The Silken Embroidery of Antique Collection
by Wong Tsz Mei
Antique business has not given much attention to the traditional embroideries or the category of needle works. In past days, traditional silken embroideries were sold in some second-rate antique shops situated in the Qianmen Street in Beijing. But we should not underestimate the artistic value of this kind of antique, and their archaeological value which is also worthy of our attention. In Beijing, besides some traditional needlework being sold in the Qianmen Street, there was also a “Purse Alley” selling purses, specially behind an embrasured watchtower at Zhengyangmen where in the open space the vendors sold a variety of pockets. These delicate and exquisite embroideries were not woman-specific items which were also made for men to put small objects in them.
The purpose of carrying purses in the past was different from ours as they did not only put change and money in these beautiful small bags. The usage of these pockets was manifold. They were capsules for watches, glasses, fans, sachet powder, pull fingers, jewelleries, snuff bottles and so forth. The antique line called all these types of sachets as “the design of live”. Because of their fine embroidered handiworks, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the officials put them on their robes as decorations besides the functional purpose. Some of these compact adornments even were the bestowments by the emperor or the queen dowager as it was usual etiquette of the court to grant these rewards to the ministers and their family dependants at that time. After the subversion of the Qing dynasty, the former Beijing resident courtiers sold these bestowments which had been handed down to them from one generation to another to the antique dealers. The dealers just spent a few pennies to buy the adornments and sold them to the foreigners for hundred dollars each, just telling the buyers that these silken embroideries were the royal awards to ministers in former days!
The construct of the silken embroidery is a configuration of a splendid and glittering world where night, ugliness, impropriety do not exist. This world is ignited by the eternal brightness, so that our visions can sweep the mythological wonders delightfully. The magnificent Chinese cultures, the noble and superb skills of constructing such pristine images are all embodied in such miraculous embroidery. The stunning visual effects make people sense why Chinese embroideries are famous worldwide and deserve to be called an ancient country of spinning and weaving, immediately. From the picture we can see a colorful patch which was sewed on the front of the robe to show the rank of the officials in Qing dynasty. The true to life red-crested crane as the subject matter vividly makes the focal point amid the flourish and prosperity of the decorative patterns.
This beautiful embroidery is in possession of both the graceful and gorgeous decorative manner which could be applied to the attire of every description, namely clothing, hats, shoes and even some daily used items. From the picture we can see a sheath which was made to hold the items needed to make a fire in the days before the invention of matches. To light a fire, the stone would be wrapped around the fabric and rubbed against the sickle until sparks came off to start an ignition. The satin sheath, finely embroidered with scrolling lotuses in bright colours, was made in the Guangxi Period (1875-1908) of Qing dynasty. The well thought-out décor was worked out to the fine detail in this small gadget. The curvy contour of the golden buckle echoes with the undulated floral pattern of the sheath; the ingenuity being shown in the meticulous design in low relief of the buckle reflects the taste for luxury even in an igniter. When its practicality was replaced by modern invention, it turned into a valuable antique.
In another domain of arts and crafts, the uncanny ability of the skillful hands could handle the needle as brush, the colourful thread as visual elements to “draw” a painting, expressing the fine brushwork of delicacy, or the freehand brushwork to catch the essential likeness. This expressive measure first appeared in Tang dynasty (618-907), but it was mainly used to embroider calligraphy, only occasionally for drawing; and was still mainly used for the décor of clothing. Until Song dynasty (960-1127), using embroidery as a means to convey the distinction of brushwork gradually had gained popularity and flourished. Of these fine Song embroideries, the needle being used was as thin as hair, the filament as dainty as silk; as for the colouring, they were exquisite and glittering. If the embroidering craftsmanship was used to depict landscape, the scenery displayed a long-ranged view and all the pavilions and towers manifested their third object dimensions; the figures in the landscape were so vivid that they seemed to be gazing at the distant view. Regarding the embroideries of flower and bird painting, the flowers were graceful and attractive while the chirpy birds seemed to be perching on the branches. The fine works among those traditional embroidered paintings, their qualities make them even better than the real paintings!
After Song dynasty, the most famous embroideries were named “Gu embroidery” which was initiated in Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by the womenfolk of an official family in which the surname of the official was “Gu”, and this gorgeous handiwork by the ingenious harem gradually developed into commercial business. Owing to the consummate skill from the boudoir of “Gu”, “Gu embroidery” was known far and wide, and was also in great demand. Then at the Qing Dynasty in the late period, the shops selling embroideries in some prosperous cities of China, namely Suzhou and Shanghai, would named their shops as “Gu Embroidery” or “Embroidery of Gu Household”. Reverting to the Gu family in Ming dynasty, they had became nouveau pauvre later and had to tackle with their financial problem. Fortunately, their living expenses could rely on the skilled handiwork of the harem.
The dexterous hands of the Chinese women have brought their artistic accomplishments into full play. From meticulous décor revealing hierarchical ranks on the gorgeous robes, to daily clothing, personal accessories are all their skillful abilities to execute diverse stitches with needle and thread. These kinds of exquisite stitchery could be sold to pay the cost of living when a family met their financial difficulties. With their hands, women not only had created the material possessions, but the values of the distinguishing characteristic of an unique culture embodied in this beautiful handiwork which also attracted many collectors and became a kind of their treasured items.
Especially for the maids and court ladies who lived in the palace chambers and had little contact with the outside world. Sometimes the stitch work was not done for the need of people; it was a favour for animals. The illustration showing a piece of green satin embroidered cloth framed with red satin and many orange strings being sewed on was a coat for pet dog in Qing dynasty. Keeping pet dogs was a pastime taken up with great enthusiasm by court ladies in the late Qing dynasty, a trend which may be traced to influence from the West. Dogs appear in many of the extant photographs of domestic life in the Qing palace. The dog's coat, of aquamarine satin embroidered with floral design, is very appealing in its soft colours. It must have been worn by one of Cixi's dogs.
Empress Dowager Cixi, for most of the 47 years from 1861, when the five year old heir succeeded to the throne, to her death in 1908, was the de facto ruler of China. She loved dogs, and often had a dog on her lap or around her feet. Dogs are seen in numerous photographs and paintings of her. Her dogs would wear silk or satin coats made specially for them, and some had their portraits painted. The eye-catching pet coat being shown in the picture was sewed with scrupulous care by the completely symmetrical fancy embroidery patterns on both sides. The floral needlework is more or less the same of the classical Chinese painting on silk, and therefore it would be equally a brilliant stitched floral pattern on the clothes for ladies.
Nowadays, many embroideries and folk handiwork being sold in the tourist gift shops are rough products. Moreover in our modern world, the disposable products are so popular that we discard them when they are useless. Clothing, all kind of devices and daily commodities are just things for use and we do not cherish them. It is also the way we treat interpersonal relationship, for we get used to think of the short-term utilitarianism, the meaningful and long-lasting relationship is not a priority. Therefore the traditional silken embroidery savors of an oblivious deep- going affection and we enjoy the pleasures of the reminiscence which is aroused by appreciating the gorgeous décor of silken embroidery. Furthermore, it is a comfort to imagine the gentle and tender hand which does the needlework patiently with her heart and soul.
Images Courtesy: The Author