Qin 221206 bce and Han 206 bce220 ce Dynasties

Having built the first empire of China, Qin Shi Huangdi (best known in the early 2000s for the 1974 discovery of his "terra-cotta army") built a great palace. Among its remains have been found silks, including brocade, damask, plain silk, and embroidered silk. After the reconsolidation of the empire under Han imperial rule, silk production became a primary industry, with state-supervised factories employing thousands of workers who produced silks and imperial costumes. Officials were sometimes paid or rewarded with silk textiles. As stability declined at the end of the period, textiles and grain replaced coinage as a recognized medium of exchange.

The legacy of the former state of Zhou continued to flourish, as shown by the rich treasures found at the noble tombs at Mawangdui, Hunan province (second century b.c.e.). Here was preserved silk clothing in fully intact robes. In addition there were manuscripts, maps, and paintings on silk, including elaborate funerary banners showing a portrait of the deceased entering an af-terworld of cosmic symbols and signs of immortality. Embroidered silks follow patterns seen in the earlier Mashan silks, using chain stitch worked in cloud-scroll patterns. Printed silks found at Mawangdui correspond to a relief stamp found in the tomb of the Second King of Nan Yue (in Guangzhou, datable to before 122 b.c.e.), providing confirmation that techniques and styles had spread throughout the empire.

Han tombs have yielded a variety of silks, including plain weave, gauze weave, both plain and patterned, and pile-loop brocade similar to velvet. More than twenty dyed colors have been identified. Embellishment of woven fabrics included new techniques of embroidery incorporating gold or feathers, as well as block-printing, stenciling, and painting on silk. Later Han silks include a striking number of woven patterns with texts, usually several characters with auspicious meanings. From pictorial representations, scholars have deduced that Han weavers used treadle looms.

Finds in remote areas have added to our understanding of production and commerce relating to silk textiles. Sir Aurel Stein found in Western China a strip of undyed silk inscribed by hand stating the origin, dimensions, weight, and price. A seal impression designates its origin in Shandong province in Northeast China. Other finds established the standard selvage-to-selvage width of Han silk, at between 17 h and 19 h inches (from 45 to 50 centimeters). At Loulan, in the Tarim Basin in the far Northwest of modern China (Xinjiang province), excavated by Stein (1906-1908 and 1913-1914), Han figured silk textile fragments (datable to the third century c.e. or earlier) were found together with an early example of slit tapestry woven in wool. The latter may be a precursor of the later kesi slit tapestry in silk. Finds at Noin-Ula, in northern Mongolia, dated second century c.e., give further evidence of the widespread exchange of silks throughout Asia. Although details of the trade are yet to be fully understood, comments by early writers make clear the admiration for Chinese silks in the Roman world.

The Birds and the Flower, National Palace Museum, Taiwan.

In the Song Dynasty, textile production was fine-tuned with such artistry as the weaving of kesitapestries and the development of needle-loop embroidery. The Art Archive/National Palace Museum Taiwan/Harper Collins Publishers. Reproduced by permission.

The Birds and the Flower, National Palace Museum, Taiwan.

In the Song Dynasty, textile production was fine-tuned with such artistry as the weaving of kesitapestries and the development of needle-loop embroidery. The Art Archive/National Palace Museum Taiwan/Harper Collins Publishers. Reproduced by permission.

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