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Chinese Brocade

  • 2012-5-3
  • Source:China Arts and Crafts Association


Brief Introduction of Brocade Technique in China


China was known as a country with rich heritage of making textiles. Ancient Chinese textile developed to an advanced and improved stage in terms of growing cotton, flax plant, mulberry tree, and silkworms, using minerals and plants as dyes, and developing textile equipments. As one of the textile techniques, brocade was also developed perfectly in ancient China.


I. Chinese Brocade Classification

Most of the Chinese minority groups have developed their own brocade techniques with different materials, looms, skills, patterns and functions. Their brocade carries profound cultural identifications and traditions.

Najing Yunjin Silk Brocade


Yunjin Brocade is the eminent representative of our nation¡¯s prominent traditional culture. It got its name from Yun that means clouds, since the fabrics is as beautiful as the splendid clouds in the sky, and has a history of nearly one thousand years. Yunjin concentrated all the advantages of advanced silk fabrics arts and technology and ranked first in quality among all brocades in ancient China. Yunjin was developed during the Song Dynasty. In Yuan Dynasty, featured with its extensive use of gold and silver threads, Yunjin began to become popular and was regarded as the noblest silk fabrics and the symbol of the highest technology in Chinese silks. It had been used as tributes to the loyal families in the three dynasties of Yuan, Ming and Qing. The production of Yujin had great impact in the society at the time since it became the biggest handicraft industry in Nanjing. It reached a prime time in Kangxi and Yongzheng¡¯s reigns with nearly three hundred thousand persons making living on the trade.


The technique of Yunjin is to transform the patterns into program. The person sitting on the loom was known as a ¡°thread puller¡±. All he or she had to do was to pull the thread in line in the threading sequence. The person sitting on the lower part of the loom was called a ¡°weaver¡±. He or she twined the pattern and wove the materials into brocade using golden or multicolored threads. The weaving technology of the brocade is exceedingly complex and exquisite, and no modern machine has yet been able to replace the ancient looms.


There are mainly four categories in brocade: gold weaving, (in which gold is pressed into foil, then cut into thread-like pieces to be twisted into threads and then woven on looms) Ku Silk Fabrics, Ku Brocade Fabrics and Zhuanghua Silk Fabrics. Zhuanghua Silk Fabrics technique is the most complicated among the four. All four categories serve as materials for emperors' robes, queens' dresses and shawls, concubine's clothing, decorations for the imperial courts and daily use articles, including cushions, mattresses, pillows, and quilts. The Nanjing brocade served as precious gifts for emperors to give to foreign kings and ministers.

Shu Brocade


Shu Brocade is one of the three most famous brocades in China. It is well-known for its long history and unique technique and is recognized as Gem of Oriental Culture and one of the Chinese unique skills. It is one of the most important cultural heritages in China.


Sichuan was called Shu in ancient time. As early as Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period, the old Kingdom of Shu, with Chengdu as its center, was renowned for its cloth and brocade. 1n October 1995, a Sino-Japanese joint archaeological team unearthed a piece of Shu brocade of Han Dynasty at the ancient kings¡¯ tombs in the desert of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The colors of the brocade are still bright after thousands of years. Tang Dynasty witnessed the most prosperous period of Shu brocade production. It was not only the luxurious articles possessed by royal class, but also became the important trading articles for the exchange between East and West forged by Silk Road.

Song Brocade


Song Brocade is produced in Suzhou with soft material, delicate patterns and magnificent colors. It is also one of the three most famous brocades in China.


Song brocade began to be produced in Suzhou during Tang Dynasty. During Five Dynasties, the Suzhou Song brocade became even more splendid. Later, there appeared more than 40 styles of the Song brocade mainly for the purpose of mounting paintings. Song brocade is woven by organizing slant silk threads in a cycle of two warps and three wefts. Song brocade falls under the categories of Big Brocade, Small Brocade and Box Brocade. Big Brocade is used to decorate valuable artistic ornaments, and Small Brocade is used to decorate small craftworks and mount pictures.

Brocade of Tujia Minority


Tujia Brocade is a typical brocade of ethnic groups in China. It is also known as ¡°Xilankapu¡±, or ¡°Knitting Floral Bedspread¡±, a kind of brocade woven with cotton and silk with luxurious design, mainly used to decorate bedspreads.


Tujia girls start to learn weaving brocade when they are young. Both the mastery of skills and the quality of their products are considered indicators of their intelligence and characters.


Tujia brocade is made on an ancient waist loom, using the ¡°interweaving the incessant warp and intermittent weft¡± method. There are more than 200 Xilankapu patterns, each unique in theme, pattern, color and design, and all represent Tujia minority group culture.

