For 8, 000 years Europe has taken inspiration from Chinese textile, printing and ceramics design, through the Silk Route trade linking China with east, south and west Asia, north and east Africa and Europe. With one of the oldest civilizations in the world, the culture and art of this vast and self-sufficient country–extending from Siberia to the Equator, from the shores of the pacific to the heart of the Euro-Asian continent–is diverse and sophisticated, distinguished by technological and artistic invention. By 1000 BC, silk weaving was widespread and porcelain was first made around 600 AD.
Chinese textiles that we have in our museums include large cloths and panels that either hung in front of the kang–the sleeping and eating area–or covered it when not in use, were used as room dividers or screens, and the heavily embroidered Daoist priestly robes and Emperors robes. We have Qing dynasty painted scrolls (thangka) depicting mandalas or ritual diagrams, each representing a sacred space, open or heavily decorated.
The Emperor’s robe
Dragons flying amongst clouds (depicting its use at court); a mountain representing the earth and a strip hem representing water is one of the elements of the design known as a ‘Dragon robe’, worn on festive occasions by ladies and men alike. The cloth could be a lightweight silk for summer or woven more densely, layered and lined with sheepskin for the winter months. Only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow.
The pattern and embroidery techniques employed in all of these beautifully executed historic designs carry an air of familiarity, displaying the interconnection between cultures and the historical sharing of skill and knowledge. These robes and stylistic designs are also emulated in Western furnishing textiles and catwalk creations, taken from the archives and collections of the likes of GP & J Baker and other early collectors.
Chinoiseries, painted interpretations of Chinese life appeared in western homes on flower vases, screens, wall coverings, tea pots, dinner services, and furniture.
All cultural exchange is two way: Until the 19thC, China was a major world exporter of its traditional crafts. With the overthrow of the Qing government and the end of dynastic rule in 1911, China began to form a new era. Out of this period of great political and social change, in which the Chinese embraced new products, ideas and political ideologies, came the mixing of tradition with western style. From the 1930s, Chinese fabrics and designs in Western style clothing as imported goods became de rigueur for the middle classes..