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The language of Chinese embroidery

The language of Chinese embroidery

by Andrea Stevens
Mon, 7 Apr 2015

A gold embroidered Manchu-style jacket was one of the remarkable 'hidden objects' we displayed during Chinese New Year celebrations this year. To learn more about the garments and the art of Chinese embroidery, we invited two experts from the Confucius Institute in Auckland to discuss the figurative and poetic symbols sewn in silk and gold.

A woman’s jacket in the Manchu style dating from the Qing dynasty

Stevens, Andrea. 2015.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. ID T6.

There are many wonderful traditional garments from Asia on display in the Museum, but for Lantern Festival we decided to go down to the basement to find some hidden treasures. We selected a Manchu-style woman's jacket, an exquisite royal garment dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); a gold embroidered rank badge; and two sets of intricately embroidered sleeves, paired and laid flat by a previous collector for display.

Nora Yao and Peter Sun from the Confucius Institute in Auckland interpreted the items at a public talk during Lantern Festival. They explained the figurative language in the embroidery, and the symbolic meaning of the various animals, mythological creatures and plants in Chinese history: the plum blossom for good fortune, the crane for longevity and the phoenix for virtue, duty and resilience.

This symbolic tradition, used in many Chinese arts, is rich and complex and incorporates a Chinese worldview based on the principles of yin and yang and the five elements. There are many references to Taoism and Confucianism, and, not least, the poetry and word play within the Chinese language itself.

Chinese hand embroidery dates back to the Neolithic age with production reaching its peak in the 14th century. It is made with fine silk thread - it can be as thin as one 16th the thickness of cotton ­- displaying wonderful colour and sewn to produce dazzling artistic effects. UNESCO cites Chinese embroidery as Intangible Cultural Heritage, part of the "traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants".

These examples from the Qing Dynasty allow us, 11,000 kilometres away from Mainland China, to marvel at their beauty and to see how a different culture interprets the world and their place in it.

Symbols for good luck and protection

Front detail of the woman’s jacket. Against red silk cloth, the dragon’s body is sewn in couched gold thread with white, blue, green and red silk floss used to highlight its detail. Note the five claws of the royal dragon.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. ID T6.

In Western legends, the dragon is usually something to be feared. But in Chinese culture, the opposite is true: dragons symbolise protection, good fortune, wisdom, nobility, divinity and power. Chinese Emperors had them adorn garments and buildings to portray greatness, power and strength. And they continue to be celebrated in Chinese culture today.

This woman's jacket (in the Manchu style) is from the (probably late) Qing Dynasty and has four dragons in total, embroidered in gold and silk thread. "A five-clawed dragon is a royal dragon," explains Peter, "and only the royal dragon can use five claws. There are two phoenix birds depicted also, flying above the pagoda on the front of the garment. The phoenix is related to females and, when combined with the dragon, it tells us the garment would be worn by females from the royal family. For an empress garment, the dragons would be replaced by phoenixes."

Front detail. A phoenix flies above the pagoda. The mountains and sea below have a large sea creature breaking through the waves and (just above) a bat (for longevity, happiness, good luck) flies downward next to a plum blossom (for good fortune).

Stevens, Andrea. 2015.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. ID T6.

A pair of butterflies on the corners references the Chinese Romeo and Juliet story – The Butterfly Lovers or Liang Zhu (梁祝) ­– one of the great folktales. A pair of butterflies thus symbolises a happy couple in marital harmony.

Stevens, Andrea. 2015.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. ID T6.

Symbols of status

Another highlight from the Chinese embroidery collection was this exquisite rank badge (also known as a Mandarin square) depicting an embroidered silver pheasant against a background of golden clouds, waves and rocks in gold metallic thread, with the bird arching up towards a red sun disk. The border is a series of couched gold thread medallions (held onto the fabric with a second thread) and backed with blue silk.

"You have probably seen movies set in the Ming or Qing dynasties showing officials wearing a robe with this type of square insignia at the front and back," says Peter. "This embroidered badge from the Qing Dynasty has a silver pheasant which denotes a fifth rank official, roughly in the middle of the nine-tier ranking system, quite a high position."

A rank badge for a fifth rank civil official, featuring a silver pheasant perched on a rock. Qing Dynasty.

Stevens, Andrea. 2015.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. ID T669.

In her book Chinese Dress: From the Qing Dynasty to the Present, Valery Garrett describes how the badges were applied to a centre-fastening surcoat for formal court occasions. She notes that the use of rank badges, a Ming custom, was taken up again by the conquering Manchu from about 1652: "With slight modifications, they continued the system of demarcating the nine ranks of civil officials by birds embroidered on the squares and the military mandarins by animals. The ability of birds to fly high to heaven indicated the superiority of the civil mandarins over their military counterparts whose animals were earth-bound."

The silver pheasant, one of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty representing Chinese imperial authority, symbolises the literary ability required for such a high rank. The pheasant is also combined with symbols for longevity to bestow good fortune on the wearer: the clouds are illustrated in a golden never-ending Chinese knot (meaning eternal) and a circular longevity symbol is applied as a border pattern. There is extensive use of couched gold metallic thread making for a very impressive official court badge.

Symbols for a happy marriage

Double textile panel


This embroidery panel is made from a pair of sleeves, which appear to have been removed from a garment and laid flat by a previous collector. The soft blues, creams and browns portray a dreamy, imagined landscape with pairings of birds, flowers and insects.

Figuratively, they inspire a happy marriage, with most of the objects in pairs: the elegant mandarin ducks, beautiful birds that symbolise fidelity; nearby lotuses for purity; two butterflies once again recalling The Butterfly Lovers; and two magpies chirping amongst the plum blossoms, heralding good news.

"Take the lotus flowers on the embroidery piece as an example," says Peter. "The two lotus flowers grow out of the same lotus root. Though separate from each other, they are still linked with each other through fibres of the lotus root. The correlation is usually used to describe the reconciliation, constancy, purity and harmony of love between husband and wife."

Another whole layer of meaning comes alive for Mandarin speakers of course. "Plum blossom has a similar pronunciation to 'eye brow," explains Peter, "so if a magpie (representing good news) rests on the branch of the plum blossom, it has the meaning 'happiness up to one's eyebrows'."

The garment serves as symbol, inspiration and artwork. It is a beautiful example of an embroidery with exquisite colour schemes and displaying the maker's skill in depicting animals.

Chinese embroidery today

Nora Yao concluded this fascinating presentation by noting that, like in many cultures, young women are no longer taught to embroider. "Today only the professionals are able to produce clothes like this, and because of the cost of labour they are very, very expensive and usually only worn by the rich. They are hard to wash so are only used on special occasions. It is a dying art for everyday use."

Further reading

Chinese Dress: From the Qing Dynasty to the Present, by Valery Garrett.
Chinese embroidery on Wikipedia.
Mandarin square on Wikipedia.

The public talk, Hidden Objects, Hidden Stories: Treasures from the Chinese textile Collection, was held on 1st March 2015 in the auditorium with guest speakers Nora Yao and Peter Sun from the Confucius Institute in Auckland.

  • Post by: Andrea Stevens

    Andrea is a freelance features writer, author and editor. Her special interests are culture and heritage, architecture and design. She was co-author for the book Beyond the State: State Houses from Modest to Modern (Penguin, 2014).




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