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The Development of Embroidery Throughout Chinese History

As one of the ancient handicrafts of China, embroidery has greatly contributed to the progress and enhancement of China's material civilization. Historical documents record the use of embroidery in China as early as 2255 B.C. Archaeological finds, however, place the beginnings of embroidery at some point during the Shang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.

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 following seven hundred years. 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.

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.

Handicraft arts, especially embroidery, continued to flourish during the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Ming embroidery has 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.

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.

Despite the numerous transformations of the twentieth century, the art of embroidery -- which fully embodies the merit of traditional Chinese culture -- lives on in the Republic of China on Taiwan. Embroidery combines the essence of painting and calligraphy and presents traditional Chinese culture through the colorful threads of the skilled embroiderer. In the ROC on Taiwan, many talented embroiderers have been silently stitching away. Their meticulous efforts to create a bounty of beautiful embroidery signify the preservation, continuity, and enhancement of traditional Chinese arts.

This round piece of embroidery with intricate, elaborate,

and colorful stitches is traditionally thought to bring luck and wealth.


Cultural Division, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Houston
11 Greenway Plaza, Suite 2910
Houston, Texas, 77046
Tel: (713) 871-0851, Fax: (713) 871-0854, E-mail: houcul@houstoncul.org