The earliest examples of Chinese embroidery stem from the Zhou (BC 1027-221) Dynasty. This might well represent the origin of embroidery, early examples of which have also been discovered in ancient Egypt and northern Europe, though there is no conclusive proof of exactly where embroidery originated – if, indeed, it did not originate in several places at roughly the same time. Ancient Chinese embroidery was crafted using silk, since the Chinese had already learned how to spin silk thread from silkworms (it is well established, however, that the ancient Chinese were the first to master the art of silkworm domestication with an eye to silk production). Curiously, Chinese embroidery was originally the domain of males; it was only later that Chinese men later realized that the delicate hands of their women was better suited to the task!
The earliest extant example of Chinese silk embroidery is a ritual garment recovered from a 4th century BC burial tomb at Mashan, in present-day Hubei Province, and which stems from the early Taoist era (i.e., predating Buddhism in China), though judging from the designs on the garment, the religion in question could well have been pre-Taoist, since Taoism, which emerged from the "primordial soup" of religious-superstitious belief that existed in pre-Imperial China – and to which the Yin and the Yang belong –spread only slowly throughout China.
The art of embroidery had become widespread throughout China by the time of the Han (BC 206 – CD 220) Dynasty. Four distinctive styles, or schools, of embroidery emerged in China at that time, though each of them would quite naturally reach its respective pinnacle during a much later period, especially after the blossoming of Silk Road trade with India, the Middle East and Europe had created a market for Chinese embroidery, a market where the demand for ever more intricate embroidery in ever richer patterns would be met by Chinese artisans.
The four schools of Chinese embroidery – all of them, collectively and individually, now designated by the government of the PRC as a Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage – are: Shu embroidery (from the Kingom of Shu (CE 221-263) of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period, comprising present-day Sichuan Province); Xiang embroidery, associated with the silk artisans of what is present-day Hunan Province; Su embroidery, linked to present-day Jiangsu Province; and Yue embroidery, linked to present-day Guangdong Province. Below is a brief description of these four distinctive schools of Chinese embroidery.
The Shu School of Chinese Embroidery
Shu embroidery has historically been associated with the area in and around the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province. Due to its link with Sichuan, Shu embroidery has also been termed "Chuan" embroidery (note that the "chu" of "Sichuan" is pronounced the same as "Shu", i.e., "si-chuan" and "si-shuan" would be pronounced identically). The most salient features of Shu embroidery are as follows:
- It makes use of brightly colored threads,
- It is tightly stitched – a necessity for intricate work (think of high-pixel versus low-pixel resolution),
- It excels in the art of mixing threads in a gradual-to-increasing fashion so as to seemingly effortlessly transition from one solid color to another, and
- It takes as its main themes representations of the natural world, i.e., typical motifs are plants – including blossoms – animals, fishes, birds and landscapes.
One of the current most popular motifs – not surprisingly, given that the province is home to the animal – is the panda. The art of Shu embroidery follows certain strict, tradition-bound principles, which can be divided into 12 primary weaving categories that in turn result in 122 subcategories. Shu embroidery is typically done on soft satin fabric which, to this today, is still produced in the province. Typical Shu embroidery products include quilt covers and pillow cases, table cloths and chair cushions, and scarves and handkerchiefs.
Shu embroidery can be found in the shops of Chengdu that specialize in such items, such as in the Hongqi Shopping Store chain, one of which stores is located on Shudu Street, the other on Zongfu Street, with prices as low as 300 Yuan (about $44 USD). Shu embroidery can also be found at the Shu Brocade Academy in Chengdu, located at 1 Caotong East Raod. Read more on Chengdu Shopping. China Highlights' tours to Chengdu provide customers a great chance to explore the city's remarkable history with a chance to buy Shu embroidery.
The Xiang School of Chinese Embroidery
Xiang embroidery has historically been associated with Hunan Province. It derives its name from the fact that the Xiang River runs through the province (and, indeed, the name "Hunan" itself means "south of the lake", so the substitution of one water source for another is perhaps understandable, especially since rivers and lakes played such an integral role in society in those times). The most salient features of Xiang embroidery are as follows:
- It is deliberately mimics other art forms such as painting, engraving and calligraphy, which itself became a form of painting,
- It is "reversible" in the sense that it is double-sided, i.e., it has separate imagery on either side of the material,
- It specializes in a satin look, i.e., the depictions have very soft, very smooth surfaces, achieved partly due to the choice of materials, the sheer size of the solid-color areas, and the selection of motifs, and
- Its motifs are typically "broad-brush" human, bird and animal figures and landscapes, among which depictions of lions and tigers – especially the latter – dominate.
