‘Weaving & We’ is the theme of 2016 Hangzhou Triennial of Fiber Art. For fiber art, it honors the craft of ‘weaving’; to the triennial exhibition of contemporary art, it strives to touch the chord of heart of the ‘we’. The theme inspires us to approach the issue of existence and perception through ‘weaving’ --- the most fundamental and common craft in fiber art. The ‘we’ here is an active subject rather than a passive medium. 

The architect Gottfried Semper once remarked, ‘in the beginning there was textile art.’ As the most basic technique for textile art, the craft of weaving has been moving forward along with the advancement of mankind. To weave, people had to work. The manual labor of weaving gave human beings the sense of existence. The development of weaving has given a testimony to the progress of mankind.  

In today’s world, commercial products are industrialized. Digital images can be seen anywhere. The internet media has taken the dominance of our times. Against this backdrop, the development of the traditional ‘weaving’ has flipped to a new page. It embraces new assisting methods like digital weaving, new materials such as graphite, and new visual effects. Almost in all languages, the meaning of ‘weaving’ has already been beyond the traditional intertwining of warps and wefts. It now contains the complexity and interweaving of everything. And everything can be woven, be it object such as silk, linen, bamboo, rattan, hair, bodies, goods and buildings or abstract things like thoughts, sentiment, languages, words, identities and interests. Even sometimes the concrete objects may encounter the abstract things and the sparks of their interweaving can find their way in cultures, arts, production, lifestyles, places and histories. 

But why has the meaning of ‘weaving’ extended so much? It is not just for its intertwining nature or the diversity of its subjects, but because it implies the cultural connectivity. We may find some clues by tracing back to the origin of the Chinese characters for ‘weaving’. 

Erya (尔雅) is the first comprehensive Chinese dictionary in ancient China. In the dictionary, the word ‘weaving’ in Chinese is explained as using threads of silk to make textile. It also reads that ‘weaving is drawing’. The explanation gives us two ideas: one is that in China then, the subject of weaving was specified to silk threads only; the other is that for ancient Chinese, weaving was the same with drawing because both were constructing two-dimensional patterns using strips and threads with the only difference in tools. 

Xu Shen from East Han Dynasty wrote in his work Shuowen Jiezi (说文解字, Analytical Dictionary of Characters) that ‘textile is the umbrella term for all kinds of cloths and silks. Cloths are made of threads of linen and silks are made of threads of silk. The craft of making cloths and silk is described as weaving. Weaving is the intertwining of warps and wefts.’ His explanation suggests that during his time, the subjects of weaving extended to all sorts of cloths and silks. The word ‘weaving’ included various forms as long as there was interlaced warps and wefts. But Xu Shen’s description of the Chinese character ‘weaving’ overlooked its association with drawing. 

Yet that was not the end of the story. The notes for another Chinese character 缋 in the Shuowen Jiezi indicate again the correlation between weaving and drawing. It reads that ‘缋 means the ends of cloths and silks. Another meaning of this character is drawing’. Later, Duan Yucai (段玉裁), a scholar of Qing Dynasty annotated this remark, ‘the meaning of this character includes both cloths and silks. The Chinese expression ‘织余’ in this sentence refers to the tail part of a loom. While here it can be interpreted as the ends of cloths and silks since the character ‘缋’ contains the meaning of lost or missing. ‘织余’ now has another name --- ‘机头’ literally meaning the head part of a loom. ’ Duan continued his annotation, ‘Zheng Xuan (郑玄), the scholar of the Eastern Han Dynasty believed that ‘缋’ is the right character for drawing; while ‘绘’ is the character for colorful embroideries.’ These have told us that the character ‘缋’back then referred to both the tail part of a loom and drawing. While the character ‘绘’meant both colorful embroideries and drawings, though today we only use the latter meaning of this character. There is another related Chinese character named ‘绣’. It means embroidery or embroider now, but it was about the colors for drawing then. Duan Yucai had annotation for this as well. As he commented, ‘people nowadays distinguish the meaning of‘绘’from that of ‘绣’. However, our ancestors used both characters to talk about the colors for drawing. For them, ‘缋’ was drawing while ‘绘’ was embroidery. So it is clear to see that in ancient China, knitting, drawing and embroidery were perceived as manual work that were interwoven or even could substitute each other.  

