably meets with widely divergent opinions. Regardless of which one is correct, the explanation finding most favor says that after the worship of star constellations in ancient China gradually personified them in the form of deities, a popular belief in this trinity developed. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“The Star God of Happiness originated with the New Year Star, which is actually Jupiter and believed to bring fortune to people. In popular legend, King Wen of the Zhou enjoyed the happiness of a hundred children, gradually making him the representative figure for this deity. The God of Happiness can also be traced to the Three Officials of Taoism, in which the Official of the Heavens brings fortune, the Official of the Earth pardons offenses, and the Official of the Waters relieves hardship. As this belief passed down through the ages, the idea that the Official of the Heavens could bestow fortune emerged as the most popular among people. As a result, this official became the object of worship as a god of happiness. Popular images of the Official of the Heavens often show him wearing red robes in an elegant and poised manner. Above is an image of a bat, the homonym for fortune signifying its descent from the Heavens. As for the God of Prosperity, a saying identifies him as the sixth star in the celestial Wenchang Palace and specifically in charge of rank and position. After some forced explanation, he becomes the chief star official of prosperity. The spokesperson for the Star God of Prosperity emerged as Immortal Zhang of the Five Dynasties period, shown wearing an official's robe and crown with a deer and monkey by his side. Both these animals are homonyms in Chinese for advancing in position and promotion, or even receiving immediate ennoblement. The Star God of Longevity is known as such for being the eldest of the constellations. Also called the Elder of the Far South and Elder Immortal of the Far South, he is a favorite among the people and one of the most easily recognized. Short and plump, he leans on a staff with a large head and protruding forehead. He has long eyebrows and a gentle countenance, his white facial hair hanging down to the waist. Smiling and cupping his hands, he has an amusing appearance and is often accompanied by the red-crowned crane and peach of immortality, both of which stand for longevity.

“The Three Star Gods are major figures of belief among people in pursuit of prosperity, happiness, and longevity. Their images often appear in New Year's folk paintings and prints, but such works entering the imperial collection are extremely few. The simple composition of Chen Hongshou's "The Three Star Gods" from the Ming dynasty, for example, features flowing lines and the Star Gods of Prosperity, Happiness, and Longevity as literati. Besides the God of Longevity holding spirit fungus and his easily recognized staff, the Gods of Happiness and Prosperity appear like scholars, the three looking and talking to each other. "Happiness, Prosperity, and Longevity" by the Ming painter Shang Xi shows an attendant offering longevity peach accompanied by the deer of immortality and bat of prosperity. Suggesting prosperity and happiness, it shows another way that this subject appeared in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Most such tapestries and embroideries focus on the blessing for longevity, such as the anonymous embroidery of "The Three Star Gods" and an imperial tapestry of "The Three Star Gods with Painting." The compositions of such works often show the three gods in a gathering below a pine tree, the characteristics of the three quite obvious. The God of Happiness wears a red official's robe and is accompanied by a "grant-wishing" tablet and the peony, symbolizing nobility. The God of Prosperity is frequently shown holding a child, symbolizing "Immortal Zhang Sending Children" and "Five Sons Achieving Success." The God of Longevity has the peach of immortality and is surrounded by children, holding a spirit fungus or cistern and chime with other symbols of prosperity, such as the peony and treasure vase, which all have the connotation of auspiciousness, nobility, and peace, the imagery having become formalized by this time. The arrangement of the three gods in theFive Dynasties embroidery of "The Three Star Gods" along with music and dancing as well as raining blossoms are all its features. The embroidery methods here are also refined and the coloring classically elegant and richly beautiful, making it representative of Five Dynasties embroidery.

Qing Dynasty Embroidery

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The date of the earliest embroidery in the museum is from the Five Dynasties period (907-960), but most are from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Over the centuries, technical and artistic developments have led to various period styles, each with its own features and achievements. Furthermore, almost all the examples of embroidery in the Museum collection are exceptional. The techniques in all are meticulous, the needlework fine, and the coloring refined. So close to replicating the arts of painting and calligraphy, even down to the mountings, they can easily fool the eyes of viewers. Thus, the works in this special exhibition stand out as masterpieces in the art of weaving and as treasures in the history of Chinese visual art. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Shakyamuni”by an anonymous artist, is a hanging ccroll, measuring 130.9 centimeters x 59.8 centimeters. Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, is shown here with semi-closed eyes as if in a serene state of bliss. He holds his right hand in the symbol of preaching and sits on a high lotus pedestal encircled by auspicious clouds tinged with various colors. Above is a canopy of jewels below a cloud. The two great disciples of Shakyamuni appear in front. The older figure on the right is Mahakasyapa, while the other is Ananda. They appear in reverence before the viewer. The composition here almost fills the entire scroll. Various techniques were used according to the motifs represented. There is a great deal of variety in the detail of the needlework, as well as in the coloring and techniques.