Brocade of Other Ethnic Groups


Brocade of Miao, Dong, Yao Minorities in Guizhou Province, brocade of Dai Minority in Yunnan Province, brocade of Zhuang Minority in Guangxi Province and brocade of Li Minority in Hainan Province are all important brocades of ethnic groups in China, each has different technique, patterns, colors, functions and producing tools. For instance, Zhuang brocade is made on ¡°pig cage loom¡± and Li brocade by traditional Juyao loom. Patterns on these brocades reflect strong characteristics of these ethnic groups, therefore become precious cultural heritages in China.

II. Traditional Waist Loom in China

It took a long time for the weaving equipments in ancient China to be developed from primitive simple weaving tools to sophisticated ¡°waist loom¡± or back strap loom. Ancient weaving techniques roughly divided into two kinds£ºOne is horizontal weaving, which means to spread the warp threads evenly on the ground, and to interweave the weft threads by needles. The other kind is vertical weaving. One end of the warp was tied onto a wooden stick, and the other end of the warps was tied with stone or clay weights in order to hold the threads under tension. The weaver drew the warps up and down as passing the weft threads from one side to the other to form knots. Fabrics with different patterns could be woven by using this method but in a very slow manner. The fabrics¡¯ density is uneven too. After a long period of experiments and practices, the primitive back strap loom came into being.


The primitive back strap loom consisted of two beams, a wooden knife, a shuttle with spool, a thick rod, and a shaft with heddles. The warp is stretched between some stationary object and the body of the weaver. The weaver provides the tension by leaning back against some kinds of belt. A rod divides the threads into lower and upper parts with a space in between which is called shed. The warp threads pass through heddles so that raising the shaft will raise the lower half of threads in order to create shed. The weft thread is wound onto spool which is placed in a shuttle. After the shuttle carry the weft thread through the shed, the wooden knife or the beating-weft knife is used to tighten the weft threads.


The early primitive loom enabled the basic process of creating shed, inserting weft, and tightening weft. It showed a great advancement in weaving technique which brought people into a new stage of civilization.


The primitive back strap loom is the most ancient and simple weaving device in the world. The history of it could be traced back to New Stone Age. The earliest back strap loom implements were excavated from the site of Hemudu and Liangzhu in Zhejiang Province, and Guixi excavation site in Jiangxi Province. A set of bronze figurines yielded in archaeological site of Shizhaishan in Yunnan Province vividly reflect the weaving activities with back strap looms at the time.

Tujia Brocade Loom
Tujia Brocade Loom is a kind of ¡°waist loom¡± with over a thousand year of history. This kind of loom has a rope, which is connected with a lever to raise the shaft. And the loom is foot-powered and the processing includes shedding, inserting shuttle, and battening are all conducted by hands.

¡°Pig Cage Loom¡± of Zhuang Brocade
¡°Pig Cage Loom¡± was developed from waist loom. The major components are main body, a transmitter, a dividing system, a jacquard system and battening system. This loom is made with bamboo and wood. The structure of it is not complicated, but the design is very scientific, showing the working principle of modern patterning loom. Thus, the Zhuang brocade is able to have various patterns as well as colors.

III. Traditional Brocade Patterns

Yunjin Pattern
The multicolored patterns of Yunjin brocade reflect strong traditional features. There are varied designs, including animals (dragon, pheonix, crane, lion, etc), plants (lotus, citron, pomegranate, plum, orchid, bamboo,

chrysanthemum), auspicious characters such as luckiness, longevity, …d, and different kinds of cloud pattern. The motifs are multilayered, vivid, clear and multicolored. Due to the high-quality and beautiful colors of Yunjin brocade, it usually serve as materials for costumes of minority groups such as Meng, Tibetan and Man, and high fashion. It was used for emperors¡¯ robes, decorations for the imperial courts including cushions, mattresses, and curtains in ancient time.


Shu Brocade Pattern
The Shu brocade patterns are elegant and pretty. The Shu brocade in Tang Dynasty had various patterns such as tartan, lotus, tortoiseshell pattern, beads, and beasts. In late Tang Dynasty, the patterns became even diversified. The motifs on weft-patterned Shu brocade include lanterns, balls, lion, lark, crane, peacock, and different kinds of followers. The traditional patterns are crane and plant of immortality, phoenix worshiped by a hundred birds, a bumper grain harvest, magpie and plum blossom, and phoenix and peony, which all have auspicious and fortunate meanings.

Brocade of Zhuang Minority Pattern
There are many traditional designs for brocade of Zhuang minority group, such as waves, clouds, flowers, plants, fish, birds, animals. There are also some complicated patterns such as two phoenixes facing the sun, butterflies courting flowers, two dragons playing one pearl, lions playing balls, fish jumping over the dragon gate, etc. Zhuang brocade usually shows great contrast in color with red, yellow, blue and green as its main colors. It reflects the rich folk traditions of Zhuang people.

