The art of embroidery was widespread throughout China in the Han Dynasty (BC 206 – AD 220). Four distinctive styles, or schools, of embroidery emerged at that time, though each would reach their pinnacle after the blossoming of the Silk Road trade created a demand for Chinese goods.
The earliest examples of Chinese embroidery stem from the Zhou Dynasty (1027 – 221 BC). It is unclear whether this was the origin of embroidery because Egypt and Northern Europe also have early examples. Ancient Chinese embroidery was crafted using silk, because spinning from silkworms had already been mastered. Curiously, Chinese embroidery was originally the domain of males; it was only later that Chinese men realized that women were better at it.
The four schools of Chinese embroidery are now designated by the government as a Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage. They are: Shu embroidery, Xiang embroidery, Su embroidery, and Yue embroidery. Miao Embroidery is a separate style of embroidery from a minority group.
The Shu School of Chinese Embroidery
Shu embroidery has particularly been associated with the city of Chengdu, capital Sichuan Province. Both "Shu" and "Chuan" are abbreviations used for Sichuan, so Shu embroidery has also been called Chuan embroidery. The most salient features of Shu embroidery are:
- It is tightly stitched — necessary for intricate work (think high-pixel versus low-pixel resolution).
- It excels in the art of mixing threads in a gradually increasing fashion to effortlessly transition from one solid color to another.
- It the natural world. The panda is a current popular motif as Chengdu is the home for the panda.
- It is typically done on soft, satin fabric and makes use of brightly coloured threads.
- It follows strict, tradition-bound principles, that are divided into 12 primary weaving categories which result in 122 subcategories.
- Its products include quilt covers, pillow cases, table cloths, chair cushions, 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, with prices as low as 300 Yuan (about $44 USD). Shu embroidery can also be found at the Shu Brocade Academy in Chengdu. For Shu embroidery stores see Chengdu Shopping.
China Highlights' Chengdu tours 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. "Xiang" is an abbreviation for Hunan, which comes from the Xiang River which runs through the province.
The most salient features of Xiang embroidery are:
- It deliberately mimics other art forms such as painting, engraving and calligraphy.
- It's "reversible" with separate imagery on both sides.
- It specializes in a satin look, the depictions have very soft, smooth surfaces.
- Its motifs are typically "broad-brush" humans, birds, animals, and landscapes, among which depictions of lions and tigers dominate.
- It emphasizes few colors, with large solid-color surfaces. Intricate patterns was never the goal, but instead simple and bold.
- Xiang embroidery was much prized in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) especially, but it has won many international awards in expositions since.
The Su School of Chinese Embroidery
Su embroidery derives its name from the abbreviation for Jiangsu Province, which is also the "Su" in the provincial capital Suzhou.
Su embroidery is categorized into Pre and Post Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when Su embroidery was influenced by both Japanese and Western art, absorbing these and changing forever. The absorption is likely due to the province's proximity to Japan and the interaction with the West at the time.
The most salient features of Shu embroidery are:
- It is renowned for its refinement, its clearly demarcated, delicate lines and its elegant, tasteful overall design.
- It is tightly stitched, similar to Shu embroidery, and uses 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.
- It is "reversible" like Xiang embroidery, though the best Su embroidery masters produced double-sided embroidery where the reverse side was a mirror image of the front.
Su embroidery became so famous during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) that Suzhou was called "City of Embroidery". Su embroidery was the favorite in the Qing Dynasty court, for royal clothing and wall decoration.
Su embroidery is also popular today, and now is used for general-use products such as handbags. Su embroidery has won recognition at international expositions. The best place to buy Su embroidery is at the Su Embroidery Museum in Suzhou. Find out more on Suzhou Shopping.
The Yue School of Chinese Embroidery
Yue embroidery (Cantonese Embroidery) is associated with present-day Guangdong Province. ("Yue" is the abbreviation for Guangdong".)
Though there is little evidence, Yue is believed to the be the oldest embroidery school. According to historical sources, early Yue embroidery used twisted peacock feathers and used horse tail hair to separate colour borders. These are still used today, though mostly for accentuation.
Although Yue Embroidery combines many embroidery schools, there are two characteristics that distinguish the style, these are:
- It generally doesn't try to create depth such as making things look 3D
- It takes as its most common motifs mythical creatures such as sun-worshipping birds, dragons and phoenixes.
- It is sometimes on cotton rather than silk.
It is especially popular with Chinese expat communities all over the world. 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 Christie's and Sotheby's whenever they appear.
Miao embroidery is a unique art of the Miao minority people.
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, and bottle green.
Miao embroideries can be bought in Southeast Guizhou where China's largest Miao community is located. Xijiang Miao Village in Kaili is particularly well-known for its embroidery. Embroidery is available on sale in the village.