“Manjusri, by an anonymous artist, is a hanging ccroll, measuring 130.7 centimeters x 59.8 centimeters. In this embroidery, Manjusri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom) appears manifested as an arhat (lohan, or sentient figure) with a very gentle appearance. He relaxes and sits at ease on a brocaded daybed with his feet crossed. In front, two attendants have brought a blue lion, his mount. Manjusri is paired with Samantabhadra as the left- and right-hand assistant bodhisattvas of Shakyamuni Buddha. Samantabhadra's mount is a white elephant. This work uses flat and raised silk combined with golden and colored threads to define the decoration. The background is filled with flat embroidery of white thread. The glossy colors of the thread probably stand out with even greater beauty than the original painting.

“Samantabhadra” by an anonymous artist, is a hanging ccroll, measuring, 130.4 centimeters x 59.8 centimeters. This scroll is filled with colored threads and shows the bodhisattva Samantabhadra as an old man in a cart drawn by a white elephant. According to the Lotus Sutra, Samantabhadra is said to have made a vow to preach the Buddhist Law in order to bring joy and fulfillment to humanity. This old figure in the form of a lohan is thus a manifestation of Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of the Law. This work probably once formed part of an exquisite set composed of Shakyamuni, Manjusri, and the 10 Deva Kings. The compositions are all clearly defined and the colors opulent. Various embroidery techniques were employed, and the needlework is very refined. This set probably was made in the Ch?en-lung reign (1736-1795).

Chinese Tapestries

Introduced by the Uygurs in northwestern China, tapestry art began in China during the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.), also considered to be the golden age of China tapestry. Most of the tapestries seen today are from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Detailed Qing tapestries are often half-tapestry and half-painting.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Silk tapestry is a form of textile art having a long history in China and employing specialized techniques. Unlike other weaving methods in which the vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) threads extend back and forth completely across the loom, tapestry in China is done on a simple plain-weave loom using a technique in which the warp threads fully extend but the weft ones do not. In fact, the Chinese term for tapestry, k'o, is defined as chih-wei (or "weaving weft") in the ancient dictionary Yu-p'ien (Jade Chapters; written in 543) by Ku Yeh-wang of the Liang dynasty. In other words, the formation of the pattern is based solely on changes in weaving the weft threads, with both sides of the image being the same, only reversed. Since the various adjoining colors in the weft are separate, the result is a saw-tooth gap along the edges of the forms, which is why tapestry is also known as "carved silk." [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“The principle behind producing a silk tapestry is quite simple, but the actual process is somewhat complex. First, all the warp threads must be fixed to the tapestry loom. Then a model in the form of a painting, for example, is placed underneath the flat and even warp threads, and a brush is used to outline the forms onto the warp. Various colored threads are prepared according to the hues in the original. Separate colors are then installed in the shuttle groove. According to the size and location of the motifs, the shuttle is moved back and forth between the warp threads. Finally, the excess is trimmed to complete the tapestry. Dozens of weaving techniques were developed over the ages to express the various aspects of the original in a tapestry of silk, including "knotting," "flinging," "connecting," "propping," "shuttle joining," "coiling," "warp joining," and "twisting colored thread." Different techniques were skillfully combined according to the original pattern with stitching added for the finer details. Sometimes even touches of ink and colors were brushed on to create certain effects, reflecting the extraordinary variety of expressions possible in the art of Chinese tapestry.

“The National Palace Museum is home to a large and unique collection of tapestries, some of the most representative of which date from the Song Dynasty and are mainly on the subject of birds and flowers. The many different approaches to achieving the same goal in tapestry are comparable to intimate works of "sketching from life" in Song Dynasty painting, including aspects of composition, coloring, and expression. In the past, tapestries rarely had been displayed at the Museum, but now in this special exhibition the unique art and craft of Song Dynasty tapestry is being presented, weaving a silken tapestry of splendor in Chinese art for all audiences to understand and appreciate.

