King's Silk Art: Embroidery from Imperial China

Posted by Shengfei Zhu & Pia Fennell on July 31, 2013

Silk embroidery is an ancient and integral part of China's cultural heritage. For centuries, this craft has adorned the vestments and palaces of Chinese emperors and their families to signify their supremacy and set them apart from those they ruled. During the Qin Dynasty, which ranged from 221-207 BC, embroidered robes and decorative art that featured dragon motifs began to emerge, and continued to gain popularity during the Han Dynasty. During this time, the palace employed a number of artisans and embroiderers whose sole purpose was to design patterns and utilize color that would serve to glorify the dynastic family and their authority as agents of heaven. Today, these royal pieces have become artifacts that attract the attention of those with an interest in textile art, Chinese history, and artisan craftsmanship. Dragon robes, rank badges used by government officials and embroidery paintings of Chinese emperors, kings and royal families provide some of the most outstanding examples of a rich culture and artistic tradition from the past 2000 years.

Decorations for Royal Families

In the palaces of ancient China, decorative silk art could be seen everywhere: as wall hangings, pillar decorations and freestanding screens.

Buddhas were a popular subject for this kind of silk art, and can be seen as early as in the art of Three Kingdoms (229-589 AD) and through the Tung Dynasty.

This was a means of displaying devotion and belief -- members of royal family wanted to show their respect for the Buddha and hoped that by hanging pictures of him in the palace they would attract good luck.

Depiction of Laozi, a Chinese philosopher and teacher.
Depiction of Laozi, a Chinese philosopher and teacher
Depiction of Laozi, a Chinese philosopher and teacher.
Depiction of Laozi, a Chinese philosopher and teacher

Besides Buddha, other important spiritual and cultural figures were often depicted.

A common icon of the time was Laozi, a 6th-century Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism. Here is an original painting, which shows Laozi on a bull, painted by Zhang Lu during the Ming Dynasty. On the right is the silk embroidered version of the same painting. In embroidering his image, the artist was hoping to convey the qualities associated with Laozi to both the wearer of his garment and those who would see it.

Depiction of embroiderers in a Chinese imperial palace.
Depiction of embroiderers in a Chinese imperial palace

Nature is perhaps one of the most timeless of all artistic subjects, and silk embroidery embraces this as much as any other tradition. Flowers, mountains, rivers and birds were often used as themes in the embroidery hung in the to create an atmosphere of calm, tranquility and simplicity.

In the imperial palace, there were usually hundreds of embroiderers whose job was to satisfy the demands of the royal family. The empress and concubines of the emperor would request certain motifs according to their tastes, and expect to be met with stunning executions of their visions.

Famous Silk Embroidery Masterpieces of Imperial China

1. Patterns of dragon, phoenix and tiger (龙凤虎纹绣)

This piece contains patterns of dragons, phoenixes and tigers. It is a masterpiece of silk embroidery for the royal family of the Warring States Period (475 B. C-221 B. C). It was thought to be lost until, in 1982, it was discovered in a tomb in Hubei Province. The pattern is 29.5 cm in length and 21cm wide. The embroidery is done exclusively in red and black thread, two colors associated with power, and the pattern as a whole conveys the mysterious and mystical qualities of these three powerful animals.

2. Longevity (长寿纹)

This example of silk embroidery is called "Longevity". It was uncovered in 1971 in Changsha, Hunan Province, and has been dated by scholars to come from the Han Dynasty period. This masterpiece was embroidered with patterns of clouds in brown, red, purple, gray and dark green. The earthy pallet and swirling lines draw the viewer in and create a timeless effect.

3. Blessings from Eight Immortals (八仙祝寿)

Shen Shou, an artist from Suzhou who was taught to embroider by her older sister when she was only seven, later became one of the most well-known silk embroidery artists in China. She and her husband established an embroidery school in Suzhou in 1890. To celebrate the 70th birthday of legendary Empress Dowager Cixi of the late Qing Dynasty, Shen created a piece depicting the Eight Immortals (divine figures in Chinese culture) and was met with great appreciation from Cixi. The original painting follows below.

4. Three Blessings (三星图轴)

This embroidery piece was created during the Qing Dynasty for the emperor Qianlong (乾隆) who was very interested in silk embroidery art. During his reign, silk embroidery decorations covered the palace. This piece was one of his favorites. It is 412 cm long and 135 cm wide. In this piece, the three old men represent happiness, prosperity and longevity. Surrounding them are pine trees, deer and cranes, which all echo the theme of longevity.

