Margaret T. ORDOÑEZ

A Manchu-Style Dragon Robe (metal-wrapped core yarns couched on yellow silk satin used to produce the dragons and universe motif). SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND HISTORIC TEXTILE AND COSTUME COLLECTION.

Ancient Chinese trade routes through central Asia are collectively called the “Silk Roads,” indicating the importance that textile has long had for China’s economy. Textile designs, created by weaving, embroidery, or fabric printing, often reflect symbology important in Chinese religious and official life: dragons are symbols of imperial power; fans are motifs in Daoist philosophy.

Chinese textiles reflect many centuries of technology, trade, government, religion, and art. They provide continuing evidence of the Chinese culture’s rich heritage. Although the best known and most highly valued fabrics are of silk, the earliest people relied on reindeer skins, gut, and sinew before beginning to use fibers from stems of plants, such as hemp and ramie, silk, and cotton.

Archaeological Evidence of Early Cloth Production

Loom pieces from Hemudu, an early Neolithic site that dates to over six thousand years ago, are the earliest evidence of cloth production. The Hemudu culture lived in modern-day Zhejiang Province, on the southeast coast. A cut-open cocoon of the silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) in Xiyingcun and parts of equipment for reeling silk at Qianshanyang point to the cultivation of mulberry trees for raising silkworms at this time. Other early examples of textile production include parts of backstrap looms at Liangzhu and Yunnan provinces from the second century BCE. Actual silk fabric fragments surviving at a number of late Neolithic sites are the best evidence of the early development of yarn and fabric construction in early China.

Developing Technology and Trade

As looms evolved, so did structures of weaving and ways of creating woven motifs. The addition of shed sticks to looms allowed weavers to incorporate warp patterns into cloth. Early examples of this technology have survived in Scythian burial mounds in the Altai Mountains. The atmosphere of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) supported an unprecedented growth of the arts. Surviving figured, pile, and gauze weaves testify to the magnificence of Han fabrics, which made up much of the trade along the famed Silk Road, an interconnecting network of caravan trails across Asia extending to the Mediterranean Sea. A new, complex draw loom in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) produced many weft-faced patterned damasks and brocades, slit tapestries, and crepes for the court and for export. Motifs in some of these cloths reflect trade with the Persian Sasanid dynasty (224/228–651 CE) just as Sasanian patterns show eastern influence.

Embroidery also developed into a highly skilled method of decorating fabrics. Traders included the exquisite embroideries that incorporated a great variety of stitches and silk yarns into packs for the Silk Road trade. Like woven cloths, high quality embroideries still play an important role in Chinese life and trade, as do so-called “resist” methods of printing cloth, including batik and tie-dye, that produce stylized and abstract designs on silk and cotton fabrics.

From a practical standpoint, the Chinese have used textiles for bed hangings and bed covers; on screens, walls, chairs, and tables; for cushion covers, boxes, cases and books; for garments, purses, hats, shoes, and gloves; for banners, curtains, canopies, and as altar coverings for commemorative and religious ceremonies. The rich history of cloth documents its past use as currency, tax payments, tributes, bribes, and dowries. The extensive trade in textiles has sustained the economy and has introduced Chinese design and technology to faraway places, but this trade venue has also brought foreign ideas and customs into the country.

The Power of Design in Dragon Robes

Patterns in woven and embroidered Chinese fabrics reflect governmental efforts to create an orderly universe as well as the philosophical and religious thought of Chinese culture. Dragons, probably the most famous and ubiquitous of Chinese motifs, denoted imperial authority and power.

Dragon robes of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) are among the most frequently held Chinese textiles in private and public collections. Bright yellow robes reserved for the emperor and empress have eight dragons woven into or embroidered on them. Four of the dragons surround the wearer’s head with positions at each shoulder, at the center front, and at the center back. A pair of dragons set in clouds facing each other in a mirror image decorates the front and back of the robe’s lower section.

The Manchu added twelve ancient symbols of imperial authority among the clouds to the emperor’s garments in the mid-eighteenth century. They include a sun with a three-legged cockerel and a moon and rabbit with the elixir of life on the left and right shoulders, respectively. The other ten symbols had specific positions on the robe and were not present on the robes of the heir apparent.

Strong diagonal lines representing water topped by waves decorate the bottom of many dragon robes and on many other textiles. Rising out on the water on the sides and the center front and back—the four cardinal compass points—are representations of land. These distinctive spikes move up into the cloud-covered sky where the dragons writhe. This frequently used composite represents the emperor’s rule over the universe.

Creating Order with Rank Badges

Textile collections also often have rank badges that reflect attempts to maintain an orderly society in the four hundred years before the twentieth century.

Conferred by the emperor, a civil official’s rank designated his level of achievement on rigorous tests. In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties, a round or more often square badge incorporated a specific bird that represented each level of achievement. Since the civil officials supplied the badges for themselves and their wives to place on the front and back of their robes, the methods of construction and quality varied greatly. The most expensive rank squares have the bird, clouds, and other motifs incorporated into the tapestry or patterned weave or embroidered design. Others have motifs surrounding a blank center to which a pre-embroidered bird was appliquéd. Upgrading to a higher level would be easier and less costly with the generic ground.

