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Silky smooth tales linger behind old exports
By Xu Wenwen

MORE than 100 years ago, a vintage store selling exotic curiosities on Fifth Avenue in New York City sold a Chinese blue silk robe to a Western woman.

The woman wore it as a dress as she enjoyed the looseness and exquisiteness of the garment. Similar robes, along with silk fans, parasols, capes and table clothes, all made in China hundreds of years ago, are being showcased at the Chinese Export Silk Exhibition at the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou until the end of the month.


Exhibition curator Cai Qin says China started exporting silks to the West in the 16th century when the so-called Maritime Silk Road was opened. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the silk business flourished and many foreign merchants came to China to get custom-made silk. These products were labeled “Export Silk.”

Many silk items, though made in China, were different compared to what Chinese preferred. The Chinese robe mentioned above, however, was one of the few exported silk products that changed very little.

One “Export Silk” example is a tailor-made yellow silk curtain embroidered with a double-headed eagle, the badge of the House of Habsburg, formerly one of Europe’s most important royal houses.


Parasols were another example as they were not a fashionable accessory for Chinese women hundreds of years ago. Neither were tablecloths.

However, these “Export Silk” products did feature Chinese aesthetics, and Chinese craftsmen delved deep into their imaginations to meet the demands of their Western customers.

In the exhibition, a white-silk parasol with an ivory-handle is adorned with tassels and embroidered with eight Chinese opera scenes telling different stories. Chinese people, animals, plants and buildings are all included.


“Chinese operas and fantasies were as popular in the West then as Chinese silk, tea, and porcelain. Consequently merchants and craftsmen were keen to add Chinese characteristics on silk products,” Cai says.

A tablecloth produced in the mid 19th century features Chinese animals and flowers but is adorned with Western-style tassels.

The two elements are in harmony, just like “chinoiserie and rococo art in furniture,” Cai says.

An octagonal fan, seemingly much the same as a common Chinese fan, is actually more three-dimensional because the faces of people are made of ivory, the garments people are wearing are stitched and the background is embroidered — a mix of collage and embroidery.


The exhibition also showcases paintings to prove the prevalence of Chinese art in the 18th and 19th centuries in both Europe and America.

Besides the blue robe, there is a replica painting “Women in Kimono” by American painter Avrid Frederick Nyholm in the 1920s. The woman is wearing a purple Chinese robe in the painting (Nyholm named it kimono but it’s actually a Chinese dress).

Also a replica of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Women with a Parasol,” created in 1867, echoes a black lace parasol. Berthe Morisot’s “Two Sisters on a Couch” depicts two sisters sitting in front of a fan spreading out as a backdrop on the wall, with one holding a folded fan in the hand.

Besides parasols and fans, Chinese shawls were also “a very important export product,” says Mei Mei, an expert in textile arts.

She gave a lecture for the exhibition.


“Chinese shawls, also called mantón de Manila, along with fans and parasols became necessary accessories for European woman in the 19th century,” she says. “They were a way of making Europeans feel exotic and cultured about other parts of the world.”

Exports to the West also included small paintings featuring both Chinese and Western techniques. The exhibit includes several of women producing silks.


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