5. Hanging Panel of Landscape and People (山水人物葫芦挂屏)

This is a famous hanging panel that dates from the period of Qianlong's reign during Qing Dynasty. There are several features that make it unique. Firstly, its shape echoes that of a gourd, associated with luck, and along the edge of the frame are jewels, indicating the good fortune this work will attract. The subject is of a delicate landscape and people celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival, which is when this decoration was hung in the palace.

6. Children Playing (婴戏图挂屏)

This is also a hanging panel from Qianlong's reign. Its main theme is children playing in the palace's ample grounds. Some watch folk operas, some watch women embroidering, some fly kites, some watch people playing chess and some learn archery. The artwork shows a lively scene and gives the viewer an eye into the leisure activities of young people during this period.

The Dragon Robe

A "dragon robe" is the traditional ceremonial garb of Chinese emperors, designed to call attention to the wearer's royal status and refined taste. Typically, these garments are yellow in color and feature a rounded neckline, as yellow was the members of a royal family were allowed to wear it. Purple and red are also significant colors for indicating royal status.

The dragon motifs seen on these robes echo those commonly found in Chinese art, poetry and literature because of the dragon's symbolic importance. The dragon represents the emperor's role as mediator between the realms of heaven and earth, as well as his control over water, rainfall, hurricanes and floods. In an agricultural society, these natural forces take on a particular importance in daily life. Therefore, emperors would use these patterns to showcase their imperial power and strength.

Dragon robes were always made of silk, one of the most precious fabrics in China, known for its rarity, elegance and comfort. Access to silk was limited to the extreme upper classes, and the wearing of it reinforced the emperor's claim to power and the social position of his family. The royal family would typically have private factories that produced their garments, and the designers and workers there would follow a complicated procedure. First, painters would be commissioned to produce the patterns that would be embroidered, and these would be presented to the emperor and his queen for their approval. Then, the patterns would be sent to the factory, where they would be painstakingly embroidered onto customized robes using the highest quality materials.

History of the Dragon Robe

The earliest literary references to emperors donning dragon robes occur in an ancient text called Shujing(书经). In it, the mystical Emperor Shun describes an ideal imperial costume as one which contained images of the sun, moon, stars, dragons and mountains, as these are all emblems of the empire and the emperor's power. The Qin Dynasty emperor, Qin Shi Huang, was responsible for settling the eleven original families in Suzhou, which essentially created the silk embroidery industry. His intent was to keep himself and his court in the finest silk embroidery available, and in doing so built the foundation of an art form and tradition, which still thrives today.

Robes with dragon patterns reached their peak of popularity in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and dragons embellished many objects created for use in imperial court, particularly when the Manchu people used the dragon in their art to reinforce their claim to the throne during turbulent times marked by a struggle for power. During this time, silk embroidery achieved its peak in terms of technical refinement, and China's most accomplished embroiderers achieved esteem as true artists and visionaries.

Dragon Robes in Different Dynasties

1. Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Here is an example of a dragon robe from the Song Dynasty. The intricate golden stitch work is set off by the simple, austere black background.

2. Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

During the Yuan Dynasty, softer color pallets were favored to give the wearer a more delicate bearing. The emperor who wore this robe must have truly looked like an emissary of heaven.

3. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

During the Ming Dynasty, dragons began to be depicted in new and different ways, demonstrating a break from tradition that was a hallmark of this time period. In this robe, the dragon is shown to contain aspects of several different animals. It has the head of a bull, the body of a snake, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a shrimp, the mouth of a donkey, the ears of a cat, talons of an eagle and the tail of a fish. Each of these animals is renowned for its abilities and attributes, so the dragon becomes an amalgamation of all of these. In terms of the structure of the patterns, it is also quite special. In addition to the traditional patterns of flying dragons and dragons lounging in the clouds, there are also dragons in circles and other geometric shapes.

4. Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

Among all the dragon robes, those from the Qing Dynasty may be the most well-known. On the robes of this period, patterns are not limited to dragons: phoenixes, bats, peonies and clouds are commonly seen. The beautiful phoenix pattern was often used on the robes designed for empresses to indicate their grace and royalty. Red bats are were also used, because the Chinese pronunciation of the word it is similar to Hongfu(洪福) which means "great blessing". Clouds, waves and mountains were typically embroidered with glossy, untwisted threads in plain stitch(平绣), which lays flat against the surface of the base fabric. This calls attention to the design. However, sometimes seed stitch(打籽绣) was used to create a more delicate effect.

The robe above was designed for the empress, with phoenixes and peonies on it, indicating the blessings and dignity of the person who wears it. These are more traditionally feminine motifs, and here are used to differentiate between the empress's power and her husband's more masculine authority. Emperors usually wore dragon robes, and civil and military officers wore robes with patterns of tigers and horses to show their strength of mind and body. Besides the robe, emperors wore gloves and socks with embroidery on them. See the examples below.

Rank Badges for Soldiers

In the ancient Chinese feudal system, clothing was an indication of role, social position and military rank. During the Ming Dynasty particularly, it was easy to spot officers and their interiors based on their rank badges. . The rank badge was square and measured around 50cm in length and width. This kind of badge was called Bu Zi(补子) and the robe with the badge on it was called Bu Pao(补袍) or Bu Gua(补褂). The badges were put on the front and back of the robe so it was easy to see who was who in a large formation. For lower-ranking soldiers, badges feature patterns of flying birds, while officers would bear the mark of a tiger, horse or other powerful beast.

The following are the patterns for badges of different ranks in Qing Dynasty. Each different rank had a role to play within the context of the larger group, and each animal reflects this.

Rank Pattern for Civil Official Picture Pattern for Military Officer Picture
1st (Highest) Crane Unicorn
2nd Golden Pheasant Lion
3rd Peacock Leopard
4th Goose Tiger
5th Silver Pheasant Bear
6th Egret Panther
7th Mandarin Duck Rhinoceros
8th Quail Rhinoceros
9th (Lowest) Paradise Flycatcher Sea Horse

Imperial Canopy

Canopies were frequently used by royal families in Ancient China. When the emperor or other royal members went outside, they were usually accompanied by servants bearing canopies to form a shelter above their thrones.

When the emperor left the palace, he was usually accompanied by an entourage of about a thousand soldiers. The number accompanying the queen or royal concubines differed according to their level of esteem and power. The group of soldiers was called "the guard of honors." At the front of the group, soldiers carried flags embroidered with clouds, bolts of lightning, suns, moons and stars to that the emperor was regarded as the son of the heavens and associated with celestial bodies.

The guards closest to the emperor or person of note would carry canopies in a variety of different colors. The canopies were either round or square, and some said they looked like big mushrooms. Many contained bells so that when the breeze blew, their noise would protect the emperor and his family from approaching evil. The canopies were usually more than five meters tall and very heavy. Therefore, there was strict control over the soldiers' height and weight. They were required to be above 1.8 meters tall and good-looking to serve in the guard of honor and carry imperial canopies.

Example of a Chinese Imperial Canopy.
Examples of Chinese Imperial Canopies
Example of a Chinese Imperial Canopy.
Examples of Chinese Imperial Canopies

King's Silk Art Today

Silk embroidery art's 2000-year-old history is one of things that makes the art of China unique, and its popularity amongst emperors, kings and royal families elevates it from a masterful skill to a means of representing a nation's view of its leaders. Dragon robes, rank badges, canopies and wall hangings all contain a balance between subtle beauty and symbolism, and from them we can infer much about ancient China's power structure, values and the importance of nature and agriculture in society. They also reflect the aesthetic of each royal family and how tastes shifted across generations.

Today, silk embroidery art is no longer a trapping of the elite, but popular among people of all social classes with a taste for the elegant. Actresses and singers can be seen wearing modern interpretations of dragon robes on the red carpet, and many emerging designers incorporate aspects of silk embroidery into the textiles they send down the runway. Whether in the form of a garment or used to decorate an interior space, Chinese silk embroidery is an enduring art form, both in the country of its origin and across the globe.

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Comments (1 Comment)
Posted by michail on February 22, 2017

I am collector from Greece.I have a embroidery embossed silk antique artwork dimensions 1,90 X 1,12 meters. Depicts a mythical person-China God in field. Please let me know at what mail or fax to send pictures to be informed what mythical person is. My email is: mkotidis@hotmail.com Thank you

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