Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Traditional Chinese Silk Embroidery

Simone Jonker
Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.
Published: April 10, 2022
17th century Rabbit in the Moon, China. Silk and metal threads embroidered in pattern satin darning and couching stitches on a gauze-weave foundation. (Image: Cooper Hewitt Public domain)

China is the land of silk, where silkworms have been domesticated for over 5,000 years. Soon after silk thread was developed in China, the art of silk embroidery was born. 

Embroidery in Chinese is called Xinhua or Zhahua, meaning ‘making decorations with a needle.’  Embroiderers often use design motifs similar to those found in the ancient art of papercutting. A central theme of the artwork is emphasized through the use of the colored threads which have been traced onto the backdrop cloth.

Embroidery through the dynasties

As early as the Shang Dynasty (1500-1066 BC), bronze wine jugs featured embroidered impressions. 

The  Zhou era (1046-221BC) saw embroidery becoming more specialized, and tigers and butterflies became common motifs, along with clouds and geometric designs. Chain stitch is said to have dominated embroidery until the early first millennium.

The making, repairing, and patching of clothes gave rise to embroidery as a means of embellishment, in which silk thread, precious stones, and pearls were incorporated into the fabric. Silk embroidered items and chain stitch needlework dating back to the Warring States period (475–221 BC) have recently been unearthed.

Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) documents mention embroidered robes.

After Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), embroidery became a way to show respect to Buddha statues. Accessories such as thimbles and needles were discovered in the tomb of a Han official. 

Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) panel embroidered in long and short stitches with multi-colored silks and a gold thread outline. (Image: Auckland War Memorial Museum via Wikimedia CC BY 4.0)

Emperor Sun Quan’s spouse played an important role in the development of embroidery during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD). Skilled in calligraphy, painting, and embroidery, she once gifted Sun Quan an embroidered map of China.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD), the talented maiden Lu Meiniang is said to have embroidered seven Buddhist sutra chapters—in full—on one square foot of silk. Each character was the size of a half grain of rice, with each stroke as thin as a strand of hair.

Meiniang also excelled at creating and decorating parasol covers. After dividing one silk strand into three, she dyed them and created five layers of thin, yet durable embroidered fabric. Each canopy was populated with many symbolic figures. Approximately one meter in diameter, the finished canopies weighed under two ounces.

Thirteenth century embroidery fragment from China, silk on linen. (Image: Cooper Hewitt Public domain)

There was a trend for metallic threads at that time as well.  Artisans adhered gold leaf to paper or sheepskin before cutting it into fine strips for golden thread embroidery. Clothing embroidered in Tang-style patterns with continuous threads and couching stitches was found in the tomb of the King of Qidan’s para-Mongolian tribe, a nomadic people established under the Liao Dynasty (916-1125).

During the Northern Song (960-1126), Peking had a professional needlework studio. By Emperor Hui Zong’s decree, embroidery was divided into five categories: mountains, water, humans, flowers, and birds. Embroidery was merged with calligraphy and painting and embroideries were considered works of art, especially during the Southern Song (1127–1279) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties.  It was a time of famous embroiderers, and needlework was appreciated as art.

Chinese 19th century edge panel in silk, metal thread. (Image: Cooper Hewitt Public Domain)

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the monarchs put a high value on needlework’s sacred significance. Intricate embroidery was used to adorn everything from prayer banners to statues and sutras. Gold thread was used extensively in Yuan embroidery. Embroideries of the Lotus Sutra and the Prajnaparamita Sutra are among the rare remaining specimens today. Embroiderers went to great lengths to produce the illusion of original paintings in emulating the work of notable painters.

“Hair embroidery” was utilized by the Gu family of Lu Xiang Yuan during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to produce fine lines in their embroidery designs. The use of silk was so widespread that upper-class homes were filled with embroidered articles, including tablecloths, bedspreads, pillowcases as well as clothing. Even children wore embroidered clothing and every baby had tiger shoes and other items embroidered with motifs.

Embroidery was widely practiced and used throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) by people of all social classes. Several new methods, like the “split-color floss” approach, were created. Businesses everywhere sold embroidery supplies and tools. The use of embroidery flourished among all ranks of the population. 

Embroidery techniques

In Chinese embroidery, the two primary stitches are the “long stitch” and the “short stitch.” Other popular stitches include the “satin stitch,” “chain stitch” and the “forbidden stitch.” Chain stitch was widely used until the Tang era, when the satin stitch became popular for depicting Buddhist figures. Further stitches include the “Peking knot,” the “stem stitch,” the “split stitch,” and “couching.” 

Mothers traditionally taught their daughters to weave and embroider. Talented girls who could work for the nobles attained higher status and were likely to find a wealthy husband. Pattern books were usually passed down as heirlooms. 

Double-sided embroidery is a very complicated technique resulting in a finished product that looks the same on both sides. Thread ends are skillfully hidden between layers of stitchwork.

Qing 19th century silk embroidery with Buddhist swastikas, and Taoist yin yang symbol, along with flowers, butterflies, and berries on a ceremonial vase. Technique: Peking knot and satin stitch. (Image: Costume and Textiles via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Embroidery today

Due to the Chinese Communist Party’s destruction all traditional art and culture, embroidery was virtually non-existent between 1966 and 1976. Today, embroidery in China is making a comeback, although it is a largely unappreciated art form and is classified as a handcraft.

A few of the most popular Chinese needlework styles of today include Gu, Shu, Su, Xiang, and Yue embroidery. There is also a minority needlework form known as Miao embroidery.

Miao embroidery

The Hmong are the most well-known Miao ethnic group. In the absence of a written language, a Miao heroine named Lan Juan stitched pictures on her garments to preserve the story of her people’s escape from approaching enemies. In different colors, she embroidered her clothes from top to bottom, commemorating crucial dates. Miao embroidery uses brilliant colors over a blue or black backdrop.

Miao girls posing. (Image: Jean-Christophe via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mountains, butterflies, flowers, and birds are common elements in Miao mythology. They believe they are descendants of the Butterfly Mother, who deposited 12 eggs, one of which hatched to become the Miao. The other eggs hatched and became the other species on earth, produced by the Butterfly Mother to keep the Miao company. Because 

The Butterfly Mother is revered in Miao culture, butterflies frequently appear in Miao embroidery. 

Raising awareness with embroidered artwork

Every year on May 13, World Falun Dafa Day, millions of people around the world bring awareness to the plight of the persecuted practitioners in China, by organizing cultural activities and creating artwork. For following the universal principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance, the peaceful adherents of Falun Dafa have been imprisoned, tortured, brainwashed and brutally killed by the CCP since 1999.

Cross stitch embroidery by a Falun Dafa practitioner in China. As the symbol of Falun Dafa, the Falun can be considered a miniature of the universe. The characters stitched below translate as “Falun rotates forever.” (Image: Minghui)

This cross stitch embroidery features five golden Srivatsas (also known as the Wan symbol, signifying good fortune) and four Yin Yang symbols. The Falun (Law Wheel) is the symbol of Falun Dafa, and the artist pays homage to its founder, Mr. Li Hongzhi, with this pristine artwork.