Nanjing Cloud Brocade

 Nanjing Cloud Brocade

Nanjing Yunjin, with a history of more than 1,500 years, refers to the incredibly beautiful brocade made in Nanjing, capital city of eastern Jiangsu Province. Yun in Chinese means "clouds", and jin means "brocade". The image is lovely: A delicate and flossy piece of brocade that feels just like soft clouds and is more valuable than gold.

Among all ancient fabrics, silk cloth known as jin represents the top of the industry's arts and crafts. Furthermore, Nanjing brocade incorporates all the best weaving techniques of past dynasties and is known to be the best out of the Chengdu brocade in southwestern Sichuan Province, Suzhou brocade in Jiangsu Province or even Zhuang brocade in southwestern Guangxi Province. Because of its rich cultural history, Nanjing brocade is hailed by experts as the 'last milestone in the technological history of Chinese silk fabrics.


The history of Nanjing Yunjin can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). In a war which broke out at the end the East Jin Dynasty (317-420), General Liu Yu defeated the Xi'an-based Qin kingdom (384-417). The victory brought all the craftsmen in Xi'an back to Jiankang, present-day Nanjing City, among whom brocade-weavers were a dominant force. The brocade weavers were top craftsmen nationwide and had learned a lot about brocade weaving from minority ethnic groups. In 417, the East Jin government set up a special brocade office in Nanjing to manage the production of the brocade, which represented the formal establishment of Nanjing brocade.

Later in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Mongolians conquered Central China and the rulers then began a tradition of decorating officers uniforms with shining gold and silver. With the flourishing and exploitation of gold mines, weavers added real gold thread to Nanjing brocade. The shining brocade immediately found great favor with feudal kings and aristocrats and also was popular among ethnic minorities such as Mongolians, Tibetans and Uygurs. In the Yuan, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, rulers set up special official fabric bureaux in Nanjing for the administration and monopoly of brocade production and marketing. They listed it as one of the special royal tributes to the emperors. Brocade technology was repeatedly refined despite high costs both in terms of time consumed and materials used. It was not long before the brocade surpassed the other famous silk products, and it obtained fame as an exquisite, rare silk.

In the middle of the Qing Dynasty, the brocade production boom peaked. Along the Qinhuai River in Nanjing, the noises of people weaving could be heard day and night. Records show at that time that there were more than 30,000 looms and more than 300,000 people making a living off the trade.


An inch of Nanjing brocade was said to be as valuable as an ounce of gold. What is interesting is that the delicate and soft brocade was made using wooden looms as big as 5.6-meters long, 4-meters high and 1.4-meters wide. The huge looms needed two operators, one above and one below in a delicate production sequence that was as complicated as current computer programming language. The process showed the incredible talent of Chinese in the past.

The person sitting at the loom was known as a "thread puller". All he or she had to do was to pull the thread in line in the threading sequence, corresponding to commands entered into a computer keyboard of today. The person sitting on the lower part of the loom was called a "weaver". He or she twined the pattern and wove the materials into brocade using golden or multicolored threads. The woven piece in front of the weaver was just like a computer screen. The weaving technology of the brocade is exceedingly complex and exquisite, and no modern machine has yet been able to replace the ancient looms.

There are mainly four categories in brocade: gold weaving (in which gold is pressed into foil, then cut into thread-like pieces to be twisted into threads and then woven on looms), Ku Silk Fabrics, Ku Brocade Fabrics and Zhuanghua Silk Fabrics. All four categories serve as materials for emperors' robes, queens' dresses and shawls, concubine's clothing, decorations for the imperial courts and articles for daily use, including cushions, mattresses, pillows, and quilts. The Nanjing brocade served as precious gifts for emperors to give to foreign kings and ministers.


Nanjing Yun Brocade is honored as one of China's Four Famous Brocades, together with the Suzhou Song brocade, the Sichuan Su brocade and the Guangxi Zhuang brocade.

In the Qing Dynasty, the development of the Nanjing cloud brocade entered its period of full bloom. At that time, there were more than 30,000 looms with nearly 300,000 workers engaging in this trade. But there were only four looms left by the time of liberation in 1949. This unique art and craft was revived through the efforts of the Nanjing Brocade Research Institute.

The Research Institute has undertaken an in-depth study and rectification of the historical archives and successfully copied one of the most outstanding silks in the Mawangdui Han Tomb. The 1.28-meter-long silk coat with a pair of long sleeves is as light as the mist and as fine as gossamer, weighing a mere 49 grams. The institute has also published 200 volumes on brocade objects and the most comprehensive monograph on the history of the art's development. It is called the Chronicle of Brocade.

Today it is still woven by hand with traditional techniques and using the traditional style looms. Two craftsmen (for patterning and weaving respectively) coordinate with each other on a loom. The weaving technique is so complicated that it takes an entire day of labor to complete a 5cm (2 inch)- long piece of brocade. Even now, no electronic looms could perform these extremely complicated silk weaving techniques.