Shi Hui
August 30, 2016

Chinese character 织 is once written as 織. According to Shuowen[Analytical dictionary of characters], one of the earliest Chinese dictionaries, 織 refers to the collective name of cotton and silk textile, and the combination of threads in both of the vertical and horizontal direction (longitude and latitude) is called weaving. The cloth is woven by the hemp fibers, and silk cloth by silk threads. We can see clearly from Shuowen that as early as in Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), Chinese’s weaving objects are not limited to silk threads, but hemp fibers as well. Any activity involving the threads from longitude and latitude is entitled to be called weaving. In ancient China, longitude is referred to the vertical direction and the latitude the horizontal direction. It is interesting to note that ancient Chinese treated the key principles of feudal moral conduct as the longitude of heaven and the six classics as latitude of heaven. By doing so, the very act of weaving is oftentimes associated with key principles of feudal moral conduct and six classics, and the art of weaving is closely connected to the profound Chinese civilization. 

The Chinese character 織 can be divided into 糸 in its left and 戠 in its right. According to Shuowen, 糸 refers to tiny thread made from silk cocoon. The tiny piece of silk is called thread, but tiny piece of hemp fibers is called wisp. In other words, the silk threads we are talking today include both the pieces of silk and hemp fibers. 織 is a character with 糸 in its left, suggesting the extension of weaving objects from silk to hemp fibers. The Chinese character 織 indeed bears an important message that China is a country with a long history of silk weaving.  

Most set phrases involving 織 are characters bearing the same 糸, such as 编织, 纺织, 织纴, 织绣. These Chinese characters, including 编, 纺, 纴 and 绣, suggest relatively the same meaning of arrangement of weaving objects, regardless of bamboo slips or silk threads, in a well-organized pattern. Kaogong ji, also known as the Book of Diverse Crafts, written in the Warring States Period (475-221BC), provides more details in explaining the difference of these characters. These Chinese characters, including 编, 纺, 纴 and 绣, are mostly associated with bamboo slips, embroidery frames, scissors, needles and other weaving related devices; while silk threads become a basic element in Chinese book making, cloths, brocade and embroidery. That is to say, weaving has become an integral part of China’s literature, costume, fashion, handicraft art and other art forms. These weaving related activities, either with bare hands or using needles and other devices, indicate clearly that ancient Chinese used a great many woven materials in their daily life. Be it cotton woven cloths designed for plain folks, elaborate silk robe for high-ranking officials and dignitaries, letter exchanged between scholars or embroidery and silk fan belonging to a daughter from an eminent family, weaving has become an essential part of Chinese daily life, reflecting Chinese’s warmth and sentiment in a sensible way. 

As for 戠 in the right part of 織, Shuowen says it has its origin from both 音 and 戈. 音 refers to the instructions made by a military commander when training soldiers; 戈 refers to the soldiers and the weapons they are carrying. When putting together 音 and 戈, 戠 means a group of soldiers are forming different collective shapes upon receiving orders from their commanders; in other words, 戠 can be interpreted as regular graphic and the change of pattern. Shuowen also cites that 戠 also carries the meaning of gathering. We can therefore learn from the Chinese character 戠 that it symbolizes the weaving of threads in line with a regular graphics or pattern.

Most weaving related activities are linked to the making of cloths and accessories. The cloths are supposed to keep us warm; while the accessories differentiate the ranking of our social status. That is to say, woven materials first have a close contact with our body, and then become a symbol of our social ranking. We have to admire the significance of weaving, and weaving is indeed mother of all handcraft arts.

In Chinese traditional culture, men are supposed to do farm work and women engage in spinning and weaving, which is the very foundation of social development in China. Weaving skill is valued as one of the most important women’s virtues, and its durability and repetitive nature are often connected with women’s reproductive power. Weaving of any kind, be it with bare hand, needle knitting or weaving with the assistance from a machine, is a long hour and repetitive labor with a hidden longitude-and-latitude pattern, which is so similar to women giving birth to a new generation. This kind of autogenetic creativity is a great blessing of Mother Nature, which is also a main driving force behind human being’s civilization evolution. 

