China in perspective

Invention and Skill

a yellow, black and white wide robe laid out flat, embroidered with storks and dragons and with very wide sleeves.

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.

closeup of a map with writing and a wooden cart on wheels and a sail

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.

Illustration from a book discussing the production of cotton, white and blue woodcut showing people toiling in cotton fields and storing cotton in bags.

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.

Porcelain, fan-shaped plaque decorated with enamel in shades of green, showing agricultural scenes

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.

a sepia picture of three men working in a rice paddy, two standing upright and wearing broad-rimmed hats, another bent down, pulling weeds from the rice field

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.

an engraving showing a man standing on an ox-drawn plough, Soaking the rice in an irrigation ditch

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.

an engraving sketch of people sitting at tables with circular dishes filled with different tea leaves, selecting leaves on size and quality
three people in a tea shop tasting tea, depicted in an engraving

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.

A bridal collar shown on a costume doll, embroidered with natural and symbolical motifs. The flaps are cut and superposed to represent the neck feathers of a phoenix

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.

Embroidered skirt of a bridal costume in bright orange with blue trim

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.