Embroidery, a folk art with a long tradition, has an important position in the history of Chinese arts and crafts. In its long development embroidery has been inseparable from silkworm raising and silk reeling and weaving. China was the first country in the world to weave silk. Silkworms were domesticated as early as some 5,000 years ago. The production of silk threads and fabrics gave rise to the art of embroidery. In 1958, a piece of silk embroidered with a dragon and phoenix was discovered in a state of Chu tomb of the Warring Sates Period (475-221BC). More than 2,000 years old, it is the earliest piece of Chinese embroidery ever unearthed. Embroidery became widespread during the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) and many embroidered pieces discovered date back to that period. Today, silk embroidery is practiced nearly all over China. The Four Famous Embroideries of China refer to the Xiang embroidery in central China’s Hunan Province, Shu embroidery in western China’s Sichuan Province, Yue embroidery in southern China’s Guangdong Province and Su embroidery in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province.
Xiang embroidery is well known for its time-honored history, excellent craftsmanship and unique style. The earliest piece of Xiang embroidery was unearthed at the No 1 Tomb of Mawangdui, Changsha City of the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220). The weaving technique was almost the same as the one used in modern times, which demonstrated that embroidery had already existed in the Han Dynasty. In its later development, Xiang Embroidery absorbed the characteristics of traditional Chinese paintings and formed its own unique characteristics. Xiang embroidery experienced its heyday at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and in the early Republic of China (early 20th century), even surpassing Su embroidery. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Xiang embroidery was further improved and developed to a new level. Xiang embroidery uses pure silk, hard satin, soft satin and nylon as its material, which is connected with colorful silk threads. Absorbing the spirit of Chinese paintings, the embroidery reaches a high artistic level. Xiang embroidery crafts include valuable works of art, as well as materials for daily use.
Also called Chuan embroidery, Shu embroidery is the general name for embroidery products in areas around Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Shu embroidery enjoys a long history. As early as the Han Dynasty, Shu embroidery was already famous. The central government even designated an office in this area for its administration. During the Five Dynasties and Ten States periods (907-960), a peaceful society and large demand provided advanced conditions for the rapid development of the Shu Embroidery industry. Shu embroidery experienced its peak development in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), ranking first in both production and excellence. In the mid-Qing Dynasty, the Shu embroidery industry was formed. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Shu embroidery factories were set up and the craft entered a new phase of development, using innovative techniques and a larger variety of forms. Originating among the folk people in the west of Sichuan Province, Shu embroidery formed its own unique characteristics: smooth, bright, neat and influenced by the geographical environment, customs and cultures. The works incorporated flowers, leaves, animals, mountains, rivers and human figures as their themes. Altogether, there are 122 approaches in 12 categories for weaving. The craftsmanship of Shu embroidery involves a combination of fine arts, aesthetics and practical uses, such as the facings of quits, pillowcases, coats, shoots and screen covers.
Also called Guang embroidery, Yue embroidery is a general name for embroidery products of the regions of Guangzhou, Shantou, Zhongshan, Fanyu and Shunde in Guangdong Province. According to historical records, in the first year of Yongyuan’s reign (805) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a girl named Lu Meiniang embroidered the seventh volume of the Fahua Buddhist Scripture on a piece of thin silk 30 cm long. And so, Yue embroidery became famous around the country. The prosperous Guangzhou Port of the Song Dynasty promoted the development of Yue embroidery, which began to be exported at that time. During the Qing Dynasty, people animal hair as the raw material for Yue embroidery, which made the works more vivid. During Qianlong’s reign (1736-1796) of the Qing, an industrial organization was established in Guangzhou. At that time, a large number of craftsmen devoted themselves to the craft, inciting further improvements to the weaving technique. Since 1915, the work of Yue embroidery garnered several awards at the Panama Expo.Influenced by national folk art, Yue embroidery formed its own unique characteristics. The embroidered pictures are mainly of dragons and phoenixes, and flowers and birds, with neat designs and strong, contrasting colors. Floss, thread and gold-and-silk thread embroidery are used to produce costumes, decorations for halls and crafts for daily use.
With a history of more than 3,000 years, Su embroidery is the general name for embroidery products in areas around Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. The craft, which dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), became a sideline of people in the Suzhou area during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Well known for its smoothness and delicateness, Su embroidery won Suzhou the title City of Embroidery in the Qing Dynasty. In the mid and late Qing, Su embroidery experienced further developments involving works of double-sided embroidering. There were 65 embroidery stores in Suzhou City. During the Republic of China period (1912-1949), the Su embroidery industry was in decline due to frequent wars and it was restored and regenerated after the founding of new China. In 1950, the central government set up research centers for Su embroidery and launched training courses for the study of embroidery. Weaving methods have climbed from 18 to the present 40. Su embroidery features a strong, folk flavor and its weaving techniques are characterized by the following: the product surface must be flat, the rim must be neat, the needle must be thin, the lines must be dense, the color must be harmonious and bright and the picture must be even. Su embroidery products fall into three major categories: costumes, decorations for halls and crafts for daily use, which integrate decorative and practical values. Double-sided embroidery is an excellent representative of Su embroidery. In addition to the four major embroidery styles there are Ou embroidery of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province; Bian embroidery of Kaifeng, Henan Province and Han embroidery of Wuhan, Hubei Province.