What’s more interesting was that another Chinese character ‘文’ got involved in the melting pot of characters. Scholar Sun Xingyan (孙星衍) from Qing Dynasty annotated the relation among three Chinese characters: 绘, 文, 绣. As he wrote, ‘in his book Shiji (史记, "The Scribe's Records"), Sima Qian mentioned that they ranked patterns by a system of the sun, the moon and the stars. The mountain and dragon patterns appeared only on the clothes of emperors, most senior officials or on the military flags. The algae and flame patterns were made for some other government officials. Both types of patterns were called ‘文’, meaning decorative patterns. The white ‘米’-shape pattern on the clothes of noble families was called ‘绣’. In the Shuowen Jiezi, ‘文’ represented the interweaving of threads and colors. Those interwoven threads and colors made up patterns. That explained the character ‘缋’. According to Shuowen Jiezi, ‘文’ horses equaled to ‘画’ horses which referred to the horses with polished hair in Zuo zhuan (左传, Commentary of Zuo). Then the character ‘文’ was the same as the character ‘画’. While ‘画’ referred to the patterns whose ranking was between mountains, dragons and algae, flames. The white ‘米’-shaped pattern and the common black and white strips and black and blue strips on formal dresses were embroidered on refined cambric cloths. They were all embroideries and in Chinese they were all ‘绣’. Therefore, back then, the Chinese character ‘绣’ bore the same meaning with today’s ‘文’.’  

Apparently, literature, painting and embroidery have always been interwoven in the history of Chinese culture. Along with their own development, the three forms have been separated by cultural, arts and crafts gulfs even though they were once family. 

Needles and Admonishment

There are various patterns of weave: knit, crochet, tapestry and embroidery, etc. All of them share a common tool that is needle. For instance, long bamboo needle is used for knitting clothes while embroidery needle works for embroidery. With needles, the manual labor of weaving began to shuttle back and forth in a three-dimensional world, leaping from the plain palette of warps and wefts. With needles, the strips and threads of weaving can be stretched in all directions and all manners. What the point of needle carries is not only the texture and vigor of the fabrics, but the painstaking care and warmth of the weavers that will last. In this sense, through the use of needle, ‘weaving’ is full of capacity to display the texture of skin, the meaning of life, and the landscape of culture.    

We may get some ideas about the origin of ‘needle’ from the annotation of the Zhou Li (周礼, Ritual of Zhou):
‘The character ‘箴’ (bearing the same meaning with the character ‘针’) was the tool used when making colorful embroideries. The annotation from another classical book in ancient China commentated that all works of art that were made by needle pricking were ‘绣’ (embroideries). In one ancient Chinese dictionary Guangya shigu (广雅释诂), the noun form for ‘刺’(prick) was ‘针’(needle). Without needle, no embroideries could be done. That’s why embroidery is ‘刺绣’ in Chinese.’  

Now we’ve learnt another Chinese character ‘箴’ from the words above. Based on the explanation in Shuowen Jiezi, the original meaning of  ‘箴’ was the needle used for making clothes. So ‘箴’ was the ancient style for the character ‘针’. Duan Yucai annotated, ‘thin bamboo needles were used to weave clothes and metal needle were for sewing clothes. So the character ‘鍼’ was explained as sewing. Needless to say, the character ‘箴’ had taken on the specific meaning of weaving clothes since the East Han Dynasty. There are two parts in the character ‘箴’. The head part is its radical, suggesting its material is bamboo. The torso part is ‘咸’, indicating the sore sparked by the pricking of bamboo needle. So the original meaning of this character should be ‘the bamboo needle that will cause sore in your flesh when you are pricked by it’. While this meaning is closer to the needle used for acupuncture instead of the needle for sewing and knitting. The character ‘咸’ played as a warning of the potential physical sore. With the development of materials and functions, the bamboo needles were gradually replaced by metal ones. The character ‘箴’ became ‘鍼’ with the part of ‘咸’ remained, implying that the needle could always cause the prickle to flesh. However, in today’s Chinese dictionaries, there is only one ancient Chinese character for the character ‘针’. That is the ‘鍼’.  

The meaning of the Chinese character ‘箴’ has also figuratively extended to ‘admonish’ or ‘admonition’. When used as a verb, it means to strongly advise somebody not to do something. When used as a noun, it refers to an ancient Chinese writing style which usually used as a warning to someone about their behavior. Therefore, admonition can be understood as the words that may blow the mind like a needle that may prick the skin. With its warning nature, admonition can usually prevent people from inappropriate behaviors. Thus, the character ‘箴’ built its link with words and speeches. As the origin of this character, the Chinese character ‘针’ was connected with words naturally. 

Interestingly enough, the English word ‘needle’ also contains several meanings as its Chinese counterpart does. When used as a noun, ‘needle’ is a small piece of steel for sewing with a point at one end and a hole for the thread on the other. When used as a verb, it refers to the manual labor of using needle to do embroidery and tapestry. The word also has an informal usage which means to deliberately annoy someone, especially by criticizing someone continuously. This implies that in English, when you ‘needle someone’, you are actually hurting their feelings with your mean words just like using a needle to prick their flesh. Therefore, the thin needles have been metaphorically taken as words both in English and Chinese. They signify the physical existence; they reinvigorate and wake up humanity; they cultivate and question the soul; and they are connected with the prophecies of future. The ‘saying of needles’ links the physical pricking feeling left by a needle with the psychological sting imposed by words. Perhaps this is the origin of the analogy that what needle to embroidery is what pen to writing. 

