Two cents for your thoughts when you read the above blog title. Highly likely that you now have a picture of these hyper-realistic silk embroideries in your mind :). But that's not what we are going to explore in this blog post. Chinese embroidery is so much more! There's the intricate and colourful embroidery from the many ethnic minorities we will explore in a future blog post. And then there are these magnificent dragon robes worn by the emperor and his close relatives. Equally food for a future blog post. But how did it all began? A question I never really asked myself before I went to China. As an archaeologist I am all too aware that the evidence we have for really old textiles adorned with embroidery is scant. You need very favourable preservation conditions for them to survive. So the mantra instilled in me as an archaeology student: absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, holds very true in the case of ancient textiles. But traveling to China and talking to Chinese embroiderers, the question of how it all began is paramount to them. The humiliation at the hands of the Western powers in the 19th century is still a national trauma. Being the inventor of something which was subsequently adopted by the West, thus counts!
The National Silk Museum in Hangzhou has a very modern exhibition on the textiles form the Silk Road. The exhibition includes many textile fragments from recent large scale excavations of tombs. A new exhibition titled 'Countless stitching and marvellous threads' was opened when I taught my workshop at the end of October. Unfortunately, this exhibition has no captions in English (unlike the Silk Road exhibition which is entirely bi-lingual). From what my phone was able to translate, the new exhibition focusses on stitches and how they emerged and developed. Starting with archaeological remains and ending with modern embroideries by contemporary masters.
Taking pictures of the embroideries on display posed its own problems. The lighting was understandably dim and flash equally understandably not allowed. Usually not a problem when you are patient and have a steady hand. What was a problem, was the bad quality glass used for the display cases. And the fact that they were very (I mean VERY) dirty from the touching of countless hands. China is this delightful combination of a developing country and a highly digitally developed world nation. This means that they laughed at me when I explained that in my rural village of 1200 people, probably 600 or so don't have a mobile phone, nor an email address. Digital 'illiteracy' is high here and not only among the elderly. At the same time, all 1200 of us would shake our heads in pity at the many Chinese who don't have a private toilet in their home and need to use the public toilet. How to use a museum is something they are in the process of figuring out :).
Let's explore the embroideries! The oldest embroideries on display, date to the period of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and the Northern Dynasties (386-581 AD). However, in the publications on embroidery I bought at the museum, it is stated that embroidery already existed in the Xia dynasty (2200-1800 BC). But, this is from oral tradition rather than archaeological finds. The first archaeological evidence seems to date from the late Shang dynasty, around 1300 BC. The above fragment dates from the much later Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and shows longevity symbols stitched with several colours of silk using chain stitch on a red silk background. This small fragment is all that is left from an all-over embroidered female dress.
Other embroidered items include a pair of red socks from the first-third century AD. The stitch used seems to be very fine chain stitch.
And here is a piece with goldwork embroidery (couching) depicting animal masks and dating to the Northern Dynasties (386-581 AD).
This very large piece depicting lions dates from China's golden age, the Tang dynasty (7th century AD).
This lovely piece is an embroidered leather pouch with twill damask and samite border. It dates to the Liao dynasty (907-1125 AD). The upper part is a twill damask border, the middle is of leather, completely covered with chain stitch embroidery, with different patterns on each side: birds, butterflies and peonies on one side and flying birds and hunting motifs on the other.
You can find more pictures on my Pinterest board 'oldest embroideries in the world'. In order to illustrate the question of where embroidery was invented, I am collecting pictures of these pieces on the afore mentioned Pinterest board. So far, for this part of the world, I was able to find a mention of the embroidered textile fragments from the celtic tomb at Hochdorf (500 BC) in one of my books. Unfortunately, it does not mention which stitch was used to create the geometric patterns. And there's no picture either. But there is a dissertation on the textile finds and I will try to get hold of that through the Bavarian National Library. To be continued...
P.S. If you are interested in the history of Chinese embroidery, I recommend the book 'Silken Threads. A history of embroidery in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam' written by Young Yang Chung in 2005, ISBN 0-8109-4330-1. This is an epic volume with beautiful pictures and of the highest scientific standard.
Jessica M. Grimm
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