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: Silk Fabrics of Imperial China


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
When the historians of the next thousand years come to set down the events of the first half of the twentieth century they will record the passing of many traditions, institutions, and arts only dimly discerned by us to be dying. Among these may well be the art of silk. It is an interesting commentary on the Institute's exhibition of Imperial Robes and Textiles of the Chinese court that it comes at the very moment when the production of silk threatens to cease throughout the world. Its place appears destined to be taken by spin glass, coal dust, and other strange elements which may clothe us and adorn our houses adequately—and even beautifully—but never with that elegance associated with silk since its discovery so many hundreds of years ago.As in countless other matters, it was the Chinese who introduced silk to the world, and who demonstrated to what superb uses it could be put. So whole-heartedly did the Occident take silk to its heart that it ended by becoming essential, in the form of stockings, to every woman in America—a development that could scarcely have been foreseen by the first weavers of silk. The discovery of this fabric which was to sweep the world is attributed to the Empress Lei Tsu, wife of Emperor Huang Ti who was the third of Five Emperors said to have ruled China in the pre-historic period. Until the beginning of the present war, at least, she was worshipped in China as the patroness of silkworms, and the legend of her discovery was so firmly fixed that up to the time of the Revolution she was recognized in an annual sacrifice conducted by the reigning empress in Peking. But legends are inadmissible as evidence, however diverting to ponder on, and while silk appears to have been known in Chou times, documented facts do not show it in China before the Han period. Thereafter its use becomes increasingly evident, although it is not until the Ch'ing dynasty that any quantity of actual material is available for study.Among the chief treasures of the Colby Collection of Chinese textiles, recently acquired by the Art Institute, is the large group of throne cushions, hangings, and chair backs produced for the Imperial Court. Here, to a greater degree even than in ceremonial robes, is displayed the virtuosity of the Chinese in the medium of silk. K'o ssu, the precious silk tapestry weave of the Chinese, is to be seen in a whole series of fragments, hangings, and cushions that begin with the late Ming period. The earliest examples are probably eight fragments from a larger piece depicting the Taoist Immortals. These are firmly woven with a rather pronounced rib and the bold designs associated with Ming k'o ssu. The Ming style in silk tapestry is displayed to better advantage in a pair of lacquer-red panels. Here again the weave is firm and heavy, according well with the sweeping design of the lower border and the vigorous drawing of the dragon in the middle ground. These are exceptionally fine examples, with none of the embroidered nor painted details sometimes resorted to in difficult passages of the k'o ssu technique later on. The weaving of k'o ssu was done in the same manner as Gothic tapestries, but was a more difficult process because the work was done on a miniature scale, often with as many as one hundred and thirty weft threads to the inch. In the finest k'o ssu examples in the Colby Collection, such as a pair of temple banners, the transition from color to color has been so skillfully made as to leave no traces. Only with a glass is it possible to detect the interlocking of the threads on the reverse side.The perfection of the k'o ssu technique seems to have progressed gradually during the K'ang Hsi period. The earliest example of this reign is a Buddhist priest robe of yellow k'o ssu woven in patches to symbolize the rags of the Buddha. Again the weave is firm but heavy, as in the Ming examples, but the sinuous and graceful dragons, reminiscent of late Chou beasts, and the spirited character of the individual motifs, produce a style with a more sophisticated accent than is to be found in the vigorous Ming pieces. In a detail of this priest robe may be seen the delightful dragon which wanders with such abandon through the K'ang Hsi woven fabrics. It is to be seen on the boxed border of a yellow k'o ssu panel, and adorning numerous chair backs of red k'o ssu. It also appears on the imperial theatrical costumes.The finest k'o ssu in the collection is to be found in the pair of yellow temple banners of the Yung Ch'ng period