Chinese embroidery is an ancient form of needlework in which intricate designs are sewn onto items such as tapestries, garments, and other textiles. Traditionally, it has typically been sewn with silk thread onto silk fabric. It was originally only crafted for and by the upper classes, but eventually made its way to the masses, where it became a common skill among Chinese women. The style has evolved from simple chain stitches with spaces in between to dense fields of designs with a wide array of colors and stitch styles. The four most popular styles of Chinese embroidery are su xiu, xiang xiu, yue xiu — also known as guang xiu — and shu xiu.
Most Chinese embroidery consists of two types of stitches — the long and short chih wen stitch and a form of seed stitch known as tuan chen — which are both used in the four primary styles. Su xiu embroidery is practiced in the region of the Suzhou, Jiangsou Province, and is known for its particularly high quality and variety. Xiang xiu style, which is common in Changsha, Hunan Province, is less colorful and notable for its distinctive use of dimension and space. The more colorful, symmetrical yue xiu or guang xiu style is practiced in the Chaozhou, Guandong Province. The oldest variety of Chinese embroidery is the shu xiu style of the Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
Chinese embroidery is the oldest known form of needlework. It has been traced back to the Neolithic Age, which marked the end of the Stone Age. Scraps of embroidery have been found in tombs that are thousands of years old. During this period, the Chinese learned how to use the silkworm to produce thread, creating the means for the art form.
In its early days, the art of Chinese embroidery was primarily practiced by wealthy individuals who lived in the royal courts. It was here that several artists developed and became renowned for their work. As the need for embroidered items among the upper classes increased, commoners began to learn to embroider in order to provide goods for their superiors. Less affluent households had very few embroidered items of their own, in contrast to the lavish works that were abundant among the wealthy.
Some of the most popular items depicted in traditional Chinese embroidery include animals, flowers, trees, and religious imagery such as tributes to Buddha. Items for every day use, such as robes and blankets, tended to be more decorative, with flowers and birds being common themes. Tapestries were more elaborate and depicted things such as detailed religious scenes and maps.