Military officials also had hierarchical badges, but with an animal rather than a bird. Today, these are rarer than civilian squares, especially ones of the lowest ranks. If one of a pair of rank squares is cut in half vertically, the official intended it for a Han-style robe that opened at center front; solid squares fit Manchu-style robes that fastened on the right side. Made of narrow-width silk fabrics, the agrarian Han garments opened in the center front and had a center-back seam. Manchu-style robes, based on a leather tradition and appropriate for horseback riding, originally had large front and back pieces. After taking over (and establishing the Qing dynasty) in the early seventeenth century, the Manchu switched to narrow woven silk fabrics that required center seams, but the silhouette of the garment did not change.

Reflections of Philosophy and Religion in Textile Designs

For over four thousand years printers, painters, embroiderers, and we
avers have incorporated symbols representing Chinese culture into their products for individuals, homes, and temples. Many long-established motifs may have represented Confucian philosophy, which became a major influence on the customs and thought of the Chinese people during the Han dynasty. Ancient motifs include stylized pearls, coins, books, scrolls, rhinoceros horns, leaves, clouds, coral, bats, and designs representing the opposites—yin and yang. Even then, these motifs mixed with those of Daoism and Buddhism.

The Chinese often have ordered symbols in groups of eight or four. Eight motifs symbolizing Daoist philosophy and beliefs in textiles and other art forms include a fan, sword in a sheath, pilgrim’s staff and gourd, castanets, a flower basket, a tube holding two rods, a flute, and a lotus blossom. Many textile patterns depict one or more of eight Immortals often holding one of these specific Daoist symbols.

Buddhism, the third major Chinese religion, came from India during the last half of the Han dynasty. Eight Buddhist symbols represent specific beliefs of the religion, but interpretations have changed over the centuries, and original meanings sometimes become obscure. These symbols, whose meanings are often related to happiness and well being, include the following: a protective canopy; an ever-changing wheel; a sacred vase; a fish or a pair of fish with the latter possibly representing yin and yang; a lotus representing purity; an endless knot or mystic diagram; a conch that called worshipers to prayer; and a parasol. Particularly by the nineteenth century, artisans mixed the motifs from the three religions along with patterns of other symbolic groupings.

Patterns for Ceremonies and Expressions of Nature

Symbols of indefinite origin support special ceremonies, such as weddings, which also incorporate the color red or red-orange. A bride’s robe may contain motifs such as a pomegranate with some exposed seeds (symbolizing fertility), ducks (because they mate for life), and phoenixes (reserved for the empress and brides who became an empress for a day). Wishes for a marriage to produce many children are reflected in numerous “hundred children” or “thousand children” designs that depict colorfully dressed children playing a variety of games.

Many designs in Chinese textiles reflect nature and familiar scenes, often incorporating architectural features.

Beautifully executed colored blossoms and butterflies decorate skirt panels, robes, and sleeve bands. Many textile collections have women’s robes with embroidered bands sewn on the bottom edge of wide sleeves. Collections also may hold sleeve bands not sewn to a robe. Sometimes these bands are decorated only in the areas that are exposed to a viewer when the wearer holds her bent arms in front of her body. The surface of the band on the side of the sleeve toward her is undecorated since this area would be subject to abrasion.

Worldwide Influence of Chinese Textile Design

Occasionally the design in Chinese textiles has reflected outside influence, such as roundels with a pair of affronted mounted warriors from the Sasanid dynasty in Persia, but more often textiles in other parts of the world contain Chinese motifs. That these patterns have been such an inspiration to other cultures speaks for their strength, beauty, and appeal, even without their symbolism. The entire world is enriched by the heritage of China’s textiles.

Further Reading

Haig, P., & Shelton, M. (2006). Chinese Textiles: Ming to Ch’ing. Atglen, PA: Schiffer.

Hall, A. J. (1974). A lady from China’s past. National Geographic 145(5), 660–81.

Vollmer, J. E. (1980). Five colours of the Universe: Symbolism in clothes and fabrics of the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644–1911). Edmonton, Canada: Edmonton Art Gallery.

Vollmer, J. E. (1977). In the presence of the dragon throne: Ch’ing Dynasty costume (1644–1911) in the Royal Ontario Museum. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.

Wilson, V. (1996). Chinese dress. London: Weatherhill.

Wilson, V. (2005). Chinese textiles. London: V & A Publications.

Wood, F. (2002). The silk road. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Source: Ordoñez, Margaret T.. (2009). Textiles. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2239–2243. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A Fourth-Rank Wild Goose Surrounded By Clouds (created by couching metallic-covered core yarns onto a satin surface; late nineteenth or early twentieth century, when various shades of blue became popular). SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND HISTORIC TEXTILE AND COSTUME COLLECTION.

Two Daoist Immortals (reversible slit tapestry weave [kesi]; nineteenth or early twentieth century). SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND HISTORIC TEXTILE AND COSTUME COLLECTION.

Buddhist Conch (satin stitch and outline couching of metallic covered core yarn; late nineteenth or early twentieth century). SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND HISTORIC TEXTILE AND COSTUME COLLECTION.

Mandarin Ducks on Bride’s Red Robe (embroidered; twentieth century). SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND HISTORIC TEXTILE AND COSTUME COLLECTION.

Scene on Sleeve Band (embroidered; late nineteenth century). SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND HISTORIC TEXTILE AND COSTUME COLLECTION.

Textiles (F?ngzh?p?n ???)|F?ngzh?p?n ??? (Textiles)

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