From papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and printing - the so-called ‘Four Great Inventions’ - to complex economic systems, naval engineering and ingenious mechanisms, China has been known as a nation of creativity, invention, skill and innovation for centuries.
Walking through Chinese heritage collections only strengthens this notion, as an impressive range of objects, illustrations and writings testify to the depth of theories underlying inventions and the precision of plans for their successful execution.
With agriculture as a pivot of its society and economy, China has developed a plethora of methods for working the land with maximum efficiency. A prime example can be found in the writings and illustrations of good practices for the cultivation of rice: a staple of the Chinese diet.
The process of growing and harvesting rice is perplexingly complicated. Seedlings need to be transplanted to submerged areas or paddy fields to grow strong and nutritious. After harvest, either the husks alone are removed (brown rice), or the brans are taken off too (white rice). While some producers use mills to process the grains, others rely on the power of hands and feet.
Many drawings, books, paintings and objects depict parts of this extensive production process. Conversely, in Western representations of life in China, one of the most often recurring themes is that of labourers working the rice fields.
The process of producing and preparing tea, too, is at the pinnacle of Chinese inventivity and finesse. After harvest, leaves have to be wilted, oxidized and fermented, fixed, rolled, dried and – in some cases – left alone to age for years. Then sorting and grading, sifting and breaking, packing and sealing the tea conclude the process.
Invention is not a matter of technology or mechanics only, but of resourcefulness, skillfulness and dedication as well. A good illustration is China’s history of sophisticated embroidery, rooted in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046-221 BC). The craft would blossom especially from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220AD) onwards and diversify into four distinct schools, still known and renowned today.
As the orange bridal costume below demonstrates, Chinese embroidery - much like arts and architecture - draws from a rich range of natural and mythical symbols to inspire ornamental styles. The skirt is decorated with floral motifs, as well as with a dragon’s head and phoenixes. The combination of the latter two designates the happy couple as ‘emperor and empress’ for the day.
With its intense colors, use of split silk threads, varied stitches, wealth of motifs and imaginative patterns, traditional Chinese embroidery has retained its unique character and worldwide appeal throughout the centuries. Textiles, clothes, accessories and tapestries are still produced by hand every day, making this highly artistic handicraft a prime example of living, intangible heritage.