Brocade of Li Minority Pattern
The Li ethnic group in Hainan Province consists of different braches, such as Sai, Run, Meifu. Each has their own brocade pattern. Their pattern designs are rich and dynamic such as geometrical pattern, patterns of sun, moon, starts, clouds, animals, waves, and human.

Brocade of Tujia Minority Pattern
The pattern of Tujia brocade usually adopts symbolism and abstraction techniques, and straight-line, symmetrical succession modeling. There are two to three hundred kinds of traditional patterns, which can be roughly classified as the following three categories. First the pattern of natural images including animals, plants and tools used in daily life; Second, various types of geometric patterns; Third, characters of the language. There are also auspicious images such as butterflies chasing peony, double phoenixes facing the sun, magpie singng on the plum tree and a party to escort the bride to the brideroom¡¯s home.


Cuckoo Pattern
According to a Tujia legend, a Tujia girl, named Xilan, created Xilankapu£¬ the local name for Tujia brocade. Xilan was good at knitting. In order to knit the pattern of gingko flowers in blossom at midnight, she observed gingko at midnight. Her jealous sister-in-law complained to her father-in-law, and told him Xilan was meeting her lover, which would bring shame on the family. The old man took it seriously, and killed his daughter. After her death, the girl became a cuckoo bird. The cuckoo pattern was created by Tujia people in commemoration of Xilan.


Forty-eight Hooks Pattern
The forty-eight hook design was inspired by legs of crabs in creek. Each pattern unit consists of many loops of hook image. The inside loops have 16 hooks, outside have 32, thus the pattern is called Forty-eight Hook. This typical pattern of Xilankapu is abstract, and highly geometrical with high-contrast colors.


Tai Tai Pattern
Tai Tai pattern derived from Tujia traditional totems for protection from evil spirits. It is usually used for decoration of children¡¯s clothes and blankets. Tujia people believe their kids will not be scared by bad dreams with the protection of Tai Tai. Thus, brocade with Tai Tai pattern is necessary for every Tujia household. The pattern contains images of tiger head and boats, which are majestic and mysterious. It is the most difficult pattern to weave among all patterns of Tujia brocade.


Straight lines are basic elements of these patterns of Tujia brocade. Traditional brocade patterns are taught and produced without design plan. Therefore, ¡°symmetrical, repetitive, regular and easy to remember¡± are the basic principles of creating Tujia patterns, and are also the most significant features of Tujia brocade. Adjacent colors are usually varied in lightness and tone so that contrast can be provided in color scheming. Different color scheme is adopted according to artist¡¯s own preference, thus the same pattern can have dozens of versions with varied color scheme.


IV. Protection and Development of Chinese Traditional Brocade


At present, the intangible cultural heritage protection is not optimistic in China, and a lot of cultural heritage is disappearing one after another. The Chinese government has been making efforts to protect traditional Chinese brocade techniques during the past years. In 2006, Yunjin brocade, Song brocade, Shu brocade and Tujia brocade were included in the first batch of state-level intangible heritage items. Nanjing Yujin brocade was also shortlisted among applications for masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity at UNESCO. Departments of intangible heritage protection were set up in the country in order to complete a series of protection measures such as survey and application.


The protection activities to preserve Chinese brocade techniques as one of the important cultural heritage can be divided into two kinds: theoretical work and substantive work.


Theoretical work is to collect the brocade making techniques and samples, through survey and visit, to obtain knowledge of current situation of production, sales, market, craftspeople related to different types of brocade, to establish archives and database, and to write books on history, culture, structure, pattern, style, technique, production of Chinese brocade.


Substantive work includes activities such as organizing research and protection centers, establishing related show rooms, building and restoring traditional looms and weaving tools, restoring most representative brocade in Ming and Qing Dynasties, conducting market-oriented research in order to form bases with a certain production capacity.
Production-based protection is a suitable way to preserve the brocade technique in China, like Yunjin and Tujia brocade, given their existing forms and ways of inheriting. The protected technique is also part of social production practice that creates social wealth. Therefore, only through the process of production, can the traditional handicraft skills be really protected and inherited. The protected traditional techniques should be those which are closely related to cultural identity, have extensive and deep influence on people, experienced long process of inheriting, and have formed established and typical characters and forms. In addition, the protection should be multi-dimensional, which involves different aspects from craftspeople, craft skills, to production organization and mechanism, and covers every link of the production line from collecting material to finishing products. Protecting the system of core techniques, aiming to preserve wholeness, pureness and excellence of them, are the basic principles in order to reduce the influence coming from modern industrialization.


Chinese traditional brocade making should be promoted in an open economy, but not in an intensive, mass-producing, and automative manner with the goal of lost cost and high efficiency, to meet the requirements of market competition and creating economic benefits.