“Wealth and Rank in an Eternal Spring” by an anonymous Song dynasty artist is a colored silk embroidery hanging scroll, measuring 87.5 x 39 centimeters. The painting here attributed to Xu Xi depicts such flowers as magnolia, crab apple, and peony with exceptional and riotous splendor. Next to the rock strolls a golden pheasant, the birds and flowers rendered in outlines filled with colors for a refined and beautifully opulent effect. Xu Xi was a famous bird-and-flower painter of the Southern Tang. In the embroidery here of a chrysanthemum in full bloom, the flowers compete in splendor large and full, creating an extremely decorative pattern. The Song tapestry features colored silk threads on a blue background with mostly peonies and complemented by multiflora rose, chrysanthemum, and hibiscus blossoms, the layering rich and ornamental. These three works all portray the complexity of vegetation with dense blossoms that demonstrate the beauty of decorative patterning, making them representative examples to one degree or another of "palace-covering flowers."

Bird-and-Flower Tapestries of the Song Dynasty

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Tapestry weavers in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) often depicted animal and plant motifs with associations of good fortune, or perhaps a specific person, thing, myth, custom, or legend. Combined to form a picture, such tapestries could serve as birthday gifts or for congratulations. Examples include the peony, symbolizing riches, and periwinkle blossoms for an "everlasting spring" as well as flowers of the seasons to suggest eternal life. Together, they express the idea of "riches in an everlasting spring." Tapestries such as "Spirit Fungi of Immortality" connote the idea of longevity, while the amaranth of "everlasting young" symbolizes eternal youth. Some subjects use homonyms to further enhance their auspicious overtones. For instance, "Phoenixes Calling in Harmony" stands for conjugal bliss and "Joyously Announcing the Birth of a Grandson" utilizes a play on words for the magpie and bamboo shoot to convey its meaning. With beautiful subjects, they express the hopes and desires of people in general. Such works are not only colorful and decorative, but many are also quite naturalistic. On the surface, they record the seasons and certain customs, but they also imply auspicious and celebratory themes for a joyous atmosphere. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Birds and Blossoms” by the Song Dynasty artist Shen Tzu-fan silk tapestry hanging scroll, measuring 95.7 x 38 centimeters. Depicted against the plain white background of this tapestry is the branch of a flowering peach tree, with some blossoms open and others not. Two spotted-neck doves rest on the branch, one hunched and the other behind it, portraying an intimate scene from nature. The tapestry technique here is exquisite, the buds and blossoms full and realistic as the branches twist about. Traces of ink were also added to the outlines. In the past the silk broke in the knot areas of the branches, exposing the threads and therefore inadvertently enhancing their old, peeling quality. Both in composition and color, this work is faithful to the spirit of naturalism found in bird-and-flower painting of the Song Dynasty. The signature woven into the tapestry in the lower right reads, "Tzu-fan," which refers to Shen Tzu-fan, a famous tapestry weaver of the Southern Song (1127-1279) period and about whom little is known. The weaving here is exquisite and thus most likely a painstaking example of Shen's work.

“Kingfisher and Autumn Lotus” by an Anonymous, Song Dynasty artist is a silk tapestry album leaf, measuring, 24.7 x 25.4 centimeters. Woven in colors against a light ochre background is this tapestry of a scene from a lotus pond in autumn. A kingfisher is shown perched on a lotus stem looking down with eyes fixed on the fish swimming in the water below. The nimble features of the kingfisher, known for its angling abilities, have been portrayed remarkably true to life, while the water plants, lotus leaves, and leisurely fish are also quite lifelike, adding a sense of naturalness to this work. The colors here are elegant and realistic. Although the main hues are blue and green, their separation is very refined. The treatment of light and dark colors in the lotus leaves, stems, and water plants are also exceptionally original. The weft threads here appear to be hemp or tussah silk, thus accounting for the relatively lackluster appearance, while the material in the weaving is coarser and heavier. The weaving, however, is compact and detailed for a serene scene from life much in the painterly manner of intimate "sketching-from-life" works of the Song Dynasty.

“A White Falcon”,by an anonymous Song dynasty artist is a colored silk embroidery hanging scroll, measuring 96 x 47.7 centimeters. This embroidery of a white falcon on a plain silk background features white embroidered threads for the body feathers using the plain-stitch technique, creating layer upon layer following the natural growth of the feathers. The different directions of the embroidery needlework produce varied reflections when light is shown on the work, making the feathers exceptionally natural and lustrous in appearance. The stand upon which the bird rests was first filled with plain-stitch embroidery and then golden threads added to create outlines highlighting the decoration. The tasseled tether was arranged in coarse threads and then stitched in place for a highly realistic effect. Unfortunately, this work has suffered much degradation of the colored threads, such as for the beak and talons. Although revealing the underlying embroidery threads, it in no way detracts from the fierce presence of the bird. The embroidery threads also vary in thickness, the weaving still refined and orderly for an elegant and smooth manner.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Pair of Wild Geese and Hibiscus” by an anonymous Song dynasty artist is a colored silk embroidery hanging scroll, measuring 64.4 x 70.2 centimeters. Lu Ji, a native of Yinxian in Zhejiang, has depicted in his painting here bean geese resting for the night, the male standing guard and calling out at the moon. The scene is filled with darkness and mist, creating the effect of forms appearing here and there in fog on a serene autumn evening. The tapestry features weaving on a light blue background. A pair of geese rests at a lakeside with hibiscus and reeds, the sky filled with colorful clouds. The weaving is regulated and dense, the coloring layered with precision. Both of these works employ complete-scene compositions, and Lu Ji's painting combines both outline and "boneless" wash methods to accurately capture the spirit and manner of birds and flowers. The tapestry for the feathers of the two geese and the patterned water ripples convey a contrast between lyricism and decorativeness.

