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Nanjing's Brocade Museum

Nanjing is a city with a long history and deep culture. It has been the capital of a number of regional and national dynasties throughout China's long history. Nanjing was a major cultural center in China when Shanghai was still an unimportant fishing village.

 

A remarkable "living" museum in the city is the Brocade Museum. I call it "living," because it still produces brocade using the old-fashioned looms as they were used 700 years ago. It is probably the least-known of what I would call major tourist sites in the city. I first learned of it through a Canadian teacher at my school, in 1998 and visited it out of curiosity. It is located immediately behind the frequented memorial to the victims of the Rape of Nanking, but until recently, there was no easy way to get from one to the other. The rear wall of the larger museum's parking lot contained a door, but it was kept locked most of the time. Apparently, there was little effort on the part of the tour guide industry to include the smaller brocade museum. When I first visited, it was dusty and very low-key. I have taken a number of people there, but hadn't visited in several months. On a recent trip, I was glad to see that the place has been totally renovated and is now very actively seeking tourists and is making its wares available throughout the city in places that sell Chinese arts and crafts.

The brocade produced here is called Yun (cloud) Brocade. It was created in the Yuan Dynasty, around 1300 AD and flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Remember, the Ming Dynasty was founded with Nanjing as its capital in 1368 and wasn't moved to Beijing until 1421 when the Imperial Palace was completed. In those earlier years, the brocade produced was used almost exclusively for royal costumes and official dresses.

Today, it is still hand-woven on the huge wooden looms, requiring the cooperation of two weavers. The jacqard weaver works at the top of the loom determining the figured pattern, while the weaver on the ground operates the shuttle carrying the proper color of thread. The ground-level operator also uses his feet, a little like an organ player, lifting the vertical frames you see here. Only two or three inches of brocade can be woven in a day. No wonder it was so valued by the emperors and is so expensive today.

The museum includes displays of finished pieces that they say were produced at least as long ago as the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

On the third floor of the museum there are different displays of looms and weaving methods of minority peoples in China. These are practical processes used by local people to produce cloth for daily clothing.

The museum has always had a store, but today it has become much larger and displays a wide variety of goods. Some are not so expensive and are machine-made, but you can buy art objects made on the old looms, for a price.

I am very glad that this museum is now more accessible (the rear gate of the neighboring museum is now open all the time, making access quite simple), and well decorated, making it more attractive to visit. I hope large numbers of both Chinese and foreign tourists will visit there to marvel at the skill of Chinese weaving and to understand more of the rich culture.