Date of this Version
Published in Textile Society of America 2014 Biennial Symposium Proceedings: New Directions: Examining the Past, Creating the Future, Los Angeles, California, September 10–14, 2014,
For over five hundred years a group of wool tapestries created in China have been stored in Japan. The tapestries are woven of soft wool, their surfaces hand painted with unusual motifs on backgrounds dyed the soft orange-red hue produced by the safflower plant. Their motifs are identified with the ancient Manichaean religion, considered extinct since the seventeenth century. The motifs and the layout of the tapestries’ design suggests that they functioned as mantles used by religious leaders. The Chinese government outlawed the Manichaean religion and prohibited its trappings, the laws strictly enforced as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) became firmly established. The tapestries were collected and destroyed, with a few sold off to ocean traders. In the following centuries the merchants of Kyoto were able to acquire some of the latter and have utilized them ever since to adorn their annual Gion Festival Procession. Meanwhile, in China, surviving religionists migrated southward to China’s Southern Coastal communities. This migration, began as early as the Sung Dynasty (1127-1278), continued throughout the Yuan (1279 -1368) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties. The artisans, who were descendants of Uyghur Manichaean clans who had settled in China as early as the ninth century, strived to perpetuate their sacerdotal costume tradition of decorated wool mantles. However, in their new environment in Southern Coastal China, the only sheep bred were marshland sheep, which produce a coarse rough yarn. The cherished red-orange dye was scarce as well, as safflower was cultivated in the North. Fine hand painting was replaced by wood-block printing. Taoist motifs, more acceptable to the Chinese Government, replaced the outlawed Manichaean motifs. Nevertheless the designers, weavers, and dyers continued to produce the transformed tapestries in Southern Coastal communities, production continuing throughout the twentieth century.