As early as the Han dynasty (206 b.c.–a.d. 220), the Chinese mastery of silk production was so refined that its fame had spread to the Western markets of the Mediterranean Sea. By the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the traditional route of the Silk Road had spawned a complex trade network involving thousands of workshops, including those of the emperor, producing a wide range of goods from simple robes to ornate wall hangings. Many of these works were made by artists who also undertook specialized orders for domestic markets.
This pair of tapestries, designed as large wall hangings, represents a complex synthesis of the Chinese textile tradition. Their expansive ground is a tightly woven silk fabric dyed a deep red. The decoration was boldly applied to this ground in gold, silver, and, to a lesser extent, colored thread using embroidery techniques. The central register of the tapestry on the left is delineated by a solid band in the shape of a cartouche that encloses one hundred different renderings of shou, the character for longevity. Following convention, the spaces in the central cartouche have been left unadorned, but the outer borders are heavily populated with a host of auspicious imagery including bats, peaches, cloud-scrolls, and roundels. At the top there is a rustic scene of five sages and a boy attendant on a pine terrace and, at the bottom, an equally quaint scene of deer frolicking in a fenced enclosure. An inscription embroidered in silver and running along the bottom of the work identifies the work as a special commission dedicated to Fan Dafu (The Honorable Mr. Fan) on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Modestly worded, the inscription also indicates that the tapestries were commissioned by Yan Ming and others, possibly a protégé or some younger friends, and lists the date that the artist completed the work.
The tapestry on the right has a similar design scheme but the central register focuses on figural imagery rather than scripted characters. The cartouche is illustrated with a draped figure of Magu, a female immortal whose rapturous beauty can outlive the ravages of time. She had been assimilated into the Daoist pantheon by the time of the Song dynasty (960–1279) and, by the Qing dynasty, this attribute made her image a popular decorative element for birthday gifts. She is depicted here in canonical fashion surrounded by a host of auspicious imagery including the crane, symbolic of longevity; the lingzhi fungus, emblematic of immortality; the fu (bat), associated with good fortune; and the mudan (peony), indicative of wealth and beauty. The spaces between these images are sparsely decorated, as was the convention of the time, but the outer borders are covered with interwoven figural, architectural, and scrolling designs. Such an overabundance of beneficent imagery served as a gracious complement to the literary charm of the textile’s companion work. Together, this pair of textiles embodies a number of the characteristic elements to be found in dedicatory textiles produced for the birthday celebrations of the social elite during the Qing dynasty.