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Cotton and Silk Textiles in Ancient China

Textiles have a very long history in China, as garments, currency, tax goods, and commodities. Chinese domesticated silkworms no later than 3,000 BCE, but archaeologists have discovered cocoons at Neolithic sites. The ancient Chinese also wove ramie and hemp, which were worn by the common people. However, within just a few centuries of its transmission to China around 200 BCE, cotton became the staple cloth of ordinary Chinese. In ancient China, weaving came to define women's social, economic, and moral role. Beginning as early as the Song Dynasty, however, the gender identity of textile work slowly changed as the Chinese economy grew more commercialized. By the eighteenth century, most Chinese households wove cotton cloth for their own consumption or for the market, and silk weaving workshops employing male weavers flourished.

The earliest known silk textiles excavated in China dated to circa 3630 BCE; earlier pseudo morphs (impressions left by a textile on bronze or jade) or patterned textiles date from the Shang dynasty (16th-11th century BCE). By the Warring States through Han Dynasty periods (circa 475 BCE-220 CE), elaborately patterned jin brocades, complex gauze weaves, and intricately embroidered textiles were all being produced; their artistry and technical accomplishment amaze modern viewers. The ancient Greek word for China, Seres, is synonymous with silk, and the trade routes across Central Asia were named for that most prized of cloths. For centuries, silk production centered in northwest China. But with the southern shift in population and production during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Lower Yangzi region became China's major source of silk.

Cotton cultivation was first introduced into China around 200 BC. Over the next thousand years, cotton cultivation slowly spread from the southwest border regions to Guangxi and Hainan Island. Cotton then came to Guangdong, Fujian, and Jiangnan. The legendary woman Huang Daopo is credited with having introducing the techniques for making cotton textiles from Hainan Island in the 1290s.

Supported by new techniques and in high demand by both the state and the people, cotton textiles developed rapidly under the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Yuan established a complex procurement system, appropriating a portion of the cotton and silk produced. By the fourteenth century the dynasty collected more than half a million bolts of cotton cloth and over 500 tons of raw silk annually. The Yuan furthermore established a system of imperial textiles production based on a hereditary caste of bonded handicraft workers to produce for the needs of the state. Some of these were very large in scale, employing hundred of workers. The Dongxi Silk Department in Jinling had 3,000 workers, 145 looms, and an annual production of 4,527 bolts using almost six tons of raw silk.

Trade along the Silk Road, which began as early as the Han dynasty and reached its peak in the 5th through 12th centuries CE, created an environment in which Chinese culture interacted with the tastes of consumers from lands as distant as Iran and Rome. Weavers from a number of ethnic backgrounds, including Han Chinese and Central Asian (Uighur, Sogdian, and others) all produced textiles in different styles woven from silk. Formerly nomadic ruling dynasties, such as the Liao (907-1125), incorporated imagery of hunting and nature into gorgeous gold-brocaded textiles. Kesi (silk tapestry weave) became the vehicle for quintessentially Chinese aesthetics during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in textiles which feature traditional phoenix and peony motifs or which emulate styles of Chinese brush painting (3). During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, court robes, rank badges, and Buddhist and Daoist Kesi were all used to denote status and wealth, as well as to express religious devotion.

Typical of Chinese courtly garments are the large, standing dragons, their paws clutching clouds that emblazon most of an Imperial family's clothes. The dragons clutch the jewels they usually pursue; sometimes they are surrounded both front and back with large, gold-couched characters, some of them reading shou (long life). Others are adorned with the swastikas, which mean 'ten thousand,' and combine to form a popular birthday wish for longevity. This symbolism indicates these kinds of garments were intended for such an occasion like a birthday. The color red was very popular and became the Ming dynastic color, which has suggested the owner of these garments would be a woman of the imperial family.

Silk-Knit Weaving

Fabrics made of silk consist of many types: brocade, satin, silk fabric, etc. This variety is due to different weaving skills and silk fabrics. Some are lined, some are unbleached, some are heavy, and some are thin. Silk-knit goods are one of great Chinese contributions to the world culture. The weaving skills emerged in the primitive society. They can demonstrate the culture tradition of one nation. Though they historically served as clothing material, its relation to the common people had never been severed, many excellent weaving skills and patterns were first established by the common people and passed to all walks of life.

