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Development of Chinese Embroidery

The Chinese word for embroidery is xiu, a picture or embroidery of five colors, implying beauty and elegance. For example, the Chinese name for "Splendid China" in Shenzhen, Guangdong was "Jin Xiu Zhonghua". ("Jin" is brocade and "Xiu" is embroidery.) Embroidery was an elegant task for fair ladies who were forbidden to go out of their home. Embroidery was a good pastime to which they might devote their intelligence and passion.

Embroidery is a shining pearl in Chinese art. From the magnificent Dragon Robe worn by Emperors to the popular embroidery seen in ordinary people's clothings, embroidery adds much heritage to our life and culture.

The oldest embroidered product in China on record can be dated back to the Shang Dynasty. Embroidery in this period represented social ranks. It was not until the national economy developed highly that embroidery entered the lives of the common people.

Improved in Zhou Dynasty, the Han Dynasty witnessed a great leap in embroidery in both technique and decorative patterns, when court embroidery was standardized and specialized. The patterns of embroidery ranged from sun, moon, stars, mountains, dragons, and phoenix to tiger, clouds, flowers, grass and even geometric patterns. Auspicious words were also wide welcomed. According to the records, all the women in the capital of Qi (today's Linzi, Shandong) could embroider, no matter men or women. The royal families and aristocrats had everything decorated with embroidery, even their rooms were covered with so much embroidery that the walls could not be seen!

The authentic embroideries found in Mawangdui Han Tomb can be served as the best evidence of this unprecedented proliferation of embroidery. Meanwhile, excavated embroideries from Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, the Astana-Karakhoja Ancient Tombs in Turpan and northern Inner Mongolia further strengthen this observation.

During Three Kingdoms Period, one notable figure in spreading embroidery was the wife of Sun Quan, King of Wu, who was also the first female painter recorded in Chinese painting history. She was good at calligraphy, painting and embroidery. Once Sun Quan wanted to get a map of China, she drew one for him and later presented him an embroidered one. She was commended as the Master of Weaving, Needle and Silk. At that time, portraits also appeared on embroidery.

As Buddhism was prosperous during the Wei, Jin, Sui and Tang Dynasties, embroidery was widely applied to honor the Buddha. Lu Meiniang, a court maiden in the Tang Dynasty, embroidered seven chapters of Buddhist sutta on a tiny piece of silk for new skill in stitching emerged during this period. Besides Buddhist figures, the subjects of Chinese painting such as flowers, birds, mountains, waters, pavilions and figures all became favored themes of embroidery.

The peak of embroidery in both quantity and quality appears in the Song Dynasty, developed into an art combining calligraphy with painting. And new tools and skills were invented. In the Song court was in the charge of The Wenxiu Department Embroidery. During the reign of Emperor Song Hui Zong, the embroidery was classified into four categories: mountains and waters, pavilions, people, and flower and birds. During this period, the art of embroidery came to its zenith and reputed workers popped up, and it was divided into two kinds due to different functions: art for daily use and art for art's sake.

In the Yuan Dynasty, the religious touch of embroidery was strengthened by the rulers who believed in Lamaism. Embroidery more commonly applied in Buddha statues, sutras and prayer flags. One of such product in this time is kept in Potala Palace.

In Ming Dynasty, Chinese society saw a substantial flourish in many industries, and so does embroidery. The embroidery began to display popular themes: pomegranates for fertility; pines, bamboos and plums for integrity; peonies for riches and honor; mandarin ducks for love; and cranes for longevity. The famous Gu Embroidery is typical of this time.

The Qing Dynasty inherited the features of the Ming Dynasty and absorbed new ingredients from Japanese embroidery and even some Western art forms. New materials such as gilded ribbons and silvery threads emerged. Due to The Dream of the Red Mansion (a popular Chinese novel in the Qing Dynasty), peacock feathers were also used.

The first book of Chinese embroidery technique was dictated by an accomplished embroiderer, Shen Shou and recorded by Zhang Jian. Shen's original name was Xue Jun with Xue Huan as her alias. Her given name "Shou" was conferred by Empress Dowager Cixi when she presented the Empress with the embroidered tapestry "Eight Immortals Celebrating Birthday". In 1911 she gave an embroidered portrait to the Italian Empress as a national gift. In 1915 her embroidery of the portrait of Jesus won the first prise at the Panama Expo.

Zhang Jian was an outstanding businessman in modern Chinese history. He built one of the earliest textile factories, the first normal school, the first textile school and the first museum. He was pretty intrested in art and culture; therefore, when he heard about Shen, he firmly made up his mind that her embroidery skill must be recorded and preserved. Since Shen suffered from poor health, Zhang volunteered to record every word she said. Thus, the cooperation between an old man of 60 and a lady in her 40s led to the birth of Embroidery Book by Xue Huan (Xue Huan Xiu Pu) in 1918. This anecdote was quit famous in China, because at that time, few men would humble themselves to do secretary for women. Thanks to their dedication, there added a valuable data about Chinese embroidery.