which are mentioned above. Flanking a central panel of deep blue with a gold inscription are two narrow panels of yellow decorated with flowers and prowling dragons. The weaving of these pieces is so fine that no trace of the color transitions can be detected, and as a vehicle for the poems in praise of the Imperial City, which they bear, they could hardly be surpassed.The outstanding example of Ch'ien Lung k'o ssu in the collection is the rare Buddhist scroll made for the emperor and signed by him shortly after his abdication in favor of Chia Ch'ing in 1796. This is a tour de force in k'o ssu, measuring twenty-one feet in length, and of extreme fineness. A slightly later example is the panel depicting The Feat of the Peaches. This is a favorite subject with the Chinese, and is here presented with great vivacity.Beautiful as the k'o ssu of the collection are, they are overshadowed by the brocades, which are particularly sumptuous in color and design. Brocade is one of the fabrics whose date of origin in China has not been definitely fixed. It was known in the Sung period, but few examples from that time are extant. The earliest piece in the museum's collection is a Ming temple hanging of leaf-green with an all-over ground of interlocking medallions bearing blossoms and floral sprays in soft, glowing colors. A similar pattern is to be found in a blue brocade throne cushion of the K'ang Hsi period, which appears to have excelled in the production of these luxurious fabrics. Perhaps the most dazzling example is an imperial yellow satin curtain measuring eighteen by twenty-one feet which hung behind the emperor's throne in the audience chamber. The field is filled with nine gold dragon disporting themselves among the loosely drawn clouds characteristic of the K'ang Hsi style, and the Eternal Sea at the bottom is executed with the deep, tossing waves so familiar in the K'ang Hsi court robes in the exhibition.Equally brilliant is a pair of frieze hangings of ivory brocaded satin dating from the Yung Ch'ng period. These are forty feet long and thirty-one inches deep, and are thought to be two of a set of four used in a Lama temple. A third hanging, apparently of this set, hung in the Bendix replica of the Potala Temple of Jehol at the Chicago and New York world's fairs. The design is of spaced, leaf-shaped medallions bearing Buddhist symbols in gold and colors.The embroideries of the Colby Collection equal the k'o ssu and brocades in every way. With them it is in the throne cushions that the most exquisite work is to be found, and one of the finest is the example in yellow satin. It dates from the eighteenth century, probably the early Ch'ien Lung period, and is worked in soft shades of rose, blue, and green in the fine satin stitch associated with the embroideries of Ch'ang-sha in the province of Hunan.Among the most significant of the embroideries, if not the most beautiful, are dated hangings of the Ch'ien Lung, Tao Kuang, and Kuang Hsü periods. The Tao Kuang example, embroidered in satin stitch on an apricot satin ground, is especially interesting because of the treatment of the Eternal Sea—a distant echo of the early eighteenth century style—and because it has facilitated the dating of a group of late court robes with borders in the same early style.In such practical ways the importance of this group of fabrics can be easily measured, but their value as works of art-as records of a great civilization-is to be less tangibly estimated. One can only be grateful that if silk is indeed to become one of the lost arts its passing will not have been without a trace. In such collections as that now in the Art Institute of achievements of the Chinese in this field of artistic endeavor will serve, perhaps, as a source of inspiration to the nylon age to come.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Feast of the Peaches. A k'o ssu picture panel. Chinese, late Ch'ien Lung period.
  2. Buddhist priest robe of yellow k'o ssu with dragons and symbols in many colors. Detail. K'ang Hsi period.
  3. Lacquer-red k'o ssu hanging. Detail. Late Ming.
  4. Yellow satin throne cushion embroidered in satin and knot stitch. Chinese, Ch'ien Lung period.
  5. Throne cushion of blue satin brocaded in shades of rose, yellow, green, and red. Detail. Chinese, K'ang Hsi period.
  6. Hanging of embroidered apricot satin dated in the fifteenth year of Tao Kuang (1821-1850)
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Source: "Silk Fabrics of Imperial China," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 32, no. 18 (May, 1943): 60-65.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009