“Weaving & We” has been chosen as the theme for this year’s Hangzhou Triennial of Fiber Art, which is designed to study the very origin of weaving and what is beyond behind the weaving in our daily life. In the long history of human beings, the weaving has undergone many fundamental changes, from using bare hands to needle knitting, to machine-assisted weaving during the period of industrialization and further to today’s digital weaving; nevertheless, all weaving related activities are all linked to one singular source, which is the existence of human beings. Take for an example, when taking a close look at K'o-ssu, a type of weaving done by the tapestry method in fine silks and gold thread, and wool tapestry from north, the woven materials from the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the Northern China differ greatly, in terms of their texture, crudeness and fineness; But they actually reflect the human being’s adaptability to different natural environment, no matter how weaving skill or technology has been raised to a much higher level. Weaving is never meant to be some kind of woven material, but a testimony of our endless existence in this world. When there is weaving, there is us in this world.  

Secondly the theme of “Weaving & We” reveals the interactive relations between a skill and the Tao (道). Weaving is a kind of skill while the existence of us is Tao. Any kind of craftsmanship is a hand art, so is weaving. When our hands can skillfully display the unique functions or charm of a material by working on the material with tools, we gradually improve our craftsmanship. It is a kind of body memory and   immediate reaction. Painting is an art of hands with brush and ink being applied on silk paper, sculpture is an art of hands with axes chopping down on metal or stone, and weaving is also an art of hands with breads being integrated in both vertical and horizontal direction. The true spirit of Tao can be reflected, and only be reflected, when we are very hard in improving our craftsmanship. In a way, we can’t separate skill training from Tao; and the better we are as a craftsman, the closer we are to the true Tao. There are many famous Chinese sayings, such as 画龙点睛, a vividly painted dragon can fly to the sky after dotting the eyeball in painting a dragon, to illustrate such a point. It is correct to claim that craftsmanship and Tao are inseparable, as long as we continue weaving, our spiritual self will prevail.

Among all hand arts, weaving is the most appropriate art form to demonstrate the interactive relations between a skill and the Tao, as the body memory of weaving is soft and warm. Interesting enough, in English there isn’t any singular word to describe the Chinese character 织; for example, 编织 in English is weaving, 编纺 in English is spinning, 织绣 is embroidery, and 织物 is textile or fabric. The organizers select the word “weaving” as part of the exhibition theme, because this word can be a noun and a verb at the same time, which is similar to the Chinese character 织. The weaving with both our hands is the most primitive 织; while the  friction between our hands and threads help us become aware of our physical sensations. 我 in 我织我在 means me, an object who does the weaving and who thinks. We, a plural form, is chosen instead in the English, as we is a rhyming word with weaving; and secondly we want to emphasize that everyone of us, be it weavers or artists, is deeply involved with weaving. The symbol “&” can be interpreted as a materialized graphic of weaving, as well as the close bond between weaving and every one of us.

Any art work trying to study the value of our existence must return back to the very source of our life. At this edition of Hangzhou Triennial of Fiber Art, all participating artists have adopted the same home-coming approach. Some of them chose to go back to our original ecological environment. For example, Mr. Liao Shaoji selected silkworm cocoons, silkworms and silk to display the endless evolution of life and the mystery of nature; and his work also reflects his ideas as an artist, such as time, breathing, exercise, universe, spirit and values that are meant to last forever. Chinese architect Mr. Chen Hao used bamboo from Anji County in Zhejiang Province to build an ecological forest. Weaving is the structural language for this forest, enabling people to go places from a two-dimensional world to a three-dimensional world. Chinese-American artist Ms. Liu Libei used silks from different cocoons to make colorful clouds, echoing the brave act of the Goddess mending the sky. Italian artist Claudia Losi, as an on-the-ground creative artist, tried to study the relations between mythical animals in Chinese culture and the diversity of the current animal world. She managed to create a group of vivid but weird looking animals and named this art work About Proximity, as she wanted to reflect animals’ mutual adaptability when being placed in a world that is strangely vast.

The bond between fabrics and human is so close, and sometimes we even assume that these fabrics are our second layer of skin. The Tube Hangzhou made by Numen/For Use team provided a valuable opportunity for us to have an intimate contact with fabrics. We will be exposed to a fabric world, where we will feel the constraint of silkworm chrysalis being tied up by silk threads, as well as the inner strength and instinctive sentiment when we colliding with silk threads. Among the Fiber Clouds, an art work by American artist Sheila Hicks, is a group of sculptures made by soft and colorful balls of string. Visitors are welcomed to walk into these sculptures and feel the warmth, comfort and sense of security of fabrics, by touching, rolling or throwing these balls of string.

