Textile Exhibition

Textile Exhibition: Introduction
by Gerard C. C. Tsang


One of the greatest contributions of the Chinese towards world culture is the use of silk. Achievements were made in three areas: the production of raw material - silk - by the cultivation of the silkworm, the weaving techniques in processing the silk, and the development of the machine - the weaving loom. The simultaneous development and improvements made in all three areas throughout history enabled Chinese silks to win a world-wide reputation.

Legends attributed the initial discovery and use of silk to Huangdi and his wife Leizu, at the very source of Chinese civilization. To study the history of sericulture and textiles, there is an abundance of archaeological evidence. The silkworm appeared in Neolithic sculptures and on vessels as a decorative motif. A silk cocoon cut in half by a sharp knife was found in 1926 in Xiyingcun, Xia county, Shanxi province, dating back to 5,600-6000 years ago, and the species of the silkworm is bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm. Parts of a primitive loom were found from sites in Hemudu, Zhejiang province, about 4,900 BC and in Liangzhu cultures. Parts of the machine for reeling silk were found in a Neolithic site at Qianshanyang in Zhejiang province, dating about 2,750 BC, where the earliest fragments of silk were also found, making the site a landmark of silk production in the south. The earliest finds in the north were made in a Yangshao site at Qingtaicun, Rongyang county, Henan province with silk fabric wrappings around the body of a child, dating about 3,500 BC. It is certain that around 5,000 years ago, silk was used to produce garments.

Early Chinese weavings also utilized other natural fibres including hemp and cotton, but it was certainly the use of silk which was the most representative achievement, and the term "Chinese silks" often became synonymous to "Chinese textiles". The variety of silk fabrics was amazing: gauze is thin, light and transparent and they come as sha, luo, qi, according to the difference in texture and weaving technique. Jin, often translated as brocade, is rich and sumptuous with colorful patterns. Duan satin is smooth and shiny. Velvet has a pile texture luxurious to touch and sight. Each fabric has its own characteristics, attesting to the skill and precision of technique of the weavers. The special technique of slit tapestry weave - kesi - gives rise to a type of fabric with sharp colour contours and allows for two-side viewing. Then, there was the use of embroidery to embellish without the restriction of the loom. Every kind of pattern or image could be achieved with the skillful needle. Some patterns were not intended as mere decoration. They carried very specific meanings for the user and the beholder.

Textiles were used in ancient China in many more ways than nowadays. At home, they were draped on chairs and around beds for warmth and comfort, placed on and around tables and hung on walls for decoration. They were used for book covers and for framing paintings. They were fashioned into purses and cases to hold small articles to be carried on the person. In temples and monasteries, they were used as sutra covers, banners, canopies and hangings for worship and commemoration. As garments, the use of silk itself was an indication of status because the common people could only wear cotton, hemp and other fibres. Silk, raw or woven, represented wealth, for it was used as currency and for tax payment.

With the present exhibition we are pleased to see textiles for all major purposes, and the finest samples of different techniques and designs, assembled for the first time in Hong Kong. There is a wealth of materials in this exhibition that I hope scholars and art lovers alike will appreciate. In terms of period, the earliest exhibits are Song dynasty kesi and embroidery. There is a major proportion of Ming and Qing materials with rare Liao and Yuan examples also included. In terms of content, there are several special groups: textiles modelled on paintings in scroll form and album leaves appealing to the literati taste, religious textiles of the Buddhist and Daoist faiths, a rare group of needleloop embroidery - a technique only recently rediscovered, and Ming dynasty rank badges and festival badges, some of which were only found in historical documents before. In terms of quality, these exhibits represent the highest achievements of the weavers and embroiderers, whether they be from the Imperial Workshops or from private studios.

The Urban Council is pleased to present this pioneering exhibition with the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong. We are honoured to have the support from Liaoning Provincial Museum which has made this exhibition rich and complete. We are moved by the enthusiastic spirit of Dr. S. Y. Yip and the Executive Committee of the Oriental Ceramic Society. Mr. Chris Hall took up the daunting responsibility of writing the catalogue entries, one which he fulfilled with unique experience in collecting and studying Chinese textiles. We are grateful to scholars who contributed enlightening essays to the catalogue. Ms. Dale Carolyn Gluckman, Associate Curator of Costumes and Textiles from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, writes on the importance of Tibet in the study of Chinese textiles. Ms. Valrae Reynolds, Curator of Asian Collections from the Newark Museum, gives an in-depth study of a special group of exhibits - the Thousand Buddha capes. Professor Gao Hanyu, from the Shanghai Academy of Textile Research, traces the development of woven silks. Professor Wang Yarong, from the Academy of Social Sciences, studies the use of embroidery on ancient Chines costumes. Mrs. Diana Collins, a textile conservator, has enriched our catalogue with technical analyses of the exhibits. As President of the Textile Society of Hong Kong, Mrs. Collins has played an instrumental role in organizing an international conference on Chinese textiles to coincide with the exhibition, thus enhancing international focus on this major event. Furthermore, we express our heartfelt gratitude to all the sponsors, Esquel Enterprises Ltd., the Hong Kong Culture and Art Foundation, Mr. Ira Kaye, MBE, Spink & Son Ltd. London, and all other anonymous individuals for their generous support. A special vote of thanks is due to all the lenders, overseas and local, as their graciousness has actualized this exhibition.

I sincerely hope that this exhibition makes an important landmark in the appreciation, preservation and study of Chinese textiles, which are among the most beautiful and most delicate of our cultural relics.

  • Gerard C. C. Tsang
  • Chief Curator
  • Hong Kong Museum of Art

Textile Exhibition