Some four thousand years ago when China was passing from primitive society to slave society, there was as rule that the tribal leaders should wear formal attire with patterns of the sun, the moon, and stars embroidered on the upper garment; of weeds, fire, etc., on trousers (skirts) when grand ceremonies were held such as celebrations, sacrifice-offerings, etc.
In the spring and autumn and the warring states period, along with the progress of agriculture, the lifestyle that men plough the fields and women weave became more firmly fixed, mulberry-and—hemp planting and spinning-and-weaving extensively spread, and the embroidery craft grew mature gradually. To date the earliest embroidery works handed down from ancient times are the two pieces unearthed from the Chu Tombs in the Warring States Period. By applying braid embroidering method (also known as locking embroidering) that features neat stitch, flowing line, and tasteful coloring, the patterns of swimming-dragon and dancing-phoenix; fierce-tiger and auspicious-beast embroidered on silks appear natural and lifelike, which gives full expression to the achievements of embroidery art in the ancient State of
When it came to Qin and Han dynasty, the art of embroidery further developed following the progress of silk-spinning. A diversified batch of embroidered works well preserved was unearthed from the Han tombs at Mawangdui of Changsha, Hu’nan Province. These embroideries, which represent the artistic style as well as the high level of embroidery in the Han Dynasty, mostly have patterns of ripple-like clouds, soaring phoenix, galloping holy beast, ribbon-shaped flowers, geometric figures, etc., using basically locking method with neat stitching, compact composition and smooth lines.
The prevailing practice of embroidering Buddha started from the last years of Han Dynasty. During the Six Dynasty, foreign culture represented by Buddhism mingled with local culture, which reflected in embroidery. Some silk fragments unearthed from the Eastern Jin Dynasty down to the Northern Dynasties unearthed in Duanhuang of Gansu Province, and Hetian, Bachu, Turpan of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Rgion, reveal that the whole piece of work, designand blank in all, was fine and closely embroidered using locking technique, producing the effect of covering the fabrics to the full with embroidery. In the book entitled Famous Paintings through the Ages, Zhang Yanyuan, a Tang Dynasty writer writes that Lady Zhao in the court of the States of Wu was distinguished for her “three matchlessness” matchlessness in weaving, in stitching and in silk. She was adept at weaving dragon and phoenix patterned brocade with colorful silk thread, called “matchlessness of weaving;” embroidering the Five Holy Mountains on a square piece of fabric, “called matchlessness of stitching;” and making soft curtains with a specific kind of silk named Jiaoshu silk, called “matchlessness of silk.” Another notablefeature of embroidery at that time is that human figures had started to appear on embroidered works.
Although the Han-Dynasty locking embroidery technique was still followed in the Tang Dynasty, another skill called plain stitching method had already been widely used together with some other stitching methods, using color thread and wider ranger of fabrics. Besides, patterns were edged with golden and silvery thread to give a three-dimensional effect. During the Tang and Song dynasty, as more and more people joined in embroidery, the representative needlework among females-boudoir embroidery emerged. At the same time, as scholar –painters widely took part in the work, there appeared embroidery painting, which combines painting with embroidery made by artisans. From Tang down to Ming and Qing dynasties, the participation of scholar-painters in the business had carried forward the innovation and development of embroidery techniques: in the treatment of color silk, thread was cut into finer bits, so that the lines might appear more soft and graceful; in stitching methods, there appeared various new approaches, such as arbitrary stitching, thread nailing, gold circling, mixing stitching, rolling stitching, and linking stitching.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the government-run handicraft business waned gradually. Non-governmental workshops stared to arise, thus facilitating the growth of folk handicrafts. Thanks to the cooperation between scholars and artisans, embroidery skills and production became brisk and thriving. Traditional Chinese embroidery reached its summit of prosperity, with four famous schools of embroidery: Su-embroidery, Yue-embroidery, Shu-embroidery and Xiang-embroidery coming into being.
Centering on the city of
Yue-embroidery, being the general name for the embroidery in the
Shu-embroidery, also known as Sichuan embroidery, is an age-old local craft based on Chendu of Sichuan Province. According to the book History of the State of Huayang written by Chang Qu of Qin Dynasty, Shu-embroidery and Shu-brocade were two specialties of Sichuan Province. Shu-embroidery works mainly include quilt covers, pillow cased, garments, shoes and painted screens, mostly articles of everyday use. The designs are largely flowers, birds, insects, fish, folk auspicious words and traditional patterns, possessing jubilant flavor. Since the middle and later period of Qing Dynasty, on the basis of traditional local embroidery technique, Shu-embroidery took in the strong points in Gu-embroidery and Su-embroidery and sprang up overnight to become one of most important commodity embroidery varieties in the country. Shu-embroidery features neat stitching, smoothness and brightness, with lines clear, color gorgeous, pattern-edge uniform as if cut with knife.
Xiang-embroidery is the general name of embroidered works made in Hu’nan Province, Changsha being a hub. At first merchants in Changsha set up the “Gu-embroidery Shop” to cater for the newly appointed high official who rose to power by suppressing the Taiping Revolution. Soon it had prevailed over Gu-embroidery. Xiang-embroidery is characterized by using silk floss to embroider flowers. The silk floss is treated in a certain solution so as to prevent pills from appearing. Xiang-embroidery is called “fine wool embroidery” by local people. Using traditional painting as subject matter, Xiang-embroidery boasts vivid and lifelike shape and unconstrained style, well commended as “flowers embroidered seemingly fragrant, birds embroidered seemingly chirping, tigers embroidered seemingly running and figures embroidered seemingly true to life.”