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March 2, 2015

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Weaving a world of beauty like ancients

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IT took five weavers at least three years to complete an imperial robe in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The robe has 5-clawed dragons surrounded by blue clouds interspersed with bats and 12 symbols showing imperial authority, including sun, moon, rock, flames and more.

A single robe required thousands of golden lines and peacock feathers for its lavish appearance. Kesi (缂丝) — Chinese silk tapestry — was the most common material for the robes. The intricate patterns were not embroidered onto the cloth but instead woven with colored silk. For each centimeter of material, the Kesi weavers needed to sew 100 horizontal threads.

“You see the exquisite texture of silk tapestry, which is the instrument of countless ways of using threads, imagination and painstaking effort. Even today, not one step of Kesi can be replaced by mass machinery,” Wang Jianjiang tells Shanghai Daily.

Wang, 51, is a Kesi master whose ancestors made clothes for the Qing Dynasty royal family, including a birthday gown for Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908).

Now he runs a workshop with eight looms in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. With the looms inherited from his father, Wang and four of his descendents duplicate clothing worn by China’s ancient royal families, fixing antique Kesi for major museums in China and also creating new works.

With a career in silk tapestry of over 35 years, Wang has answered the same question over and over again — what is this handicraft that he is so dedicated to?

Kesi is a form of textile that dates all the way back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). It, along with Hangzhou’s silk weaving painting, Fujian’s Yongchun paper weaving painting and Sichuan’s bamboo screen painting, are called China’s “four big textiles.”

Unlike other weaving methods, in which the vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) threads extend back and forth completely across the loom, the secret of Kesi is that it’s done on a simple loom using a technique in which warp threads fully extend but the weft ones do not. This skill is known as “whole warp and broken weft.”

With this principle technique, the formation of the pattern is based solely on changes in weaving the weft threads. Silk tapestry can be appreciated on both sides. And since the various adjoining colors in the weft are separate, there will be a slim gap along the edges of the forms, which is why tapestry is also known as “carved silk.”

For many centuries, the imperial court had a monopoly on Kesi weaving. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, great amounts of royal textiles were Kesi embroideries. Especially in the Ming era, Kesi clothes were exclusive to the royal family, removed from public use.

“Hence, when talking about traditional crafts in China, Kesi is hardly known by Chinese people,” Wang says. “Even the locals in Suzhou have no idea of it.”

The craft of Kesi prevailed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when it was used to make replicas of paintings and calligraphy works. During this time, the craft was upgraded from daily commodity to work of art, according to Wang.

At his workshop in Suzhou, people can see the works that resemble tapestries from the Song Dynasty. Woven against light ochre background, one tapestry on display is the branch of a flowering peach tree, with some blossoms open while a dove is resting on the branch, portraying an intimate and quite realistic-looking scene from nature. Traces of ink have been added to the outlines.

“Animal and plant were the most common motifs for Kesi artwork, especially in the Song Dynasty with an association of good fortune,” Wang says.

Realistic paintings are more commonly used than ink paintings as the basis of Kesi tapestries, because they are easier to weave due to realistic paintings’ clearer strokes and lines and delineation of colors.

“Changing layers of one color is very hard to weave, and to demonstrate the best effect of stroke needs a lot of experience,” Wang says.

In the book “A Dream of Red Mansions” by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s four great classical novels, there is a scene describing the debut of Wang Xifeng, one of the principal characters. Wang is tactful, worldly and powerful in the aristocratic family illustrated in the book.

The most capable woman in this novel wears a colored Kesi jacket in her debut scene. In the same novel, red Kesi textile is given to Jiamu (Mother Jia), the most respected character, as a present.

Novelist Cao’s great-grandfather and uncle both worked for the textile administrations in Suzhou, so the writer knew the value of Kesi — the ultimate luxury of imperial life and aristocrats.

Old poetry opined that a woman could wear an outfit in Kesi when she arrived at the end of her life, a hint about how long the process of making it took. And there was an old saying, “An inch of Kesi is worth an inch of gold.”

The manufacturing process is extremely complex. First, all the warp threads must be fixed to the tapestry loom. Then the pattern from a painting, for example, is placed underneath the flat and even warp threads, and the weavers will use a brush to outline the forms onto the warp.

After that, a bewildering array of colored silks are prepared according to the hues of the prototype that the craftsman needs to separate the color and install them in the shuttle groove. Using dozens of weaving techniques, the weavers then move the shuttle back and forth between the warp threads.

“Sometimes the work is very repetitive and dull but requires the craftsman to be very patient and meticulous,” Wang says. “It is indeed an arduous work process that if one has no passion for, they won’t persist,” Wang says.

There is also no room for error. Because it is woven, it cannot be undone, and a mistake may mean the weavers must start again from scratch.

“It usually takes three years to learn the basic skills of Kesi, while making a good work usually takes over 20 years of apprenticeship and practice,” says Wang.

Wang’s father, Wang Jialiang, is 76 and still making silk tapestry. “I think my father still does a better job then me, since Kesi requires a lot of experience,” Wang says.

He approaches one of the works in his workshop and points at one special Kesi tapestry. It has two base colors — gold on one side and silver on the other. One side has the character for longevity while there is a peach on the other side. One side was woven with silk and the other with gold thread.

“But they (the two sides) are woven on one layer,” Wang says.

Created by Wang’s father, the family business is the only one among a handful of workshops making Kesi tapestry in China that is able to weave different patterns on the two sides.

“It’s a secret that I cannot reveal,” Wang says with a smile. “The only one I will teach this skill to is my daughter, who is bound to inherit the family legacy even if she doesn’t like it. But luckily she enjoys it.”


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