Chinese Silk — Traditions, Utilizations, Fabrics, Embroideries, Products, and Art

Chinese Silk has been one of the most beautiful, exquisite fashions throughout history, which carries splendid artistic and cultural values.  

Invention Story and Cultural Meaning of Ancient Chinese Silk

 

History and Utilizations of Chinese Silk Products

 

Types of Silk Fabrics and Textiles

 

Famous Chinese Silk Embroideries and Their Splendid Artistic Values

Chinese Silk with Exquisite Embroideries of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD)

Chinese Silk with Exquisite Embroideries of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Invention Story and Cultural Meaning of Ancient Chinese Silk

Leizu the Silk Goddess

 

Leizu, the empress of the Yellow Emperor (about 2717 BC — 2599 BC), is the Silk Goddess recorded by many ancient historians. 

 

After having discovered how silkworm cocoons unwrapped and found the means to weave those threads, she researched and formed the sericulture, including planting mulberry trees, rearing silkworms, drawing threads, and weaving them into soft and fabulous silk fabrics.

Leizu the Silk Goddess

Empresses and Sericulture Rites

 

From the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) to the last feudal empire the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), all Chinese Empresses would hold Sericulture Rite, in Chinese "Qin Can Li", in spring, to set an example of being diligent, encourage women to work hard and contribute on weaving industry, and pray for good harvests. 

 

This had been one of the most important rituals for empresses of China, usually would last for days. 

 

On the rite, an empress would wear her most solemn ceremonial dress, lead all imperial concubines, worship the Silk Goddess Leizu, and do a whole set of sericultural works. 

Part of Sericulture Rite or Qin Can Li Hold by Empress Xiaoxianchun (1712 — 1748) the Beloved Wife of Qianlong Emperor, Painted by Giuseppe Castiglione

Part of Sericulture Rite or Qin Can Li Hold by Empress Xiaoxianchun (1712 — 1748) the Beloved Wife of Qianlong Emperor, Painted by Court Artist Giuseppe Castiglione — Taipei Palace Museum

Symbolism and Importance of Silkworms

 

Since the Neolithic era, sericulture made the silkworm one of the most important necessities of people's lives, hence a significant offering in ancient grand worship ceremonies. 

 

Meanwhile, a silkworm can grow into a cocoon, which later would break and fly out of a moth, this whole process has been believed to be a representative of a life circle, from one's birth to death, and then the soul's flying to heaven.

 

Therefore, silk and silkworm-shaped stones and jade articles had been used as divine sacrificial offerings in ancient holy rites to pray for good harvests and wealthy lives, and as shroud and burial objects in nobles' tombs wishing for their souls' successful journeys to heaven, or to rebirth. 

Jade Silkworm of the Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC) or Western Zhou (1046 BC — 771 BC) Dynasties

Jade Silkworm of the Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC) or Western Zhou (1046 BC — 771 BC) Dynasties — The Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

History and Utilizations of Chinese Silk Products

 

To Wear — Chinese Silk Robe and Dress

 

Since silk was invented during the Neolithic period, silk robes and dresses have been popular for royals and nobles exclusively, later spread to rich people. 

 

Until Sui (589 — 619), Tang (618 — 907), and Song (960 — 1279) dynasties, production and technics developed to an advanced level, when silk clothes entered the civilians' world.   

 

Colors and patterns, however, still followed strict hierarchies.

Chinese Silk Dresses of Court Ladies in Painting "Zanhua Shinv Tu", By Artist Zhou Fang of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Chinese Silk Dresses of Court Ladies in Painting "Zanhua Shinv Tu", By Artist Zhou Fang of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Liaoning Museum

To Highlight — Patterns on Chinese Silk Fabrics

 

Since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) when silk clothes were exclusively worn by royals and nobles, some patterns had been regulated as symbols of sovereignty, such as the 12 Imperial Patterns.

 

Later, during Emperor Wu Zetian's reign (690 — 705), officials started to embroider animal designs, birds for civil officials, and beasts for military officials, on their robes as hierarchical patterns, which was named Mandarin Square or Buzi. 

Red-crowned Crane Embroidery Mandarin Square or Buzi on Chinese Silk Robe of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Red-crowned Crane Embroidery Mandarin Square or Buzi on Chinese Silk Robe of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Confucius Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

For officials' daily clothes and civilians' outfits, widely used auspicious patterns include flowers, birds, animals, fruits, landscapes, myths and legends, historic figures and stories, etc. 

 

Click to Read More About Use of Colors and Patterns

Chrysanthemum Pattern Silk Textile of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Chrysanthemum Pattern Silk Textile of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

To Write — Imperial Decrees, Poems, Articles, and Calligraphies

 

Before paper was invented during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), silk had been used as important writing material for royals, when cheaper bamboo and wood were for ordinary people. 

 

After the paper was invented and widespread, however, silk had been continued to be used as the only writing material for Imperial Decrees until the fall of the last feudal Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912).

 

Moreover, today, some people still write poems, articles, and calligraphy work on silk, which is more solid, durable, and fancier than paper. 

