Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


My current project places kesi, or pictorial silk tapestry, in closer proximity to the discourse of Chinese art history, and raises questions about the hierarchical categorization of creative production. Kesi was produced in China beginning in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 CE) as a method of weaving that allowed for designs that were independent of loom controlled patterning. When the weavers employed in imperial workshops adopted the medium, they expanded its design repertoire from overall patterning to a means of creating pictures. Indeed, a kesi artwork functioned as a painting, both visually and in its role as an art form sponsored by the imperial court. Like court paintings, the subject matter depicted in pictorial tapestry often encoded appropriate symbolism that celebrated wishes for progeny, longevity or success at the court. As an auspicious picture, kesi made an ideal diplomatic gift, and served as a promotional product. As a commissioned gift for a temple or monastery, the creation of a kesi image brought merit to both the weaver and the patron. Gifts within court circles were also important, and kesi were given to please the emperor or received as a mark of his favor, and sometimes recorded important events. Many kesi were made as decorative pictures for palaces and residences, and served to connect the viewer with the cycles of nature and the ceremonial calendar, provided inspiration, invited reflection, and elevated the viewer beyond the mundane realm of existence.

While without doubt particular kesi works used particular paintings as their model, or followed cartoons provided by court painters, the assertion that kesi was used to copy paintings, often repeated in the English language literature, is an over simplification. As an imperially commissioned art, we can presume that kesi would follow the stylistic and compositional canon established by the Northern Song dynasty Imperial Academy of painting. However, the medium of tapestry weaving employs distinct ways of working with forms, colors, and textures that exploit its basic characteristics. Its method represents a serious challenge for the process of translating from a medium that is not constrained by a structure, on the order of a separate language.