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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.