Royal ties in Nanjing; The garment only fits a monarch

As the world today mourns the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, what about Nanjing’s ties to royalty? One thing stands out above all. For some, a humble garment, the brocade, icon of our city, was once worn only by a member of the monarchy.

Anyone versed in the art of weaving will know that Nanjing and Brocade go hand in hand. Its inclusion on the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2009 officially secured Nanjing’s status as the world homeland of brocade. Nanjing Cloud Brocade (Yunjin), emerged during the Wu Kingdom, in the third century AD; therefore, it has a history of over 1,600 years.

At the height of its popularity, in the middle of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), brocade had become more famous than any other silk product in China, supporting 300,000 jobs at the time. The weaving technique was used to produce some of the most famous royal garments, such as the dragon robes worn by Chinese emperors. The value of Nanjing brocade was immense, with an inch of the noble fabric worth an ounce of gold, making it an exclusive product accessible only to the richest of the rich.

Nanjing’s brocade history was officially established around 417 CE, when Nanjing, then known as Jiankang, saw an influx of craftsmen, especially brocade weavers from Xi’an, after the defeat of local authority, the future Qin kingdom, by the eastern Qin dynasty. This presence of highly talented brocade craftsmen who had acquired an impressive skill set from Chinese minorities and possessed national fame led to the formation of a special brocade bureau and thus the establishment of Nanjing as the city of brocade.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the brocade skills of Nanjing underwent a luxurious transformation, when the Mongol rulers of the foreign dynasty brought with them the tradition of decorating officers’ robes with gold and silver. ‘silver. Soon, Nanjing’s gold-spotted fabrics became popular with aristocrats and minorities, resulting in the formation of Nanjing’s monopoly on brocade production. Nanjing brocade was even listed as one of the special royal tributes.

Concretely, the weaving process requires two artisans to operate the upper and lower parts of a complex loom up to 4 meters high to produce textiles. The person sitting in front of the loom is called a “thread puller”. Their responsibility was to pull the thread in line in the threading sequence, matching the commands entered into a computer keyboard today. The second person sat on the lower part of the loom. They were known “weaver”. Different songs help them memorize different weaving techniques, too complex to simply memorize without musical aid. Therefore, you could often hear singing from Nanjing brocade production sites.

Fine materials would be incorporated into the weaving, besides the common additions of gold were threads of silk or peacock feathers. However, it is not just the exclusive material that makes Nanjing brocade a hyper-luxury item. In one working day, only 2 cm can be woven, which adds an extra cost in production time to the price of the fabric itself, making it the most expensive type of silk production in China.

In the 21st century, the popularity of Nanjing Yunjin remains alive and well, ensuring the preservation of the ancient technique. Nowadays, it is often used to produce high-end clothing and souvenirs. However, being a brocade weaver in the new millennium is not just about creating luxury, it is a job of historical significance. Nanjing’s modern weavers reproduce ancient silk fabrics for researchers and museums, with the support of the government which has invested up to 10 million yen in protecting and repairing Yunjin.

An example of such historical revival work is the “cloned” dragon robe of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The original was excavated from the Dingling Mausoleum in the Thirteen Ming Tombs, but was destroyed as soon as it was exposed to air. With the help of traditional weavers and after three years of hard work, the historic dress was successfully reconstructed in 2009. It is just one of many dragon dresses reconstructed by weavers, which can be admired in the Nanjing Museum Cloud Brocade.

Herein lies the importance of modern brocade weavers; not only do they preserve an important cultural technique from the past, but they also actively reproduce history for generations to come.

Today, as we remember Queen Elizabeth II, the importance of remembering the history of many generations is front and center in the minds of many. Nanjing Cloud Brocade’s place in the overall royal scheme of things just got a whole lot stronger.

Michael O. Stutler