Making a further comparison of the two characters, it is not difficult to find that ‘针’ and ‘箴’ assumed different culture significance. Since both of them could be used as verb or noun, they had taken on implications to different forms of arts. ‘针’with its meaning as sewing needles was related to embroidery. While ‘箴’ as the character for admonish became a calligraphy branch of inscription. This has cast lights into the gender difference behind the two forms of art: the field of embroidery was dominated by women while the words with rhythm belonged to the world of men. In this way, they go on two different tracks of history. ‘针’ is associated with handmade crafts such as tapestry and embroidery. They are often created to tell oral histories and folktales. But admonition is written down for recording official histories. Presumably, at its birth the Chinese character ‘箴’ involved two social roles. One is family (tapestry and embroidery), the other is society (admonish). With a more and more consolidated social development and people’s stereotyped thinking, the Chinese character ‘针’ for ‘needle’ gradually broke away from ‘箴’ and developed into a tool for specialized female and their weaving works. The word ‘needle’ in Chinese thus has been less commonly used to refer to acupuncture or admonishment. Instead, it has been more closely linked with embroidery, sewing and needle and thread. It’s natural that weaving and embroidery has gradually become feminine skills. 

Needles and Women

There are beautiful and unique names for those female weavers who are the subjects of the ‘saying of needles’. We usually call them the weaving maid or weaving lady. Those who master the greatest skill among them are acclaimed as ‘the Goddess of Needle’. 

Chinese people have coined an umbrella word for spinning and weaving, embroidery and sewing: the ‘needlework’. Steel needles and silk threads are the essential elements of needlework. With magical artistic appeal endowed by the hands of weaving ladies, needles shuttle among silk threads to create charming works of art. These works display the combination of the ultimately soft threads and extremely unyielding needles. They are blessed with silk-like nobility and needle-like integrity. For those weaving ladies who are practicing needlework everyday, they are apt to be affected by such a wonderful combination and develop a disposition with both tenderness and integrity. That’s exactly the poetic nature of the weaving maids. These ladies are of a wide range of styles and match the diverse descriptions in ancient Chinese poems. Some of the weaving maids are quite sentimental and ‘are wistfully looking at the images of themselves mirrored on the surface of the lake’. Some are open-minded and free-minded like ‘a floating boat without a rope’. Some embrace the drawn-out melancholy like ‘a lonely wild goose flies across the sky, crying’. Some are so steady and sincere that their affections are ‘deeper than thousands feet water’. Some are acclaimed as staunch women with integrity that ‘their names will be enshrined in the books of history’. Some have a big heart and impress the world as ‘distinguished people in seclusion in the bamboo forests’. And some others boast attractive appearance and acute mind who ‘must stand out among the young ladies’. The poetic nature of tapestry and embroidery differs from that of the man-dominated painting. With patience, tranquility, calm, tenacity, style and solitude, it is a delicate, unbroken and long poet for women.   

The needlework has traditionally been perceived as a basic skill for women. It was once the symbol of female virtues. Since the excellence in needlework not only symbolized a smart head and hand, but also suggested chastity, perseverance and tranquil mind, for any woman who was of ‘four virtues’(fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and efficiency in needlework) she must have a good command of needlework. Needles and threads took on a new symbolic meaning as a mirror of chaste ladies under the influence of a Confucian school of idealist philosophy of the Song and Ming Dynasties, especially in Ming and Qing Dynasties when the chastity of married women was fully accentuated. Women who were chaste and supported the family with their needlework were recorded in the histories of virtuous women in many local chronicles. 

Those women of ‘saying of needles’ are not simply conventional chaste women with sophisticated needlework skills. They are more of artist, writer or even revolutionist given the cultural implications of ‘weaving’ and ‘needle’. 

Take the Gu embroidery (顾绣) in Songjiang (松江) area as an example. The history of Gu embroidery dates back to late Ming Dynasty when the embroidered pictures made by Gu family were acknowledged as the climax of that craft. Each and every renowned craftsman of Gu embroidery knew everything about poetry, literature, calligraphy and embroidery. These women with letters and artistic achievements were sincere friends with the literati during their times. No wonder the famous scholars and men of letters were happy to write prefaces, postscripts and poems for the Gu embroideries, unprecedentedly contributing to its high reputation. Another vivid example comes from the first existing theory book on embroidery --- the Xiu Pu (绣谱, Profile of Embroidery) written by the weaving lady Ding Pei (丁佩). The preface and postscript of the book revealed the social interactions among the young ladies with literature talents who were living in the south of Yangtze River. They exchanged letters and verses of poems. Traditional Chinese literati and well-born ladies appreciated each other via the exchange of verses of poems. For them as a common community of culture, that was a unique way to say thanks and open their heart to each other.   