Sichuan Brocade - A historical silk-knit brocade and a general term for the silk-knit brocades which were in produced in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, from the Han Dynasty to the Three Kingdom Period. Since Sichuan and the middle China was linked up, the weaving industry has boomed. The varieties, colors, and patterns have become abundant. It flourished until the Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties. Of the Sichuan brocades in the Tang Dynasty, the bundle flower lining brocade and the red lion and phoenix lining brocade were the most outstanding. Sichuan brocade is based on horizontally colored line.

Cloud Brocade - It is one of the traditional silk-knit brocade. It is named after its color as gorgeous as colorful cloud, for it is made of high quality silk and woven with exquisite skill. The silk industry consists of two trades: the pattern brocade trade and the unpatterned brocade trade since the end of the Qing Dynasty. Not until then the name "cloud brocade" came into use.

Suzhou Brocade - It is traditional silk-knit brocade in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. It was lost at the end of the Ming Dynasty, and recovered at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. It consists of big brocade and small brocade. Among them the big brocade is also called heavy brocade, which is mainly used for mounting picture and decoration, while small brocade is used for making box and decorating small articles. They are patterned geometrically and neatly decorated with bundles of flowers and flowers on twigs. They are colored in harmony instead of in contrast.

Zhang Down - It is also called "swans down" and one of the traditional silk -knit goods. It is produced in Zhengzhou, Fujian Province. It flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. There are patterned down and unpatterned down. The patterned down is cut in accordance to the lines and constitutes patterns with the unsevered line circles. The unpatterned down is covered with down circles on its surface.

Tapestry Brocade - It is a type of silk-knit goods whose patterns are highlighted by the colorful horizontal silk. First the horizontal threads are installed on the common weaving machine. Under the horizontal threads there are colorful picture drafts. The vertical threads with various colors are woven in segment by the small shuttles according to the patterns. The horizontal thread of each color is interwoven with the vertical thread with every other color. This way of weaving is called "interweaving horizontal and vertical threads."

Textiles were first produced on backstrap looms. Undyed pieces were 45-50 cm wide by about 40 ft. long. Weaves included gauze and damask, and thread counts ranged from 16-200 per cm. The invention of the draw loom and the development of jacquards and brocades allowed patterns to be woven into the cloth. Common patterns included checks, diamonds, zig-zags, coins, clouds, dragons, lions, horses, flowers, birds and fish. Brocades were often over-embroidered to augment the woven patterns (a technique I now employ on my hats…)

During the Song Dynasty a variety of brocade and jacquard patterns were in common usage, including the following motif combinations:

  • dragon and flowers
  • dragon and phoenix
  • dragons in medallions pursuing jewels
  • pheasant and stork
  • pearls and rice
  • lotus and seeds
  • cherries and cherry blossoms
  • squares and medallions of white flowers on colored background
  • lotus and tortoise
  • tortoise and snake
  • lion dogs and balls
  • water weeds and fish
  • tree peonies
  • peacocks
  • geese and clouds

Motifs and their Symbolism

Motifs or designs often seen in Chinese textiles have evolved from several philosophies and concepts. The Chinese enjoy puns and plays on words, and often designs were used if their verbal sound or written character was similar to a quality or virtue. Hence, because the words for bat and happiness sound similar, bat became the symbol for happiness.

The Twelve Symbols of Authority also called the Twelve Ornaments or the Ancient Symbols, were always incorporated into the emperor's robes to represent his symbolic royal domain over the universe. A story in the Book of Yu tells how Shun, the first legendary emperor of China, ordered Yu to "make clothing depicting the sun, moon, stars, mountain, dragon and pheasant, dyed in brilliant colors and added to dyed cloth to make garments." This edict evolved into the garment that became the official court garent of the Emperor, which was worn until the end of the Qin Dynasty in 1912. Those symbols are:

  • Sun - heaven, intellectual enlightenment, sovereign on earth, male attributes. A red circle enclosing a three legged male phoenix, set over clouds. The three feet signify the masculine essence of the sun; the bird is also known as the Yu Hua, which often flies to earth to feed on the Plant of Immortality.
  • Moon - home of the Hare who prepares the elixir of immortality with a mortar and pestle, pale blue, surrounded by clouds, or greyish pink, over curling waves. Female attributes.
    Stars - three circles joined by 45 degree lines to form the eternal unity of sun, moon and earth. Sun, Moon and Stars combined were symbolic of knowledge gained through the understanding of nature.
  • Mountains - earth, steadfastness and longevity, used often at center above the wave pattern which was embroidered in the twelve colors at the hem of court robes.
  • Dragon - the most imperial of the twelve symbols. The five-toed dragon is reserved for the Emperor and his heirs, four-toed for court officials, three-toed for lesser nobility. It is the emblem of strength, goodness, viligence and safeguard, and when used in tandem with the ax and pheasant, judicial powers of the court are implied. It is often depicted in tandem with the Flaming Pearl, symbolic of the eternal pursuit of wisdom. See "The Sacred Animals of China" for additional information.
  • Pheasant - literary refinement, education. Depicted standing on a rock in the sea, facing the sun. It is sometimes used in place of the Phoenix, and as such, is considered an emblem of beauty and good fortune.
  • Bronze Cups - purity, impartiality, and the Confucian concept of filial piety
  • Water weed - purity and adaptability to changing times.
  • Grain - symbolizing the emperor's responsibility to feed his people.
  • Fire - The Buddhist concepts of zeal, love of virtue, brilliance of spirit and intellect. Fire is sometimes used as a halo for fierce Buddhist deities. Fire also stands for danger, speed, anger, ferocity and lust.
  • Ax - The emperor's power to inflict punishment, also seen by some as a symbol of warriors. The ax is also the emblem of matchmakers, due to the similarity of the characters for ax and "to begin". The ax is also the symbol of Lu Pan, the God of Carpenters.
  • Fu - developed from the pictograph for happiness, and symbolizes the emperor's responsibility to create a happy nation.
  • The Dragon and Phoenix have long been reserved for the Emperor and Empress, with variants reserved for ranking members of their household. To delineate rank among officials at court, the hereditary nobles of the 1st rank could not wear the sun, moon and stars, but could wear the remaining 9 symbols of authority. Officials of the 2nd and 3rd ranks could not wear sun, moon and stars, and additionally, mountains and dragons, but could wear the remaining symbols of authority. The pecking order in embroidered embellishments on court robes followed suite for the remaining official rankings.

Color Symbolism

The Five Colors of the Universe each represented a direction, element and an animal. Specific colors and/or shades were reserved for specific military and civilian ranks during some dynastic rules in both China and Mongolia:

  • Red (south, fire, and phoenix) was a sacred color in Mongolia, and the color of joy and festivals and weddings in China. In Buddhist doctrine, a red Lotus symbolizes the nature of the heart, encompassing the emotions of love, passion and compassion. Red could not be work for 27 months after the death of a parent. Pinks, peach, apricot and purples were considered shades of red.
  • Yellow (center, earth) was sacred in both Mongolia and China and was reserved for monks and the Emperor. It is the color of measure and balance, eternal light and consummate harmony. Yellow clouds denote prosperity.
  • Blue/green (east, wood, and dragon) was reserved for the Prime Minister during the Song Dynasty and was the color of royalty and 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree officials during the Ming Dynasty. Some pale grays and of-whites were categorized as blue or green. Blue and green for the sake of color symbolism are interchangeable. In Buddhist doctrine, a blue Lotus is the symbol of victory of the spirit over the senses, of intelligence, wisdom and knowledge. It is always represented as a partially opened bud whose center is never visible.
  • White (west, metal, and tiger) denotes moral purity. It was the color of joy and festival at court during the Yuan Dynasty. In Buddhist doctrine, a white Lotus is the emblem of total mental purity and spiritual perfection. It is depicted with eight petals corresponding to the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • Black (north, water, tortoise, snake)
  • Brown was the color of royalty during the Song Dynasty. Thirty to fifty shades were in recorded use during the Yuan Dynasty.
  • Gold and silver were used to denote greater and lesser wealth in both Mongolian textiles and Chinese jewelry.


