30 October 2014

Poetry Thursday - a 9th century poem for 21st century quilters

Tang costume (and cloth) (via)
Last week, writing about Po Chu-i (Bai Juyi), I found this nugget in the Wikipedia article about him; make of it what you will ... a wholecloth quilt? a quilt for a child leaving home? -

"Bai Juyi also wrote intensely romantic poems to fellow officials with whom he studied and traveled. These speak of sharing wine, sleeping together, and viewing the moon and mountains. One friend, Yu Shunzhi, sent Bai a bolt of cloth as a gift from a far-off posting, and Bai Juyi debated on how best to use the precious material:
About to cut it to make a mattress,
pitying the breaking of the leaves;
about to cut it to make a bag,
pitying the dividing of the flowers.
It is better to sew it,
making a coverlet of joined delight;
I think of you as if I'm with you,
day or night."

What might this cloth have looked like? It's described as having patterning of leaves and flowers; probably it would have been intended for making into a garment, most likely not an official's garment. (Here we read that officials' positions were distinguished by different colours: 

"purple was used as the garment color for officials above the third grade; light red, officials above the fifth grade; dark green, officials above the sixth grade; light green, officials above the seventh grade; dark cyan, officials above the eighth grade; light cyan, officials above the ninth grade; and yellow, ordinary people and those who did not live in the palace." - interesting that, centuries later, yellow was the colour reserved for the emperor. Sumptuary laws - who was allowed to consume, or wear, what - changed from era to era.)
The Tang dynasty was a time when women could wear men's clothing - read about Tang costume history here ... but the article is scant on information about the actual cloth. In any case, if the cloth was sent "from a far-off posting" it would have been something unusual in central China or mainstream culture. 

Perhaps the posting was in the southwest, an area affected by Indian and Persian influences, such as motifs on cloth. The hufu style of clothing - "foreigners' dress" - was a tight-fitting style popular in the early part of the dynasty (later, the ruqun, with the long, wide sleeves, was de rigeur...for women). 

Or perhaps the posting was in the south-east: "During the Tang Dynasty silk, was a staple textile. Sichuan, Jiangnan (South-east of China) and Henan/Hebei were the most famous silk-producing regions. Sichuan's colorful brocade, Wuyue's unusual faille and Henan/Hebei's silk gauze were precious silk products at that time.

"Silk from the Tang Dynasty is not only colorful and lustrous, but also very rich and beautiful in pattern. Birds were often used, including the phoenix, peacock, parrot, mandarin duck and hoopoe in embroidering, printing and dyeing. Sometimes they were mixed with bees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, insects and so on. Beasts included lions, unicorns, tigers, leopards, deer, camel, and they were mainly used in the subject patterns of heavily colored brocade. 
Flowers and trees were often used also. The peony was first choice, while twining branches, crossing branches and a bunch of flowers were used together, ever-changing and very beautiful. Flower groups in crisscross and square designs were also found." (via)
If the posting was in the northeast, perhaps the fabric looked like this, a fragment from the Mogao caves, near Dunhuang -
Embroidered panel, Tang dynasty
The article goes on to say: "The textiles found in the Library Cave [sealed up in the 11th century] include silk banners, altar hangings, wrappings for manuscripts, and monks' apparel (kāṣāya). The monks normally used fabrics consisting of a patchwork of different scraps of cloth as a sign of humility; these therefore provide valuable insights into the various type of silk cloth and embroidery available at the time."
Keep in mind that the width of the fabric on a bolt of cloth would have been narrower than what we're used to now - the width of the loom was limited to how far the weaver could reach from side to side, or perhaps to the width of the reed through which the yarn is threaded. 


Patricia G said...

Thank you for sharing this - very interesting.
I empathize with the poet. Hate to cut cloth especially when it is a gift and holds memories.

Kaja said...

This is a great post - thank you. As a used-to-be-historian I love to learn about textiles from other times/cultures and this is all completely new to me, so very exciting.