The most special and independent weaver in the Gu embroidery family should be the female member Han Ximeng (韩希孟). She was the first woman at that time who dared to keep her maiden name after getting married. It was indeed astonishing then that she left her maiden name instead of husband’s name as seals on her embroideries. Another pioneer Ding Pei, the author of Xiu Pu, was so reflective and innovative that she took bold steps to build on exquisite embroidery skills. Her book Xiu Pu mirrored the mindset of weaving ladies during the Late Qing Dynasty. That group of ladies had developed the awareness of female liberation, gender equality, and women’s creativity. 

In traditional Chinese culture, the needle and thread were ‘talking’ about the conventional female virtues and chastity in the first place. Then they evolved to ‘talk’ about the cultural accomplishment and creativity awareness of the nonconventional woman-predominated philosophy. However, this striking contradiction has found its way in the point of needle. It weaves fabrics into works of art. Meanwhile in the western world, the needle and thread recounted a women’s history of struggling. They have been fighting against patriarchy for liberating themselves. 

The modern and contemporary arts in western countries have entered into a new development stage since modern times. In particular, the modern fiber art movement characterized by soft sculpture renovated the representation of fibers including silk, linen, yarn and palm fiber. Likewise, the traditional techniques such as knitting, weaving, knotting, embroidering, and binding definitely have been marked as experimental art and avant-garde art. They are applied to emboss works, or to make bigger, heavier and more conceptual works of art.      

In the meantime, the development of women’s art was tiding along with the widespread feminine movements in western countries. Based on the philosophy of liberating women’s mind, the western women’s art advocated revolutionary ideas for women: to achieve self-salvation, to recognize women’s identity and to challenge oneself. While these were going on, some typically female artistic crafts were involved, such as knitting, weaving, knotting, embroidering, and binding. Though these were traditional techniques, they were weaving modern and contemporary elements into minds. Hence ‘weaving’ served as an instrument for women to rise to patriarchy. It also functioned as the most powerful weapon to break through the confinement of traditional techniques because it provided women with a self-interrogation space.   

Given the above, both the revolution of modern fiber art and the rise of women’s art are solid evidences that fiber art is drawing soaring attention. Quite a few artists now are attempting to make breakthrough from the traditional approaches. They architect the innovative ideas on the landscape of materials, techniques and women’s nature. As a result, the manual labor of ‘weaving’ has been diversified. The conventional fiber works are no longer restricted in looms or two dimensions. They have become three-dimensional works of art and story-tellers.  

The ‘saying of needle’ has become a way to artistic creation as well. Moreover, it has no longer been bound by ‘weaving’. For example, in her video A Needle Woman, the Korean artist Kimsooja outlined the image of ‘a needle woman’. The woman wears a plain gown and a black cascade of hair. She is looking at the flow of people on the street with her back on the audience. She is standing still like a needle in a city’s hustle and bustle. The city may be a diversified and inclusive metropolitan such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London. It also can be a city in a third world country where the issues of immigration and races are rampant, such as Havana, Patan, Rio, Sanaa, Jerusalem, and Ndjamena. In the video, the flesh and blood of the woman are interpreted into a ‘needle’ which is weaving through the magnificent textile of people coming and going. It is this needle that interlaces human with the society and culture. So the ‘needle’ speaks for ‘we’, and ‘we’ are the ‘needle’. Even a single word at that moment seems too much. That’s why the video is a silent one. The needle woman is standing quietly. She is not doing anything, but she is conveying way more messages. Among these messages, there are changes about the inner world of the artist -- from nervousness to devotion and to relief. There are also messages about the energy, various attention and feedbacks from the surrounding crowd of people. In this sense, the ‘needle’ in the video plays the role of an obvious but ambiguous tool. It is capable of both healing and hurting. It can stand on a specific physical spot, but it also can reach an abstract dimension. As the artist herself puts it, ‘Perhaps at that moment, I cast my ego away and walked away from the flow of people. I felt that the real world was a whole that would turn down any more modification or healing.’

A needle is probably as thin as a thread of hair. Thin and slight as it is, a needle makes it possible to interweave the shared memories and experience of women throughout the world. For those women, scenes with weaving as the background have been woven into their childhood memories: playing around grandma’s loom; sitting besides mom who was embroidering and reading stories under the same light; watching television with grandma when she was knitting; and badgering elder sister into sewing on a button. It’s safe to say that women polish up the needle and are radiant with the ‘saying of needles’. Needle is not what women are born for, but it gives women a new meaning of life. 

In a word, the ‘saying of needles’ signifies a valuable inspiration from the theme ‘weaving & we’.