Embroidery has been used as a form of embellishment since very ancient times. In the Neolithic world, simple embroidery was worked on wool, linen and hemp in mostly geometric abstract motifs, using needles made from bone, ivory or bronze. After the beginning of recorded history, embroidery was combined with paint as a textile embellishment. This process was revived during the fall of the Manchu government in the late 19th century, as fully embroidered garments became cost-prohibitive. I have seen this technique used on religious items and wall hangings, and have found that paint with embroidery outline and detail turns out a very satisfactory shoe or stage costume, with good effect and minimal time outlay.

By the T'ang Dynasty, considered the Golden Age of China, thousands of women were employed as seamstresses and embroideresses, and Chang An, then capitol of China, became a trade center for woven and embroidered textiles. By the Song Dynasty, embroidery embellished parasols, fans and shoes, as well as household items such as screens and bed coverlets were being produced. The Ming Dynasty saw the development of the ranking badges, worn on the front and back of robes by military and civilian officials and by their wives. Many of the Imperial Dragon Robes that you see in museums also date from the late Ming Dynasty.


There are various dynasties that influenced the styles of the ancient Chinese clothing. From long robes to wide sleeves, each had their own distinct pattern, which made its mark.

The pre 17th century ancient Chinese clothing or the Han Chinese clothing has a long history in terms of the clothing worn. The Han Chinese clothing or the Hanfu covered all the traditional Chinese clothing worn by people in that era. The Hanfu was considered to be very important by the Han Chinese as far as their culture was concerned. It was also known that one has to follow the rules of dressing that belonged to the Hanfu styles, as a mark of respect. The basic style and design of the Hanfu were developed to a great extent in the Shang Dynasty. The Shang dynasty saw 2 basic styles-The Yi and the Shang. The Yi is the coat worn on top and the Shang is the skirt that is worn beneath. There was a major use of sash instead of buttons and the sleeve cuffs were styled narrow. The colors of the fabrics were basically in warm tones.

The western Zhou Dynasty also followed similar styles and designs of the Shang dynasty. This is where one saw the variations in the sleeves-narrow as well as broad. The lengths of the skirts saw different levels, from the knee to the ankle. Here, the different styles that were worn also created a distinction between the people.

It was during the Sui and the Tang dynasty, one saw the acceptance of more ideas. The ancient Chinese dress was divided into 2 patterns-The Pien-fu and the Shen-I. The ancient Chinese clothing also used minimal stitches on the fabric. The structure was plain and there was a wide use of embroidery and silk sashes to add to the design of the dress.

Ancient Chinese clothing saw a lot of robes that are popular even today. These robes were used by emperors and very heavily embroidered with various patterns. The dragon robe was one such popular robe that had patterns of dragons embroidered all over. This was actually seen first in the Zhou Dynasty. These robes consist of nine yellow dragons and five cloud patterns that are considered to be auspicious for the wearer. The dragon robe derived its name in the Qing Dynasty.

The clouds on the robes further incorporate 12 patterns. These also have a symbolic meaning to express. The nine and five combinations were deliberately calculated when designing the robe, as it symbolized the dignity of the throne. These dragons are embroidered on the front, back, knee areas or even the shoulders.

Yet another kind of ancient Chinese clothing is the cheongsam. This is very popular even on the international market. Also known as the qipao, the cheongsam was actually a one-piece dress. The ancient Chinese Manchu women mainly wore this in the olden days. These were easy to adorn and maintain and complemented the figure of a Chinese woman. The basic style of the cheongsam consists of a high neck with a closed collar and sleeves that are either short or medium. The cheongsam is buttoned on the right side and has a fitted waist. It also has slits that go up from the sides. Today, we can see many variations of the cheongsam available, to suit the modern tastes. The ancient Chinese also saw a dominance of the tunic suit. The Chinese also know this as the 'Zhongshan Zhuang' or the 'Zhongshan suit'. This consisted of a tunic that had 4 pockets and a turned down collar. This style also found an acceptance and went through few modifications along the way.

The ancient Chinese clothing often used patches of embroidery, which were mainly animal prints. This kind of embroidery was called the Buzi and was seen in the Ming and Qing Dynasty. These embroideries are very intricate and beautiful in its appearance. The various animals that were used also symbolized the rank of the officers who wore them on their garments. The ancient Chinese clothing showcases a rich and cultural tradition that has influenced its design. These continue to be a major form of inspiration to young designers even today.

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