Featuring clothing and textiles from China, this exhibit is a systematic look at how design is utilized by a particular culture to promote a variety of ideals and beliefs. To those outside of the culture, the depth of meaning and relevance of any one design may be lost. To those in the know, however, visual clues, such as the ones highlighted here, represent an entire unspoken language. You will see how design is used in these textiles to reflect ethnic origins, create order, represent religio-philisophical thought, express the unity of heaven and earth, represent the continuity of the Chinese people, reflect technological developments, and create beauty. While distinct lines have been drawn in this exhibit for display purposes, many of the designs found in one category could have easily been placed in another. The arbitrary distinctions are meant to stimulate a new way of looking at textiles and clothing. They should be regarded as more than mere cloth and decoration, but as significant cultural artifacts.
The Ming dynasty is known for its use of upper body formed by two lengths of material brought over the shoulder with a center back seam and front opening. The robes were voluminous, suitable only for a sedentary life style. When the Manchu overthrew the Ming government in 1644, their choice of court dress reflected their ethnic origin as they established their own identity. Their nomadic culture that had relied on animal skins for clothing influenced a new design for robes. The Manchu's familiarity with the silk dragon robes of the Ming Dynasty inspired them to continue the use of silk fabrics and the dragon motif. Large front and back panels with a side closure, tight sleeves, protective cuffs, and vented skirts characterize nomadic-style coats designed for an active life.
A bureaucracy of thousands had the responsibility for governance of China under the auspices of the Emperor. An elaborate graded structure aligned the courtiers, functionaries, and officials with positions denoted by such obvious factors as insigne on garments to small details like the knob on top of a hat. Wives wore the same insigne as their husbands. Over time, the significance of motifs diminished as enforcement of wearing one's assigned rank symbol fluctuated. In fact, people could buy their rank, and foreign dignitaries received squares as gifts.
Less specific but nonetheless powerful in the ordering of society was the clothing befitting each class. Color, quality of fabrics, and amount of decoration easily distinguished a person's status. Rural clothing frequently was crafted from cellulosic fibers such as cotton while court clothing was fashioned from the finest and most decorated silks available
Neo-Confucianism provided the religio-philosophical base for imperial officialdom in China during the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties, as it had for several previous dynasties. Taoist and Buddhist beliefs and practices for a very long time had been part of the folk religious tradition popular among the common people. Buddhism, while supported to some extent by a number of Ch'ing emperors, was weakened because it had become part of the Buddhist-Taoist milieu making distinguishing one from the other difficult. Further, the elite Neo-Confucians borrowed ideas from both Buddhism and Taoism. With this mixing of religions, Ch'ing textiles often included a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and philosophical symbols. Some symbolic motifs that embellish Chinese textiles are not explicitly religious. Besides imperial sovereignty, symbols can relate to fertility-pomegranates, longevity-cranes, immortality-peach, happiness-bats, riches-deer, and abundance-fish.
The authority of heaven and earth were joined when the emperor took on the awesome responsibility of wearing the dragon robe, a representation of the cosmic order of the universe. The diagonal bands at the hem and the bubbling curves above them represent one component of the universe, the ocean. The prisms at the four axes of the coat represent earth and symbolize the four cardinal points on the compass. Above clouds symbolize heaven, and the dragon has authority over all. The human body dressed in the robe then becomes the world axis with the neck opening becoming the gate of heaven and the wearer's head representing the spiritual world.
Continuity has been a value espoused by Chinese since very early times. Couples married with the clear-cut understanding of obligation and of society's expectation for them to have children. The celebration and good wishes connected with a wedding were not only for personal reasons but also to ensure continuity. Sons were prized, especially because males performed the rituals to venerate ancestors. On her wedding day, the bride was lifted up as "empress for a day," wearing symbols typically reserved for the upper-echelons of the court. The phoenix, paired with symbols of fertility and happiness, could be worn and used to decorate the wedding altars.
With the development of sericulture in China came an opportunity to explore new fabric structures and dyes, as silk is more readily dyeable than bast fibers. Pigment printing, resist dyeing, and complex weave structures such as brocade, velvet, and damask expanded the range of design patterns. Finished textiles could be further embellished with the application of embroidery, a skill the Chinese mastered over centuries of execution.
Whether embroidered patterns were for religious significance or for aesthetic enjoyment, the luster, fineness, and continuous nature of silk filaments made them especially suitable for surface embellishment. Woven structures including damasks, brocades, and gauzes (leno weave) vary from subtle to dramatic, brightly colored patterns. The well-developed sense of design is obvious in small to quite large objects.