China is the first country in the world that discovered the use of silk. Silkworms were domesticated as early as 5000 years ago, and the production of silk thread and fabrics gave rise to the art of embroidery. In the early days, embroidery was mainly used to signify one’s social status. As society progressed and economy developed, embroidery came to have an ornamental value and evolved into a favored art form of the common people.
The economic prosperity of the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 221) meant prosperity in the silk industry and, therefore, the embroidery industry as well. Furthermore, as the number of rich and privileged people increased, so did the demand for embroidery. With a strong supply of raw materials and high market demand, embroidery flourished. In the Han dynasty, embroidery was used for more than just decorating clothes. Numerous specialized applications for embroidery were devised, and tremendous advances in embroidery techniques were made. Works from the Han dynasty are elegantly designed pieces of great intricacy and variety. Their success laid an excellent foundation for the development of embroidery throughout the next two millennia.
In the following dynasties, the hallmark of embroidery was the introduction of religious motifs. Buddhism was becoming more and more popular, and embroidery was widely used for portraying Buddhist imagery. During the Tang dynasty (618–907), Buddhist embroidery works were in great demand. New stitching techniques were also invented, which allowed the creation of more sophisticated patterns.
The embroiders of the Song dynasty (960–1279) attained tremendous success. Tools and materials used in embroidery were greatly improved, including delicately made steel needles and very thin silk threads. Embroidery became a unique art form by combining elements of painting. The resulting images were strikingly vivid and lifelike.
As the sprout of capitalism emerged in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Chinese society saw a substantial flourish in many handicraft industries. Embroidery saw major development, too. The quality of embroidery for practical uses was greatly improved as embroidery materials were further refined and embroidering techniques further matured. Traditional auspicious patterns were widely used to symbolize popular themes: Mandarin ducks for love; pomegranates for fertility; pines, bamboos and plums for integrity; peonies for riches and honor; and cranes for longevity.
Flourishing throughout the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), embroidery became more regional in style, with embroidery from Jiangsu, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, and Shandong enjoying special acclaim at the time. Embroiders of each province strove to set their styles apart from those of other provinces through technical and thematic innovations.
Today, silk embroidery is practiced in nearly all regions of China. The best commercial products come from four provinces: Jiangsu (notably Suzhou), Hunan, Sichuan and Guangdong, each with its distinctive features. Artisans craft modern pieces with millennium-old techniques, meanwhile developing new innovations to create intricate and astounding works of art.