Ming Tapestries

“Peacocks and Apricot Blossoms”, by Lu Ji (ca. 1429-1505), of the Ming dynasty, is an ink and color painting on silk colored silk, measuring, 203.4 x 110.6 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ The peacock's dazzling beauty, especially with its tail feathers, has fascinated people for centuries. The binome for "peacock" in Chinese also has a character that means "nobility," making this bird a symbol of promotion in official rank as well. The peacocks in both of these works are shown gazing at leisure, their plumage extravagant and beauty eye-catching. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Lu Ji combined the marvels of "fine-line" and "sketching" traditions in painting. The work of his here is bright and attractively colored with refinement, expressing elegance that also has a touch of opulence. “The tapestry here, woven with colored silk threads on a plain background, depicts a pair of peacocks, their tail feathers overlapping. The forms are realistic, the blank background highlighting the spirited movement of these birds. The weaving is also fine and delicate, the layering rich and dense, making this a masterpiece of Song dynasty silk tapestry.

“Kingfisher and Camellia”, by an anonymous Ming dynasty (1368-1644) artist, is a colored silk textile album leaf, measuring 24 x 21.2 centimeters. These two works depict a wild bird with camellia, the branch of blossoms extending into the composition from the upper left and proceeding down to the lower right for an undulating form. Twigs crisscross with blossoms facing in varying directions as a bird looks down and back, the two works appearing as if deriving from the same model. The anonymous painting here shows the bird perched on a branch of camellia blossoms, the coloring bright and refined as the leaves and blossoms twist back and forth naturally in various shades of color, the feathers and down of the bird also carefully portrayed. The textile here features camellia and a bird in colored silk on a white background. The weaving is mature and skillful, the threads dense and even. The head of the bird has multiple colored threads twisted together to express the colored layers of feathers in a natural and lifelike way.

Chinese Lacquered-Silk Paintings

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Although tapestries, embroideries, lacquered-silk paintings, and woodblock color prints in Chinese art were all often based on painting models, their materials and methods of production vary considerably, yielding a wide range of artistic effects. Tapestry and embroidery, by virtue of the different thickness in the silk threads and the luster, weaving, and spacing of the needlework, frequently feature compositions that are even more spectacular and eye-catching. Lacquered-silk painting involves using viscous lacquer spread with varying thickness to create bird-and-flower portrayals with less fluid brushwork but a more archaic effect. And in the late Qing dynasty, Catalogue of Lyrical Works from the Wenmei Studio was published using the technique of multi-colored woodblock printing. During this process, carved wood blocks were superimposed with carefully arranged shades of color that produced a rich effect similar to layered washes in flower painting, retaining the spirit of the originals and coming closest to the effect of wash painting. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Album of Lacquered-Silk Paintings”, produced by an anonymous Qing dynasty artist, is a colored lacquer painting on silk album leaf, measuring 27.8 x 27.5 centimeters. The methods of portrayal vary, including needlework for the petals or using ink outlines to convey the leaf veins. The petals twist and turn with leaves in varying poses, the layering of the bird feathers also having the effect of washes, reflecting great originality brimming with vitality as well.

“Lacquered-silk painting involves applying lacquer onto a woven silk surface and then painting with colors. In antiquity, lacquer painting was used to adorn such objects as zithers, makeup cases, dishes, and screens, the art of lacquerware encompassing such techniques as carved lacquer, embossed lacquer, and painting. This album features black lacquer applied over silk and then a small quantity of oil or lacquer mixed with pigments painted in layer upon layer on the surface. The method differs from lacquer painting, representing an alternative to traditional techniques.

