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Chinese Embroidery

Chinese embroidery, one of the outstanding traditional Chinese handicraft arts, refers to the needlework made on the fabrics in patterns of colorful characters, animals, or objects. As most of embroidery works are made by women, embroidery is also called Nv Gong (women's work). Chinese embroidery originated from the people's need of self-decorating. It is said that the painted patterns appeared as far as in Yellow Emperor's period, which means that the ancient primitive people already knew how to use colors to beautify themselves. It's just they applied paintings directly on their bodies. With the development of silk and fabrics, such painted patterns began to appear on clothes.

Chinese Embroidery


Warring State Period

The earliest embroidery works found at present are the two pieces of silk embroidery excavated in the Chu tombs of Changsha, Hunan, that can be traced back to Warring State Period. They were completely made in lock stitching method with tidy pins, elegant colors, and smooth lines, vividly embroidering the patterns of swimming dragons, flying phoenix and powerful tigers and showing the embroidery achievements of Chu State in the Warring State Period.

Han Dynasty

Han Dynasty embroidery works are discovered in many places, like Thousand-Buddha Cave in Dunhuang, Wuluchong Tomb in Hebei, northern Inner Mongolia, and a tomb at Astana nearby Turpan. The most famous excavation of Han dynasty embroideries is from Mawangdui ruins of Changsha. There were a lot of diversified pieces discovered, greatly showing the Han era embroidery styles. From those embroidery works, the Han era embroidery patterns and themes were mostly wavy clouds, or flying birds like phoenix, or running sacred animals, or the patterns common on Han mirrors. The base materials used in those embroidery works were popular in Han dynasty, and the stitching style was still mainly lock stitch. The Han era embroideries feature full big patterns, neat stitches, and extremely smooth lines.

Eastern Jin to Northern Dynasties

The embroideries from Eastern Jin to Northern Dynasties unearthed in Dunhuang, Hetian, Bachu and Turpan are all in lock stitching style. In 1965, a fraction of embroidery Buddha belonging to Guangyang King Yuan Jia of Northern Wei Dynasty was discovered in a rock crack in front of cave No.125 and 126 in Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu. It was offered by the Guangyang King in eleventh year (487) of Taihe Era of Northern Wei Dynasty. There is a sitting Buddha in the center of the embroidery fraction with a bodhisattva on the right and the providers' figures on both side of the Buddha. The vowing text said that it was produced by Guangyang King Hui An (Yuan Jia). The whole piece was applied with both lock stitches and back lock stitches, which were innovated and developed based on the Han era lock stitch, The major colors used were red, yellow and green. Red color was mainly used on the figures' clothes and partial muscular lines of nose, ears, hands, and feet. Green colors were mainly used in graphic patterns, while the purple color was used on the crown and boots. All in all, either from the stitching method or the color usage, this masterpiece is much finer than any Han era embroidery piece.

Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty embroidery is closely related to the Tang era religion development. There are quite some Tang era embroideries with Buddha figures. Besides that, patterns commonly seen in paintings like landscapes, birds, pavilions, attics, flowers were also very popular. The embroidery technique still followed the lock stitch in Han Dynasty, but a new kind of technique flat embroidery appeared. Meanwhile the base materials used in Tang era embroidery were not confined to brocade and silk anymore. There were several other base materials and the streaks were diversified. The different stitching methods and different threads were used together to create more vigorous, bright and beautiful patterns. In addition, gold and silver threads began to be used to draw the outlines of the patterns and enhance the stereoscopy, which can be regarded as an innovation in Tang era embroidery.

