Chinese embroidery is well known for many centuries to the world. The most well-known form of Chinese embroidery is made by stitching silk thread into silk or cotton fabric. Embroidery work is not only displayed as art, but also made into clothing, handkerchief, handbags, tapestry, and many other everyday household items. It originated from different areas in China with four major distinct styles. One area is Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, where silk was traditionally produced and traded. Another three areas that were known for traditional embroidery are Sichuan Province in West China, also the origin of the most famous spicy Chinese food, Hunan Province in Central China, another area famous for its spicy food, and Guangdong Province in South China, the home to Cantonese language and cuisine.
A rarer form of embroidery that is less known but is as fascinating is hair embroidery. It first developed in a small town on the east coast of China in Jiangsu Province, 200 miles north to Shanghai and Yangzi River. I was born and raised here. The earliest settlers to this area learned to draw sea water and produce salt. Salt production and trading were so important to the economy and culture of this area that my ancestors named the town Salt City (Yan-Cheng in Chinese). Different from Suzhou and other more affluent cities further south, silk was not historically available in this area.
As suggested by its name. hair embroidery was made by stitching long strands of human hair into fabric. Although it may sound strange to anyone who heard of this for the first time, hair embroidery has a very long history, that has entangled with the life and faith of women in this area for many centuries.
Why would people use hair for embroidery? Hair is typically much stiffer and harder to handle in needlework than silk or cotton thread. In addition, hair was also not readily available in large quantities as it was cherished and given sacred meanings by ancient Chinese.
According to Confucianism, hair and body are given by our parents, therefore, it is huge disrespect to parents if we do not take care of our body or give up our hair. Hair thus represents spirit and identify of a person in many important ways.
Traditionally, both men and women kept long hair, and different hair style must be worn at different stages of life. When a couple got married, a ritual during the traditional wedding ceremony was to take a strand of hair from the bride and the groom and tie a knot. This symbolizes a wish that the couple would be together forever.
Hair was especially precious for a woman, in addition to its importance to their beauty and appearance. If a woman gave a man a gift that contains her hair, this was a promise of her love. But when a woman broke up with her lover, she cut short her hair, to show her determination to end the relationship.
Buddhist monks and nuns shave their hair before they leave home to live in a temple, part of the ritual called Pabbajja. Shaving their hair is part of the process of cutting off all ties to the worldly life and ego that may interfere with their commitment to Buddhism.
Embroidery was traditionally women’s job. In areas where embroidery was popular, girls learned the skills from older females in their community. At a time when girls did not have equal rights and opportunities to education and social activities, embroidery making was an opportunity for social gathering, and also a way for them to make some income to support the family. Some women grew up into embroidery artists that gain them nation-wide fame.
In Dongtai, a small satellite town in Salt City, women developed skills of using their hair for making embroidery as silk was not available or very expensive. As hair has a different texture from silk, these embroidery artists developed unique stitching techniques for weaving hair into the fabric. As they relied on the natural colors of hair, the earliest embroidery was black and white in color with various shades. Sometimes a piece of embroidery work was finished using a combination of embroidery skills and traditional Chinese painting. As hair represents important meanings, women often made embroidery of their own hair, and gift it to their men as a promise of their love.
In Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), Buddhism became popular throughout China. It was common for people to pray and worship at home to a statue or portrait of Buddha or other bodhisattvas. Guan-Yin (Kuan-Yin in Cantonese), was and still is the most beloved bodhisattva among Chinese women. She is always portraited as a beautiful woman, who represents mercy and brings new babies. During this period, women in Dongtai area started making hair embroidery to portrait Buddha and Guan-Yin. They sacrificed their long and beautiful hair and worked for months and even years to complete one piece of work. The laborious process itself was one way for the women to express their dedication to their Buddhist faith. During the long stretch of history when girls and women’s rights and freedom were suppressed, expressing their love, creativity and faith by arts and crafts has been one very precious and effective channel.
Today, gifts made of hair embroidery are still popular in the Salt City. In addition to portraits of religious figures, landscape, flowers, animals, and portraits of ordinary people are all common themes that reflect history and modern life. Most embroidery artists are still women, although there have been famous male artists. Some sophisticated projects could take several artists months to complete in collaboration. This ancient form of art continues to tell the stories of women and men that have lived on this land.
Lead photo: Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom
Chinese Embroidery (Date 17th-18th century). Applique of various Chinese silks, silvered and gilded leather shapes on silk satin ground; embellished with couched silk cord and embroidery. Photo with permission from www.metmuseum.org.