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Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




James A. Flath


The handiwork of embroidery signified gentry lady’s intelligence and refinement in late imperil China. Yet in late Qing and Republican China, embroidery was practised by a wide range of makers – gentry ladies, male professionals, home-based female workers, young students, and peasant women. Why was the exquisite art of embroidery able to be crafted by makers of a diverse backgrounds? My study explores various contexts and investigates the secrets for the maintenance of the technical virtuosity of different embroidery genres and argues that the making of embroidery in late Qing and Republican China was a constantly changing knowledge redistribution process in the context of values, economy, and culture in fluidity.

My dissertation begins with a study of the stereotypical embroiderers in public perception – boudoir ladies in the late Qing. I borrow anthropologist Alfred Gell’s concept of “technical excellence” to explain the dilemma associated with boudoir embroiderers: because embroidery was such a mysterious process for viewers that gentry embroiderers were regarded as occult technicians. On the one hand, they embodied female virtues pointing to a quiet, gentle, and self-disciplined woman; on the other hand, the glamour of an embroiderer rendered her invulnerable to male seduction, signifying erotism and sexuality. The second chapter examines late Qing rank badges that were made in hierarchical social environments – workshops inside the Forbidden City, imperial workshops in Jiangnan, and regional commercial workshops. I explore how these badges were made by different modes of production and how they potentially affected the owners. Chapter three expands to the investigation of commercial embroidery of nineteenth-century China where embroidery was a collaborative work by both genders. The leadership roles of men as middlemen, painters, and master embroiderers marginalized female workers who earned low wages embroidering at home. As chapter four enters Republican China, it uncovers the history of embroidery reform led by female innovators who aimed at reclaiming the control over the entire process of embroidery from underdrawing to stitching. This reform took place in the context of adopting Western aesthetics and building Western market, reflecting Chinese perception of modernity in textile industry. Discussing another form of modernity in the next chapter, I focus on cross-stitch, the Western introduced technique supported by China’s cheap labor and exported to American market. Pattern books played a central role in the popularity of cross-stitch among young girls. My last chapter continues to investigate paper as medium delivering sophisticated painting knowledge, but in a different form – papercuts as stencils, which spread embroidery to uneducated peasant women.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation on the history of Chinese embroidery consists of six chapters, which are arranged both chronologically and thematically. The first three chapters focus on the late Qing period, the last on Republican China. As the chapters take an object-driven approach, each begins with the technical analysis of an embroidery item, or embroidery-related objects such as pattern books and papercuts. In addition to treating embroideries as primary sources, much of the data for the dissertation is drawn from local gazetteers, women’s biographies, news articles, and magazines. The chapters delve into a wide range of issues including women’s agency, the politics of embroidery, gender, technology, production, and the transnational flow commodities and artistic ideals.

Chapter One asks why, with the availability of ample commercially made embroidery products, late Qing gentry ladies chose to stitch? Chapter Two looks at imperial rank badges and asks whether the level of technical expertise used in producing badges was linked to the authority embodied in them. Chapter Three examines the commercial production and distribution of embroideries in nineteenth century China. Chapter Four inquires into the drastic decline of embroidery production in the early twentieth century and considers the measures that reformers took to modernize embroidery and establish it as a respected art form. Chapter Five studies the growing popularity of the cross-stitch embroidery technique and its ties to the American missionary movement. In the last chapter, papercut is examined as a patterning method that helped to popularize embroidery, particularly among village women.

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