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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) — Liaoning Museum
To Highlight — Patterns on Chinese Silk Fabrics
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) — 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.
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).
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.
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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.
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 (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) — 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.
Afterward, Ling has been widely used in mounting painting and calligraphy work.
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 — 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 — 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.
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 — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Juan or Chiffon
Juan is a type of plain-woven fabric, which is thin, light, and flat.
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) — Guangdong Folk Art Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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