Some other art works tried to create the re-occurrence of memory. Lycia Danielle Trouton, an artist from Northern Ireland, embroidered a wisp of hair into a linen handkerchief, as if erecting a lasting monument for those people who were killed for the issue of Northern Ireland. Belgian artist Heidi Voet used colorful plastic tapes to produce the national flags of countries that ceased to exist today, as Heidi wanted to remind us of the history in the past 500 years. Godfried Donkor, a British artist from Ghana, introduced the traditional cloth materials that were produced in Netherlanders and exported to West Africa, through the mouth of his mother. These colorful cloth materials, as if a currency, were widely used in Africa, promoting the circulation of commodities, money and knowledge. Godfried’s art work can also serve as a window to learn more about the naming culture of Ghana.

Other artists were more keen to observe social reality and our daily life. For example, Taiwan artist Chen Chieh-Jen produced a mini film titled Factory, where women workers were invited to return back to an old garment factory that had been abandoned for 7 years. The black-and-white film clearly portrayed the leftover of an abandoned factory and the labor force that is still on the move today, reminding once again of the brutal reality unemployed workers in Taiwan is now facing when factories have been relocated to other places. Farewell Song for Landscape, a brainchild of Chinese artist Xu Jiang and Yuan Liujun, is designed to do an artistic creation on looms, the machines that conduct the actual weaving. Looms were covered, layer by layer, by their woven materials, as if they were cocoons. What these two artists wanted to reflect was the mourning towards the early stage industrial development in Datang Town, Zhuji City of Zhejiang Province, as well as an intuitive experience that we were all transformed in this rapidly-changing materialized world. The looms, therefore, became a dream for us, a mixed dream full of industrial expansion and homeland affection; and the looms were indeed a song of departure for us living in this ever-evolving industrial world. British artist Janis Jefferies displayed a group of digitized photographs, attempting to reveal the unknown hardship and sufferings of cotton spinners working in Haining City of Zhejiang Province. Victor Asliuk, an artist from Belarus, revealed the daily activities of people living in a small town in East Europe through his lens. American artist Tali Weinberg used the red threads being embroidered in a silk robe to symbolize the female bodies of workers in the production line, hinting the profound social transformation these bodies have endured and the correlation among body, society, politics, economy and ecological environment. All these artists are trying to unveil the hidden stories behind the textile manufacturing industry in the East and West, with their unique perspective and observation angel. In the special exhibition on embroidery, “xiu hua duo ying”, curators want to introduce the Chinese traditional embroidery art, as well as the challenges and measures needed to be taken to cope with the global commercialized economic waves in Zhenhu Town, the birthplace for embroidery painting. By appreciating these art works, a visitor can gain an insight of the textile manufacturing industry and the ensuing multifaceted social issues when people are involved in the textile manufacturing industry.  

Other artists tried to analyze this issue from the media’s point of view. For example, British artist Fabio Lattanzi Antinori produced a double-faced and touch-sensitive banner by using some special printing paper and coating, telling the story of the ups and downs of Lehman Brothers. Every touch of the banner will produce a corresponding stock market data. Chinese young artist Wang Zhipeng created a invisible space by using video screens, trying to identify our existence in the world by the GPS system. Kimsooja, an artist from South Korea, visited a number of cities where violence and conflicts prevailed. In the eyes of Kimsooja, each individual was a needle, that was supposed to adapt to the surrounding environment of a city, in terms of its cultural background, economy, politics, religion, colonization and reality. British artist Oscar Murillo, who was born in Columbia, however, chose school tables, belonging to students who were living in a trans-boundary environment, as the medium. Students were invited to write down their dreams and thoughts taking place in the ordinary daily lives on their school tables, that were covered by a white table cloth. These table cloths became a silent witness of these students’ every joy and loveliness. Weaving, in some way, was a metaphor to these artists. They delivered an  on-site and improvisational performance by weaving China into the global arena, and reminded people of the significance and value of young children.

I started learning modern tapestry from Mr. Maryn Varbanov, a renowned artist from Bulgaria, in 1985, and started using paper pulp in my art creation. Technically speaking, I am a fabric artist. I am very pleased to learn that artists, no limited from the fabric art circle, are participating in this edition of Hangzhou Triennial of Fiber Art. They include well-known contemporary artists, architects, cross-media specialists, educators among others. In the first edition of the event, the theme was “Fiber Visions”, and the theme this time is “Weaving & We”. To me it reflects not only the shifting of theme, but a much broadened perception in defining the real meaning of fiber art. Such a change is good to both the Hangzhou Triennial of Fiber Art and the fiber art itself.