Calligraphy Work on Chinese Silk Written By Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135)

Calligraphy Work on Chinese Silk Written By Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

To Draw — Chinese Silk Painting

 

Throughout history, different types of silk have been important painting materials as well. 

 

Landscape, flowers, birds, animals, mythical creatures, and figures are common objects in Chinese Silk Paintings. 

 

Click to Read More About Chinese Paintings

Part of Silk Painting "Luoshen Fu" by artist Gu Kaizhi (348 — 405)

Part of Silk Painting "Luoshen Fu" by artist Gu Kaizhi (348 — 405). This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Palace Museum.

To Adorn — Chinese Silk Fan, Scarf, Pendants, Flower, and Ornaments

 

Besides clothes, with the development of sericulture, silk has been widely used to make other accessories, including Chinese Fans, scarfs, sachets, silk flowers, hair ornaments, and handkerchiefs.

Silk Fan with Carved Ebony Handle of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Silk Fan with Carved Ebony Handle of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

To Decorate — Chinese Silk Screen, Rug, and Lantern

 

For royals and rich people, silk has been a popular material to be used as home decorations, which could be made into exquisite silk screens, rugs, sheets, and lanterns, to show the owner's wealth and aesthetic tastes.

Silk Hanging Screen With Exquisite Embroideries of the Qing Dynasty

Silk Hanging Screen With Exquisite Embroideries of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Guangdong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

To Trade and Pay — Silk Road and Silk As Currency

 

After the Silk Road was opened up by Zhang Qian (164 BC — 114 BC) in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), silk and other products have been traded from China to other countries on these international routes. 

 

Moreover, because of its great value, silk had been served as currency in Chinese history, for people to buy stuff and pay taxes, for governments to pay for salaries and buy commodities from foreign countries, as well as luxurious awards and gifts. 

Silk Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Silk Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Types of Silk Fabrics and Textiles

In regard to weaving, different interplaying relationships of wefts and warps form different gloss and tactile sensations of silk fabrics, which include six main types. 

 

Ling or Damask 

 

Ling or Damask, the twill silk cloth that is woven with diagonal parallel ridges, is thin, smooth, and soft. 

 

Ling originated before the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) and thrived in Tang (618 — 907) and Song (960 — 1279) dynasties as a clothing fabric.

 

Afterward, Ling has been widely used in mounting painting and calligraphy work. 

Flower-Patterned Chinese Silk Ling of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Flower-Patterned Chinese Silk Ling of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Qinghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Luo or Gauze

 

Luo is a type of silk fabric woven with stranded warps, which is translucent and thin like Gauze. 

 

Having appeared no later than Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC), Luo has been widely used to make summer clothes. 

Chinese Silk Luo of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) With Exquisite Embroideries

Chinese Silk Luo of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) With Exquisite Embroideries — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Chou or Pongee

 

Originated in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Chou has been the most common Chinese silk fabric as clothing material, with a tight texture and soft quality. 

Chinese Silk Chou of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) With Embroideries

Chinese Silk Chou of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) With Embroideries — Tsinghua University Art Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Duan or Satin 

 

Duan is the smoothest and brightest silk fabric that was invented during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368). 

 

Since then, even though Duan is also the most fragile silk cloth, it soon became the most popular clothing material for its lustrous and resplendent beauty. 

Chinese Silk Duan With Exquisite Embroideries, on Imperial Robe of Qianlong Emperor (1711 — 1799)

Chinese Silk Duan With Exquisite Embroideries, on Imperial Robe of Qianlong Emperor (1711 — 1799) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Jin or Brocade

 

Jin or Brocade is the most expansive and valuable silk fabric in ancient times, with stereoscopic and exquisite patterns that are woven using colorful silk wefts and warps, sometimes fine metal threads. 

 

Originated no later than the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), there developed four fabulous brocades in China: Yun Brocade from Nanjing, Shu Brocade from Chengdu, Song Brocade from Suzhou, and Zhuang Brocade from Guangxi. 

Chinese Silk Jin or Brocade of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), Woven Using Silk and Gold Threads

Chinese Silk Jin or Brocade of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), Woven Using Silk and Gold Threads — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Juan or Chiffon

 

Juan is a type of plain-woven fabric, which is thin, light, and flat.

 

It was originated during the Neolithic era and had been used as the painting canvas before the paper was invented in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD). 

Chinese Silk Juan Cloth of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Chinese Silk Juan Cloth of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Famous Chinese Silk Embroideries and Their Splendid Artistic Values

 

Besides woven patterns, embroidery has been widely used on silk fabrics, as splendid silk art through needles and threads. 

 

Today, there are four main Chinese Embroidery Genres, Su (Jiangsu), Shu (Sichuan), Xiang (Hunan), and Yue (Guangdong). 

 

They differ in styles and characteristics, but all have bright colors, delicate stitchings, with vivid and beautiful patterns. 

Splendid Embroideries on Silk Cloth of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Splendid Embroideries on Silk Cloth of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Guangdong Folk Art Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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