Silk, Hemp and Cotton : An Outline of Chinese Textile History and Societal Impacts
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China’s history as it pertains to textile artistry is immeasurably complex and has existed as a diverse and ever-changing field for thousands of years. Around the world, textile production has served to enable self-expression and social demarcation both on one’s body and in the decorum of one’s personal space and belongings. Textile work enabled a shift towards the use of relatively more abundant resources, allowing for sturdier and more efficient material production processes, which in turn allowed for more varied and complex means of identity expression through one’s possessions. In conjunction, the textile industry has been subject to perpetual change as a result of political and socioeconomic forces as well and, as such, can provide valuable insights on the social structure of any civilization. The history and impacts of China’s textile industry retains extreme relevance in the world today. In covering it, I hope to promote awareness of disenfranchised peoples whose skills and culture are undervalued in a global society that remains skewed towards Western preeminence. It is critical to the resurrection and preservation of endangered arts and methods of hand-made production for indigenous minority groups within China as well. It, in turn, must be stated that a secondary goal of this paper is to embrace these people in an effort to make sure they are not excluded, hidden, or understated by the socio-political forces present within and beyond a particular nation. Consequently, an overarching significance of this study is to discuss injustices present within the industry on both a micro and macro level. It is important to note that in discussing “textile art” or “the textile industry,” the better part of this essay seeks to discuss the general state of fabric and synthetics production, particularly the ways in which it pertains to the representations of groups of people across Chinese history. The forces that interacted with these people impacted—and were impacted by—the state of the textile industry. All of this being said, the intention of this essay is not to discuss fashion as a whole—only the fabrics and related materials which constitute it. China, with its historically varied social climates, retains a strong relationship with the textile arts as a means of remembrance, a gateway to a higher level of well-being, and a testament to its people’s ingenuity, refinement, and perseverance. This essay seeks to outline key historical components of Chinese textile work in order to promote a better understanding of Chinese design, material diversity and innovation, and the socio-political contexts in which they developed and evolved.