Beijing embroidery is also known as Jing Xiu or Gong Xiu, Gongting Xiu in Chinese, literally the palace embroidery. It was originally made for the imperial household. In Chinese, Xiu means embroidery and Jing was named after Beijing, while Gongting or Gong refers to the royal palace occupied by imperial families.
Among the major schools of traditional Chinese embroidery, Jing Xiu handicraft is at risk of disappearing and listed as works of China's own Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The history of Jing Xiu dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when special workshops were established to produce embroidery items for the imperial household. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the style of Jing Xiu took shape in materials, handcraftsmanship and embroidery patterns.
Jing Xiu is noted for rigid standards of counted stitches, symbolic patterns, and second-to-none skills.
Jing Xiu stands out by its strong influence in style from imperial qualities, an attribute that is rare in Chinese embroidery arts. The needlework features elegant colors and grandiose images, marked by rigorous specifications on silk material, types of stitches, and design patterns. The piece encapsulates dignity and masculine splendors, as opposed to local stitch works spiced with delicacy. Although complicated in design, the booming composition arouses no lavishness but lends itself to aesthetic enjoyment.
Jing Xiu uses expensive materials. Since it was made especially for royalty, including the emperor and queen, silk material used was second to none. The needlework was created in choice satin, into which silver and gold thread was largely woven. Flying dragons and grand phoenixes constituted the major theme of embroidered patterns that emphasized absolute sovereignty and glory.
A curious character of Jing Xiu is related to its handicraft workers. Unlike other embroidered pieces made by females, Jing Xiu, with a view to embody the emperorship, was commonly fashioned by craftsmen.
Stern requirements were imposed on satin stitches. The imperial robe, onto which dragon eyes, claws, and hair were embroidered with special standards in term of the number of needling, the distribution of the stitch and gradation of color.
Works of Jing Xiu embroidery incorporated deep connotations. Each piece signified noble prosperity, sanctified power, and graded rank, as far as embroidered animals, plants, and heavenly bodies were concerned. The use of a sun pattern suggested a bright future and was exploited to repel evil, whereas designs of 100 butterflies implied the desire for longevity in that "100 butterflies" sound like bai die (100 years old) in Chinese.
The pattern of "the Gold Dragon with Five Flying Claws" (Wu Zhao Jin Long) represented the emperor's power and nobody except the emperor could wear the image. Chinese peonies are acclaimed as the queen of all flowers. They became the first choice for the empress, queen, and princess. Differing from local embroideries, the broidered peony in Jing Xiu featured booming contours and exaggerated shapes, marked by dignity.
Jing Xiu was invaluable. As noble status, its practical function had little significance and Jing Xiu items were commonly made for decorations. Head ornaments, the baldric, and sabretache (a kind of pocket or pouch) were common subjects of embroidery goods. Sometimes, emperors gave Jing Xiu as gifts to talented officials.
Risk for Disappearance
It is not until the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when imperial power dwindled, that the technique of Jing Xiu embroidery began to circulate in local regions. Due to high costs, the fancywork was out of ordinary people’s reach and needed much maintenance. The expensive imperial items, magnificent but with little functional purpose, hardly fit modern tastes. Accordingly, the ancient technique is at risk of being lost.
In 2003, a workshop of "Baigong Fang" started in Beijing City, where China's traditional handicraft arts were exhibited including Jing Xiu embroideries.