Xiang embroidery items are things of bold beauty. A critic might say that they are garish because they emphasize few but bold colors, with large solid-color surfaces. Delicate understatement and intricacy of pattern was never the goal, but instead simple and bold, unapologetic beauty that exudes a luxurious plushness. Xiang embroidery was much prized in China during especially the latter part of the Qing Dynasty, but it has won many international awards, since, at international expositions in Japan, the US, and – perhaps surprisingly – in Panama.
The Su School of Chinese Embroidery
Su embroidery derives its name from the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. Unlike the other embroidery schools, Su embroidery is marked by two distinctively different periods: a pre- and a post-Ming Dynasty period. Not much is known of Su embroidery's pre-Ming Dynasty period, but it is believed to have exhibited many of the general characteristics of the other schools of embroidery.
The best place to buy Su embroidery in Suzhou is Suzhou is Su Embroidery Museum, which is located at 262, Jingde Road. Read more on Suzhou Shopping.
Toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, Su embroidery was influenced by both Japanese and Western art, absorbing these and becoming thereafter forever changed (it should come as no surprise that Su embroidery would be influenced by Japanese art, given Jiangsu Province's close proximity to Japan, and perhaps by Western art as well, given the increasing trade between China and the rest of the world). The most salient features of Shu embroidery are as follows:
- It is renowned for its refinement, i.e., its clearly demarcated – yet delicate – lines, and its elegant and tasteful overall design,
- It is tightly stitched, not unlike Shu embroidery, and makes use of a thin needle to produce meticulously crafted patterns,
- Its colors are not monochromatic, but consist of the proper mix of different colored threads so as to achieve the desired hue, in much the same way that a painter mixes various colors to achieve a given hue, and
- It is "reversible" (from the middle of the Qing Dynasty and onward), like Xiang embroidery, though the best Su embroidery masters produced a double-sided embroidery whose reverse side was the mirror image of the front side, a technique that requires great skill.
Su embroidery became so famous throughout China during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty that the city of Suzhou was given the title of "City of Embroidery". Su embroidery became the preferred embroidery of the Qing Dynasty court, both for official royal costumes as well as for wall decoration, i.e., for use as tapestries. It also introduced gilded and silver coated threads, and developed designs with a ray pattern that became very popular, especially at court.
Su embroidery is still very popular, although, besides producing tapestries and articles of clothing, present-day Su embroidery also makes many other general-use items such as handbags. Also Su embroidery has won recognition at international expositions.
The Yue School of Chinese Embroidery
Yue embroidery, sometimes referred to as Cantonese embroidery, is associated with present-day Guangdong Province, China's southernmost coastal province (Guangdong Province is situated in the heart of what was called Canton China during the colonial era). Some believe Yue embroidery to be China's oldest embroidery school, though no firm evidence of this exists. According to historical sources, the earliest Yue embroidery made use of peacock feathers twisted into a thick thread, or rope, while the hairs of a horse's tail were used to delineate the border between different colors, creating a more distinctive pattern. Both of these materials are still used today, though more for the purpose of occasional accentuation than anything else.
There are no uniquely defining characteristics of Yue embroidery; in fact, it is considered the most eclectic of the four schools of Chinese embroidery, combining many style elements from the other embroidery schools. However, there are two characteristics that make Yue embroidery stand out somewhat. These are:
- It generally does not attempt to create an illusion of depth (i.e., it has no third dimension) – though, even this "rule" is violated on occasion, and
- It takes as its most common motifs mythical creatures such as sun-worshipping birds, dragons and phoenixes, as well as less mythical motifs such as flowers. It is also sometimes produced not on a background of silk, but of cotton.
Yue embroideries are as richly colorful as any other school of Chinese embroidery. They are especially popular with Chinese expat communities all over the world, including the closer-to-home Chinese expat communities in Hong Kong and Macao. Yue embroidery has also won many prizes, including prizes at international expositions. Some of the older exemplars of Yue embroidery fetch outrageous prices at international auctions such as Christies and Sotheby's whenever they appear.
Miao embroidery is a unique art of the Miao minority people. The stitches are unique and varied. The designs involve propitious animals such as kylin, dragon, phoenix, insect, fish, flowers and fruits. Profuse colors are used, for instance, scarlet, pink, purple, dark blue, Cambridge blue, bottle green, orange, and yellow. Miao embroideries can be bought in Southeast Guizhou where China's largest Miao community is located. Xijiang Miao Village in Kaili is particulary well-known for its embroidery. Embroidery is available on sale in the village. Our Ethnic Minority Tours to Xijiang and other ethnic villages nearby offer tourists a great opportunity to explore the ancient culture of the Miao people, and of course, buy Miao embroidery.