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Ancient Chinese Textiles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Few cultures have taken textiles as seriously and for as long as the Chinese. In this lesson, we'll talk about the techniques and styles of Chinese textiles as well as their impact on world history.

Textiles and Ancient China

Some art is simply for decoration. Some art is meant to encourage contemplation or provoke a sentiment, and some art is just pretty. However many forms of art are also functional. Some arts we live in, some arts we eat, and some arts we wear. Textiles are fabrics or cloths and are one of the oldest forms of art practiced by many cultures. Perhaps no one, however, has appreciated the art form of textiles quite as long as the Chinese. Examples of truly artistic textiles going beyond simple rugs or shirts date back in China nearly to the Stone Age. Chinese textiles have a deep history in Asian culture but were actually amongst the most powerful forces in human history as well. No kidding. It's amazing what a good outfit can do.

Textiles play a major role in Chinese history
Chinese textile

Materials

To understand ancient Chinese textiles, we first need to understand their material. Few textile cultures are as defined by the material as the Chinese. That's because Chinese textiles are famously made of silk. Silk is lightweight, strong, and naturally beautiful. It can be woven, spun, dyed, and worked in a variety of ways. Silk is produced from the cocoons of silk worms. The ancient Chinese had fully domesticated silkworms by the 4th millennium BCE, but archeologists have also found silkworm cocoons in Stone Age sites as well. The oldest piece of silk cloth found was in China and dates to roughly 3630 BCE. When we talk about this being an ancient tradition, we're talking about a cultural practice as old as the world's first systems of writing, mathematics, and even the wheel.

12th century image of women making silk, painting onto silk fabric
Silk

Silk dominates Chinese textiles, and the Chinese have had a long time to master the use of this material. It should be mentioned that silk was not the only material the ancient Chinese used. Cotton was introduced around 200 BCE. Over the next several millennia it provided a stable source of cheaper textiles that were often treated with as much artistic reverence as silk.

Styles

As we've mentioned, the ancient Chinese used silk for literally thousands of years, and over that time they mastered dozens of ways to use it. Some Chinese textiles were woven on looms, some were knit, some were made as basic fabrics and later embroidered with ornate designs and others had patterns woven in them. The ancient Chinese used silk to make a variety of fabrics, from brocades to satins to silk fabrics. These techniques were used to make clothes, rugs and wall decorations, as well as almost anything else they needed.

Stylistically, Chinese textiles changed many times over the millennia. A standard pattern, though, was established: a flat-colored base woven or embroidered with complex, intricate designs featuring images or symbols important in Chinese society. Gold, yellow, and red were common colors particularly amongst the nobility where they indicated wealth, status, and divine favor. Dragons and other mythical creatures were embroidered as symbols of good fortune, bravery, or longevity. Images such as clouds, trees, fish, turtles, birds, flowers, and mountains could also be frequently found on these textiles. Each design was meant to communicate something in both practical and symbolic senses. A single textile could both serve to cover a person in auspicious symbols to bring them luck and prosperity and communicate to others his/her wealth, status, level of education, and family name.

Dragon symbols were particularly auspicious, and generally reserved for imperial use
Textile

Role in History

There are few textiles in history that can claim to have the influence of Chinese silks. Renowned for their mastery of technique, intricate patterns, and sturdy construction, these textiles were sought the world over from a very early date. In fact, the ancient Greek's term for China itself was a word literally meaning silk. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew of Chinese silks, as did later empires. The Chinese guarded the secret to silk production and maintained a monopoly on it for millennia. This lasted until monks from the Byzantine Empire managed to smuggle silkworm eggs from China back to Constantinople in the mid-6th century.

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