This new installation in the Clara T Rankin Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy Gallery, The Splendour of Chinese Textiles: From the Silk Road to the Imperial Court, presents a selection of highlights of the museum’s Chinese textile collection and explores the diverse ways in which the use of silk enriched, embellished and shaped Chinese arts and culture. Highlights of the garments in the installation include a child’s coat with ducks in pearl medallions, from the 700s, purchased by the museum in 1996. The coat’s outer fabric is woven in five brilliant colours featuring paired ducks in pearl roundels, hallmarks of the precious and highly desired silks from Sogdia. The coat’s inner lining is a twill damask with a floral pattern made in China. The combination of Sogdian and Chinese silks in one garment with Tibetan ownership history is evidence of the vital exchange and cultural interaction among the peoples living along the trade routes of the Silk Road. This precious coat, presumably made for a Tibetan prince, is the earliest dated textile here on display. Given the coat’s pristine condition, it is unclear whether the garment was ever worn, or was used as a diplomatic gift or perhaps as currency.
Another robe linked to Tibet robe comes from the late 1600s – a man’s robe (chuba), probably made for Tibetan lama or an aristocrat was originally a Chinese imperial wall hanging. Tibetan tailors cut it into 60 separate units, reassembling the fabric for a completely new and bold design. The wearer of such a garment must have impressed bystanders by his striking appearance. Textiles played an important role in Chinese diplomacy with foreign governments. Diplomatic gifts of silk served to pacify border populations and to maintain balanced power relationships. Over centuries the Chinese court endeavoured to keep a stable relationship with powerful Tibetan Buddhists. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) the Chinese court began to send gifts of court garments and furnishings to Tibet where .they were altered to create Tibetan-style robes.
A fascinating handscroll in the exhibition features a map illustrating the Mingling of Clear and Muddy Water at the Junction of the Jing and Wei Rivers (Jing qing Wei zhuo tu) and a report by the statesman Dong Gao (1704-1818), preceded by an imperial commentary. The entire handscroll is woven in silk; while the calligraphy section on the right side is woven into the fabric, the Chinese characters on the map are all embroidered. The map shows the clear (blue) river Jing in the north joining the muddy (yellow) river Wei in the west and flowing into the large Yellow River in the northeast. The roofs of houses and sections of the city wall in the lower part of the map indicate the city of Xi’an, a former imperial capital in Shaanxi province located near the site where the terracotta soldiers of China’s first emperor were found in modern times. The management and control of the empire’s vast network of waterways, dams, and irrigation systems was an important task for China’s rulers. Flood prevention was essential, for when the Yellow River overflowed it caused disastrous deluges and destroyed farmland and settlements. Here the Qianlong emperor had requested an on-site investigation of the Jing and Wei rivers in order to rectify historic written sources that confused the Jing and Wei rivers. In addition to the Cleveland tapestry scroll, an identical tapestry version is preserved in the Palace Museum in Taipei and a rubbing version on paper is preserved in the National Library in Beijing.
Until 12 August, Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, clevelandart.org