Shekvarmuni Manjusri Samantabhadra english
Introduction

           Embroidery is one of the oldest and most elegant of the textile arts in China. It involves weaving colored silk with a needle onto a background. By embroidering images from painting and calligraphy, an endless variety of decoration and patterning is possible, thereby giving full reign to the artistic potential of this medium.

           In China, embroidery and other sophisticated forms of weaving are closely related because they all use thread derived from the silkworm. The Chinese culture, in fact, was the first to invent the use of silkworm thread. From early in China's history, the art of sericulture (raising silkworms and preparing silk) developed along with the techniques of embroidery. For example, designs for embroidered court robes made of silk are mentioned in the Book of History, which purports that embroidery existed already by the time of the legendary Emperor Shun (fl. 23rd c. BC [?]). By the Eastern Chou (770-256 BC), a state office was established to regulate its production, and palace-made embroidery already existed in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). From then on, embroidery became one of the refined arts of ladies at court, and famous embroiderers began to enjoy a prominent position along with other artists.

           The earliest surviving embroidery is in the form of two pieces excavated from a Ch'u tomb of the Warring States period (475-221 BC) in the southern Hunan site of Ch'ang-sha. Detailed study of the needlework shows that they were done with braids on silk in what is known as ˇ§chain embroidery.ˇ¨ The needlework is already exceptionally meticulous and the choice of colors refined and elegant.

           Han examples of embroidery follow mostly in this technique. The silk base became filled with patterns and the composition increasingly crowded. Needlework is just as even and meticulous and the lines flow with grace. By the T'ang dynasty (618-907), techniques had begun to change towards that of ˇ§plain embroidery,ˇ¨ and patterns came to be more closely related to those of paintings, which at the time was dominated by figures as well as landscapes and birds-and-flowers.

           The art of embroidery was encouraged by the court in the Sung dynasty (960-1279), and a specialized subject of embroidered pictures even emerged under Emperor Hui-tsung (r. 1101-1125). Consequently, famous embroiderers started to appear at this time, taking the field of embroidered pictures to its peak of development. As objects of function and appreciation, the addition of subject matter from painting and calligraphy further lifted the art to a unique position in the history of Chinese art.

           Very few examples of Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) embroidery survive. Those seen today follow mostly in the Sung style. However, Yuan embroiderers used inferior thread, and their needlework was often not as refined as the exceptional detail and finesse of their Sung counterparts. It was not until the Chia-ching period (1522-1566) of the Ming dynasty that embroidery was revived to its former glory by the Ku clan in the Shanghai area, hence the name ˇ§ Ku embroidery.ˇ¨ The needlework in Ku embroidery follows mostly after sophisticated Sung techniques, but with variations in material and technique that perfected the art for a true ˇ§grand synthesis.ˇ¨ The use of multiple colors of silk create an effect unmatched except for Sung embroidery. Based on the subject, different types of material were freely added without being necessarily confined to embroidery techniques. Some of the finest pieces of embroidery during the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911) were made for the court, which demanded works of exceptional elegance and quality. However, outside the court, many regional centers of embroidery also emerged, such as in the Soochow, Szechwan, and Canton areas--each with their own distinctive style. Among them, Soochow embroidery is the most famous.

           The date of the earliest embroidery in the National Palace Museum is from the Five Dynasties period (907-960), but most are from the Ch'ing dynasty. Over the centuries, technical and artistic developments have led to various period styles, each with its own features and achievements. Furthermore, almost all the examples of embroidery in the Museum collection are exceptional. The techniques in all are meticulous, the needlework fine, and the coloring refined. So close to replicating the arts of painting and calligraphy, even down to the mountings, they can easily fool the eyes of viewers. Thus, the works in this special exhibition stand out as masterpieces in the art of weaving and as treasures in the history of Chinese visual art.


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