The Origin of Chinese Embroidery and The Four Great Embroideries of China

The Origin of Embroidery

The origins of Chinese embroidery go back a long way, “According to the Shang Shu – Yi Ji, Chinese embroidery was created in the time of Yu Shun, who already used linen embroidery to make designs for the six chapters under Zong Yi, Algae, Fire, Powder and Rice, Embroidery and Embroidery.” Such a claim is very old and we have no way of confirming it.

However, there are traces of archaeological excavations, “Traces of silk fabrics adhered to bronze vessels found at the Shang dynasty Yinxu and Artemisia Chengtaixi sites unearthed in Anyang, Henan Province, can be seen to have been made of silk with various patterns of fop, gauze, Luo and thick silk, vermilion-painted colour silk and colourful embroidery.”

Traces of lock embroidery are also clearly preserved on the burial quilt found in the early Western Zhou burial site at Rujiazhuang, Baoji, Shaanxi. “This is the earliest known embroidery relic, a combination of painting and embroidery, i.e. the pattern was first embroidered on dyed silk with yellow silk thread and then painted with red and yellow mineral pigments with an adhesive. This combination of dyed and painted silk weaving is also found in the Western Zhou tombs at Hejiacun in Qishan, Shaanxi. This is exactly the kind of work of painting and multi-colouring spoken of in the Kao Gong Ji.” This illustrates the long history of embroidery in China, with excavated relics available dating back as far as the Shang and Zhou periods.

The Four Great Embroideries of China

Suzhou Embroidery

Suzhou is located in the south of the Yangtze River and the birthplace of Suzhou embroidery is in Wu County, Suzhou, which is near the Taihu Lake, has a mild climate and produces silk in abundance. As a result, it has been a traditional custom for women to be good at embroidering flowers. The favorable geographical environment, the gorgeous and rich brocade, and the colorful floral threads created favorable conditions for the development of Suzhou embroidery. In the course of its long history, Su embroidery has developed a local style of beautiful patterns, harmonious colors, bright lines, lively stitches and fine embroidery work, and is known as the “Pearl of the Orient”.

People often use the words “flat, flush, fine, dense, even, smooth, harmonious, and light” to describe Su embroidery.
Over a long period of time, Su embroidery has developed into a complete art with a wide range of products, a rich harvest of images and many variations, including decorative paintings (such as oil painting series, Chinese painting series, water country series, flower series, greeting card series, dove series, vase series, etc.). The practical items include clothing, handkerchiefs, scarves, greeting cards, etc.

Cantonese Embroidery

Cantonese embroidery is a generic term for both Canton and Chao embroidery, and has a history of over a thousand years. In the Tang Dynasty, Su Jiao’s Du Yang Miscellany, it is written that Lu Meiniang, a young girl from Nanhai (now Panyu, Guangzhou), was so skilled that she could embroider seven volumes of the Dharma Sutra on ruled silk. During the Tang dynasty, Guangdong embroidery was already of an exceptional standard. During the Tang dynasty, Zhang Jiugao, a provincial governor of Lingnan, was given a third-class rank for presenting the finest embroidery to Yang Guifei, showing that Cantonese embroidery was appreciated at the highest level.

By the mid-Ming period, Cantonese embroidery was already famous overseas due to the ease of trade along the Guangdong coast. In the ninth year of Ming Zhengde (1514), the Portuguese bought pieces of dragon robe sleeves embroidered by Cantonese embroiderers and presented them to the King of Portugal, who was delighted and rewarded them generously. From the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the British took their costumes to the Canton embroidery workshops in China for processing. Queen Elizabeth I appreciated Chinese gold and silver embroidery so much that she set up the British Embroiderers’ Association, organized the British Royal Embroiderers’ Workshop and imported silk and silk threads from China for embroidering noble clothes. Cantonese embroidery is found in museums in Britain, France, Germany and the United States. Cantonese embroidery became popular with the British royalty and high society in the 18th century.

Cantonese embroiderers, mostly men from Guangzhou and Chaozhou, are rare in the world. The main types of embroidery include garments, hanging screens, corsets, screen centres, fans and fan covers. It is a dense and lively composition, with rich and eye-catching colours, simple needlework, thick and loose threads, varying stitch lengths and slightly convex overlapping stitches. The stitches are thick and loose, with overlapping and slightly convex stitches. The subjects are often phoenixes, peonies, pine and cranes, apes, deer, chickens and geese. Another famous type of Cantonese embroidery is the gold satin or gold studded embroidery, especially the gold velvet embroidery lined with high floating pads, which is a glorious and bold embroidery used for theatre costumes, stage decorations and temple decorations.

Shu Embroidery

Shu embroidery, also known as ‘Sichuan embroidery’, refers to the embroidery of Sichuan, represented by Chengdu. The history of Shu embroidery is also very long, and according to Chang Qu’s Hua Yang Guo Zhi of the Jin Dynasty, Shu embroidery was already well known in Shu, and was considered a famous product of the region, alongside Shu brocade. It was mostly used for everyday objects, mostly flowers, birds, insects and fish, folk sayings and traditional ornaments, and it was used for quilts, pillowcases, clothes, shoes and picture screens. In the mid to late Qing dynasty, Shu embroidery became one of the most important commercial embroideries in China, drawing on the strengths of Gu and Su embroideries. The stitches are neat, flat and shiny, with clear lines and no substitution of strokes, and the edges of the patterns are as neat as if they were cut with a knife.
The colors are vivid.

Hunan Embroidery

Hunan embroidery is the general name for the embroidery products made in Changsha, Hunan Province. The merchants of Changsha opened the Gu Embroidery House to satisfy a group of newcomers who had made their fortunes by suppressing the Taiping army, and soon overwhelmed Gu with the name of Hunan embroidery. Hunan embroidery is characterised by the use of velvet threads (no flicker), which are actually treated in a solution to prevent pilling and are locally known as ‘wool fine embroidery’. Hunan embroidery is also based on Chinese paintings, with vivid and realistic forms and a bold style, and was once known as “an embroidered flower with a fragrance, an embroidered bird with a sound, an embroidered tiger with a runner, and an embroidered man with a spirit”. The colour palette of Hunan embroidery is mainly in shades of grey and black and white, as elegant as ink and wash paintings; the colours of Hunan embroidery’s everyday objects are bright and the patterns are highly decorative.

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