Chinese Imperial Clothing

Three sets of clothing: regular, court and ceremonial. Imperial clothes were made with silk, gold, sliver, pearls, jade, rubies, sapphires, coral, lapis lazuli, turquoise, agate, various kind of fragrant woods, kingfisher feathers and thread made from peacock feathers. Beginning in the Sui dynasty (581-618 A.D.) the emperor appropriated the color yellow and prohibited other people from wearing it based on a purported precedent set by the legendary Yellow Emperor.

Imperial clothing accessories included belts, ceremonial hats, regular hats, hairpins, headdress ornaments, bracelets, thumb rings, fragrance pouches, purses, watches, rosaries, belts (regular, court and ceremonial), necklaces hat finials, hat decorations, silk purses, shoes for bound feet, hats withe jeweled knobs, headbands, silk kerchiefs, fans, rings, buttons, hooks, earnings, brooches and fingernail guards.

Robes were the most visible and decorated garments. They were usually made of silk and featured lavish colors, exquisite stitching and a variety of embroidered decorations and symbols. Most pieces that remain today date to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Qings (Manchus) were horse people and many of their garments were designed for riding on horses. Many robes have long horseshoe-shaped cuffs because it was considered impolite to show one’s hands and fingers.

Tsai Mei-Fen wrote in the Taiwan Today: “The National Palace Museum's collection includes a large number of pieces of clothing and accessories associated with the imperial family, such as crowns and hats, imperial jewelry, fingernail guards, pouches, flint cases and court belts. These were all produced according to the regulations set forth governing the wearing of clothing and associated objects by the Qing court. Different levels of officials and various occasions and ceremonies all required objects of different colors, materials and amounts, which were used in accordance with ceremonial and ritual regulations. For example, the hats worn by high officials of the first rank were adorned with rubies, those of the second rank with coral and the third rank with turquoise. Absolutely no breach of this etiquette was allowed. [Source: Tsai Mei-Fen, Taiwan Today, April 2009. Tsai Mei-fen is a curator at the National Palace Museum, Taipei]

“The Qing court was especially fond of a particular type of freshwater pearl known as the Eastern Pearl, which was found in the rivers of the northeast, the homeland of the Manchu ruling clan, and only members of the imperial family could wear them. Although similar in appearance to Buddhist rosary beads, the 108-pearl strands worn by the Qing court included additional pendant strings, with men wearing two strands on the front left and one on the front right, while women wore two on the front right and one on the front left. Another long string with a cloud-shaped pendant would be draped on the wearer's back. Women in the court also adorned themselves with resplendent accessories such as fingernail guards, which were worn to protect their extra-long fingernails. Unique to the Qing court, the fingernail guards featured refined craftsmanship in gold and silver, pearls and jadeite inlays, revealing the high skill and design capabilities of the court workshops. The Emperor

Symbols on Chinese Imperial Clothing

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Embroidered dragons on
an Imperial robe

During the Qing dynasty the ranks of courtiers and bureaucrats were indicated by decorative designs on their costumes, the number of peacock feathers on their hats and the number of precious materials they were allowed to wear. For example, the formal over-robe worn by a first degree civil servant was embroidered with a crane while that of a second degree civil servant was embroidered with a golden pheasant. Robes of lower ranking officials were decorated with other animals. Color also indicated rank. Brilliant yellow was reserved for the Emperor. Muted yellows were worn by his underlings.

Beginning in 1759, emperors were required to wear 12 symbols of authority that included dragons, stars and symbols representing the ocean. The lower portion of a jacket often contained diagonal stripes signifying water and rolling waves, mountain peaks symbolizing the earth and mountains and dragons in the clouds representing air. At the neck was a gate to heaven. Fancy robes had nine dragons, an auspicious numbers, symbolizing power and virility.

Dragons and phoenixes were strong associated with the Chinese Emperor. According to the National Palace Museum: “ Ever since the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), when the First Emperor of China proclaimed himself descendant of the dragon, almost every ruler was referred to as "The True Dragon, Son of Heaven." The dragon thereby became a symbol of the ruler, while the phoenix became an embodiment of his mate. The forms of the dragon and phoenix were transformed gradually into images associated with the court, representing imperial nobility and authority. Almost everything related to the court, from the decoration of palace architecture down to the insignia on everyday objects and clothing — even covers and cases for books — were adorned with images and patterns bearing imperial dragons and phoenixes. These appear in a variety of materials, ranging anywhere from jade to paper. Even in the same medium, they take on different appearances, such as the case with paintings in monochrome ink or color. Of every imaginable type and pose, dragons and phoenixes not only serve as decoration, but also seem to come alive, making them "true" treasures of ancient Chinese arts and crafts.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington; Palace Museum, Taipei, CNTO (China National Tourist Office), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei; Shanghai Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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