Song Dynasty

The embroidery prior to Tang dynasty were mainly decorative and practical, and the patterns were related to daily needs and social customs. During the Song Huizong's reign, a special department for embroidery was established to take charge of the embroidery works of Song imperial court. The embroidery paintings were classified into landscapes, pavilions, human figures, and flowers & birds. The result was that many famous embroidery masterpieces emerged, driving the embroidery paintings to the highest point. Besides, the practicability of embroidery was weakened and its artistic quality was reinforced. The calligraphy and painting styles began to have even deeper impact on the embroidery creations. People modeled after the famous works of calligraphy and painting to form a unique ornamental embroidery. To achieve the vividness of calligraphy and paintings, a specific plan must be made before the embroidering and changes can be made if necessary during the embroidering process. The layout of the patterns must be simple and where to leave blank space was also important during the plan. There are several sentences in Secret Records of Yuqing Xuan authored by Ming dynasty Dong Qichang that can better illustrate how delicate Song embroidery was. It says that Song embroideries have fine and neat stitches. The threads are as thin as hair and the colors are spectacular and splendid. The mountains and rivers on the embroideries can be either far away or very close. The pavilions seem three-dimensional; the figures have vivid looks; birds and flowers seem very real. Some embroideries are even vivider than paintings.

Yuan Dynasty

There are few embroideries of Yuan Dynasty discovered. Taipei Palace Museum has one piece of Yuan era embroidery. Judging from this work, the Yuan era embroidery was similar to that of Song era, except the stitches were not very fine and neat. Yuan dynasty rulers believed in Lamaism, which greatly influenced the embroidery styles. Besides the decorations on clothing, the embroideries were mainly used to make Buddha statues, scrolls, and monk's hats. The masterpiece Embroidery Guhyasamaja Figure collected in Potala Palace of Tibet is a representative. In Yuan dynasty Li Yu'an's Tomb, there was a piece of embroidery unearthed. In addition to the several styles of stitching methods, the technique of pasting thin silk was also used.

Ming Dynasty

The dyeing and weaving techniques of Ming Dynasty became developed in Xuande's reign. The most novel and prominent stitching method at that time was sprinkling stitching embroidery that used two twisting yarns. The patterns were mainly geometric patterns. During in Jiaqing's Reign, Gu family embroidery in Shanghai became very famous. Gu Shouqian and his wife Han Ximeng excelled in the hair embroidery of Tang and Song era. They modeled after the calligraphy works and paintings of celebrities and made embroideries just as vivid as the original works. People called this embroidery the Gu style embroidery.

Qing Dynasty

In the Qing Dynasty, the embroideries used by the imperial court must undergo two procedures. The patterns must be painted by the painters in the court first, and then presented to relevant department for review. Being reviewed and approved, these patterns will be passed to the three weaving and embroidery workshops under the jurisdiction of Jiangnan Manufacturing Bureau. Therefore, the court embroideries were extremely delicate. Besides the imperial embroideries, many local embroideries emerged, including Lu embroidery, Yue embroidery, Xiang embroidery, Peking embroidery, Su embroidery, Shu embroidery, and many more. Among them, local embroideries of Suzhou (Su), Sichuan (Shu), Guangdong (Yue) and Hunan (Xiang) were the most famous ones. They are known as four great embroideries.

Four Great Embroideries

Su Embroidery

Su embroidery is a combination of random stitch embroidery in Danyang and Baoying, emulational embroidery in Nantong, antique embroidery in Yangzhou, and hair embroidery in Chetai. It has a long history, and is developed by absorbing the characteristics and strengths of the Gu style embroidery. In terms of embroidering techniques, Su embroidery mainly used the loop stitches, making it hard to perceive any stitch trace. Three or four kinds of same or similar colored threads are usually used to achieve the sfumato result. Meanwhile, between the deep and light colors, there is often space left out to make well-bedded patterns. Therefore, Su embroideries often have landscape patterns that can tell whether far or near, three-dimensional pavilions, figures with vivid expressions, flowers full of vigor, and birds in graceful postures. The features of Su embroideries can be summarized with eight words: flat, neat, thin, dense, even, smooth, harmonious, and glossy.

