Chinese Textiles: Ten Centuries of Masterpieces at The Met

Silk 4

Textile with Geometric Design, China, Tang dynasty (618–907) 8th century Silk compound twill, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art Seymour Fund, 1965

Spectacular embroideries made of silk, which was for centuries so valuable and precious you could pay your state taxes in China with this important commodity, will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 15th August 2015, exploring their cultural significance.

The display includes three rare pieces dating from the Tang dynasty (618–906), when China served as a cultural hub linking Korea and Japan to Central and West Asia, and, ultimately to the Mediterranean world.

The highly sophisticated fragment of a wonderful weft-faced woven compound twill dyed a vivid purple, decoratively displays a floral medallion dating from the eighth century.

It is extremely elegant, said to be identical to one preserved in a famous temple in Nara, Japan which houses Imperial gifts sent from China to Japan’s Empress Komyo in 756.

The glorious textile’s fabulous colour still retained, was originally produced from a labour intensive method of extracting its essence from the cochineal shell.

It was most likely imported, indicating the textile’s significance as a symbol of luxury for the elite.

The Tang (618-907) dynasty promoted the prestige of China which grew throughout Asia and she became involved with affairs way beyond her frontiers.

Missions of commercial, rather than diplomatic reached China from India and according to one report, from Byzantium, Iran also sent embassies from 713 – 750 including dancers, musicians and horsemen.

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Scroll Wrapper, China, Scroll wrapper, Song dynasty (960–1279), 11th–12th century, Silk tapestry (kesi) with a pattern of animals and birds amid flowers, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

An elegant scroll cover from the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) resembles a famous uncut piece (now in Liaoning Provincial Museum, China).

The tapestry entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection as a cover for the hand painted ink and colour on silk scroll masterpiece named Old Trees, which was produced by the preeminent landscape painter Guo Xi (1000 – 1090) during the Northern Song (960-1127) dynasty.

Old Trees dates from 1080 and ‘conveyed the nuances of seasons and times of day’, a scene in which two elderly figures approach a pavilion, perhaps to join colleagues in bidding farewell to a friend.

Considered precious it was wrapped in yet another textile decorated with Animals, Birds and Flowers all of great significance, which indicates the importance and value the Chinese have always placed on art and silk both.

The placement of the animals in the pattern scholars assert, illustrates the strong connection with tapestries from Central Asia.

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Canopy with Phoenixes and Flowers China Canopy, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), 14th century, Silk and metallic thread embroidery on silk gauze, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat Gift, Louis V. Bell and Rogers Funds, and Lita Annenberg Hazen Charitable Trust Gift, in honor of Ambassador Walter H. Annenberg, 1988

They may have served as the source for the introduction of the tapestry technique into China.

The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also includes eleventh- and twelfth-century tapestries from Central Asia, as well as contemporaneous Chinese examples of this technique.

This includes a Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) fourteenth-century canopy decorated with phoenixes and flowers, resembling the decoration on a stone relief panel, which was unearthed in Dadu capital city of the Yuan dynasty, now Beijing.

This wonderful tapestry of silk and metallic thread is believed to have been used in a tent by a member of the ruling Mongol family, symbolically indicates their importance.

Another monumental and quite stunning late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century wall hanging panel revealing phoenixes depicted in a Rock garden, displays rich colours and quite extraordinary craftsmanship.

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Panel with a Phoenix in a Rock Garden, China, Panel, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Late 16th–early 17th century, Silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi), courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seymour Fund, 1960

Made during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) this late 16tth early 17th century work is also a tapestry of silk and metallic thread.

For centuries the Chinese intellectualized everything at court and many auspicious motifs decorate the textile, including the wheel of the dharma, conch shell, victory banner, parasol, lotus flower, treasure vase, fish pair and the endless knot.

These motifs derive from the tenets of Buddhism, which believed in supernatural powers controlling fertility, health and weather, which were influenced favourably by the observance of certain rituals.

Buddhism was widely adopted in China when an emperor of the Han dynasty had a dream about AD65 in which he saw a divine being gold in colour, flying about in front of the palace. One of his ministers explained how a famous sage in India who learned to fly had a golden body and was called Buddah.

All the textiles plus others showcased in this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will be on view, together with theatrical garments, court costumes, and early examples of badges worn at court, to designate rank until June 19 2016.

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Panel with Lantern and Streamers, China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), ca. 1600, Silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi), courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Rogers Fund and Elinor Merrell, R.H. Ellsworth Ltd., Charlotte C. and John C. Weber, Marie-Helene and Guy A. Weill, Jean Mailey, Janice T. Hamburger and Barbara Teague Gifts, in memory of MIchael Abraham, 1988

A Panel with Lantern and Streamers made about 1600, is a silk and metallic thread tapestry, thought to have been used on the popular occasion of the Lantern festival, celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese New Year and marking the end of the holiday.

It began as early as the Western Han Dynasty, 206 BC – 25 AD). Its popularity only strengthened with the arrival of Buddhism from India, which also had a similar custom of lighting lanterns to worship him on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month.

This is one of the unique festivals of China that has continued despite all the wars and cultural ruptures along the way, because of its visual beauty and the joy felt by all those participating especially families as it denotes, union, harmony and happiness for all

Chinese Robe 1

Woman’s Embroidered Ceremonial Robe (The Bat Medallion Robe), China, Robe, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 18th century, Silk and metallic thread on silk satin, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1943

The ceremonial Bat Medallion Robe made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) , is silk and metallic thread embroidered on silk satin in the first half of the eighteenth century.

This is a fine example of the exquisite detailing achieved with embroidered court robes at this time. Each medallion consists of five interlaced bats, who symbolize the five blessings in Chinese tradition, readily understood by Chinese people as symbolism forms an intrinsic aspect of their culture.

The Bat is symbolic of joy and happiness. Five bats together represent long life, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death and the cloud scrolls on the bottom of the robe indicating that the blessings are meant to be ongoing, representing never ending good fortune.

Silk Robe 2

Velvet Textile for a Dragon Robe China Velvet textile, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 17th century, Silk velvet with weft patterning in silk, metallic thread, and feather, thread, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 1987

A stunning Velvet textile for a Dragon Robe first made during the Qing is silk velvet woven with weft patterning in silk has metallic and feather thread.

Dragon Robe detail

Detail: Velvet Textile for a Dragon Robe China Velvet textile, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 17th century, Silk velvet with weft patterning in silk, metallic thread, and feather, thread, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 1987

Dragon robes featuring the dignity of this mythical beast whose power and ferociousness was renowned, highlighted the many challenges faced by Chinese emperors who were born to rule over China, believed to be at the centre of the universe.

The bigger the dragon the more difficult the challenges were to surmount and its simplicity in construction was offset by the lavish and profuse richness of its decoration and the quality of the fabric.

Often they were padded with silk for added warmth, only the Emperor and his sons could wear a robe with a five clawed dragon, with princes and nobles wearing one with four claws, and so on down the hierarchy of officialdom.

Images of the twelve sacred symbols of sovereignty were often included; the sun, moon, stars, dragon, pheasant, mountains, sacrificial cups, waterweed, grains of millet, flames, sacrificial axe, and fu symbol, an emblem exclusively associated with the power of the reigning Emperor.

This lasted until the revolution in 1911, when the customs of the Imperial court ceased, the dragon robe becoming instantly, a symbol of the past.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Chinese Textile: Eight Centuries of Masterpieces from The Met Collection

August 15, 2015—June 19, 2015

Purchase Advance Tickets
Exhibition FREE with Museum Admission







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