A brief History of Chinese Embroidery 1. Origin—in Remote Antiquity

A sketch map of the bone needle as used by the Upper Cave Man at Zhoukoudian in Beijing.

 

Since its birth in China, embroidery as an ancient craftsmanship known to all, has always been beautifying and serving life over the past several thousand years, leaving brilliant and untold excellence for people generation after generation. Based on the rich accumulation of traditional embroidery, contemporary embroidery is also successfully developing in China.

 

It is very difficult for us to ascertain the time and place for the birth of embroidery in Chinese antiquity. However, there is no doubt that it originated from the era when human textile and sewing were born. The earliest embroidery started from tattooing, which was later turned into handcraftsmanship applied to garment decoration in close combination with practical and attractive decoration in daily life. It was the beginning of the change from backward facial tattooing to civilization and progress of human beings. A bone needle unearthed from the Upper Cave Man Site in Zhoukoudian in Beijing dates back 8,000 years. It is 8.2 centimeters long, with the widest part being 0.33 centimeters in diameter. So far, it is the earliest sewing tool known in the world. One can imagine that when the processing of needles, threads, and fabrics was available, it was natural for the emergence of products for sewing and embroidery.

A sketch map of the bone needle as used by the Upper Cave Man at Zhoukoudian in Beijing.
A sketch map of the bone needle as used by the Upper Cave Man at Zhoukoudian in Beijing.

 

Prior to the emergence of cotton and linen fabrics, our predecessors in antiquity resorted to leather tanning for clothes. They brought about patterns on leather clothes by using bone needles to sew leather stripes or plant fibers, which was closer to the habit of tattooing. Before accurate excavated objects can be used as evidence, we can deduce that prior to the emergence of fabric, application of embroidery onto leather may be more frequently seen. A leather belt embroidered with silk that was unearthed from Tianxingguan Tomb in Hubei Province in 1978 may serve as evidence of this deduction. It is 40 centimeters long and 7 centimeters wide. The leather is covered with a layer of silk tabby embroidered with brown and dark yellow silk-threaded circling hornless dragon (chi) patterns. The top and the bottom are embroidered with horizontal S-shaped patterns.

A silk embroidered belt of the Warring States Period preserved in Jingzhou Museum, Hubei Province.
A silk embroidered belt of the Warring States Period preserved in Jingzhou Museum, Hubei Province.