Su Embroidery

Xiang Embroidery

Xiang Embroidery refers to the embroideries centered in Changsha. As one of the four great embroideries, the Xiang embroidery is famous for its superb skills and unique artistic styles. As early as the Spring and Autumn Period, the embroidery in Hunan area was already developed. By the Qing Dynasty, the Xiang embroidery was very popular all around Hunan. It was quite common to see common people making embroideries. Originated in folk embroidery, the Xiang Embroidery absorbed from the Su embroidery and Yue embroidery. It implanted a lot of creations on traditional Chinese paintings to the embroideries and fully applied different kinds of stitching methods to make more delicate works. The traditional patterns of Xiang embroidery are lions, tigers and squirrels, among which tigers are the commonest. There is a reputation for Xiang embroidery that admiring a piece of Xiang embroidery, one can almost smell the fragrance of the embroidered flowers, hear the embroidered bird's sound, see the embroidered tiger running and understand what’s in the embroidered figure's mind.

Xiang Embroidery

Cantonese Embroidery

Cantonese embroidery, one of the four great embroideries in China, is the general term of Guangdong embroidery and Chaoshan embroidery. It has a history of over 1000 years. During Tang Xuanzong's ruling, the military commander of Lingnan Zhang Jiugao offered a piece of embroidery work to Lady Yang, which was greatly appreciated. As a result, he was offered a three levels of promotion. This story indicated that Yue embroidery was already developed in Tang Dynasty. By the middle period of the Ming Dynasty, the convenient coastal trade in Guangdong had enabled Yue embroidery to be famous overseas. In Qing Dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I established the British Embroidery Association to promote the development of embroidery. The King Charles also encouraged British people to spread the Yue embroidery crafts. For a time, the Yue embroidery was hailed as "a gift from China to the West". Even now, the British, French, German and American museums still have the Cantonese embroidery collections. Different than any other embroideries, the Yue embroidery was mainly completed by men, which was very rare. Those embroideries were mainly used as decorations on clothes, hanging screens, pouches worn at the girdles, moon-shaped fans, and fan covers. The patterns were mainly phoenix, peony, crane, chimp, deer, rooster and goose. Many kinds of colors were applied and the stitches were quite simple and loose. There was another famous kind of Yue embroidery - Dingjin embroidery. It looks very splendid and is mainly used on costumes, or as furnishings on stages and temples to render a warm and festive atmosphere.

Yue Embroidery

Shu Embroidery

Shu embroidery, also called Sichuan embroidery, has a long history. According to Records of Huayang from Jin Dynasty, the Shu embroidery was already famous in Jin dynasty. Together with Shu brocade, Shu embroidery made the special goods in Sichuan. In today's embroidery works, there are relatively less ornamental embroideries. Most of them are used on daily necessities. It can be in big scale or almost invisibly small. For instance, the huge Pedestal Screen of Hibiscus and Carp, the Hanging Screen of Females Playing Music, and the pedestal screens of big and small pandas of the Sichuan hall of the Great Hall of the People are all representatives of Shu embroidery.

Shu embroidery originated from the folk embroidery in western Sichuan province. The environment, social customs, culture and art have impacted the Shu embroidery and helped to form its characteristics of smooth and bright threads, neat and rigorous stitches, soft colors and appropriate use of virtuality and reality. In fact, any Shu embroidery work can show these unique crafts. According to statistics, there are altogether 122 kinds of stitching methods, the most commonly used one is Yun stitching, which can help to show the texture of the embroidery and reflect the light, color and shape of the patterns. Meanwhile, different degrees of thick or thin threads are used to better illustrate the patterns' postures. In addition, the Shu embroidering skills can be flexible and adaptive. Based on the different base materials and patterns, different threads and colors are applied.

Shu Embroidery

As a widely popular handicraft in China, Chinese embroidery can be found almost everywhere. There are also many famous local embroideries besides the four great embroideries. The minority groups also have their own unique embroidery cultures. If you travel to China, don’t forget to admire one or two pieces of local embroideries.

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