Seeing Silk Making through Pith Painting

What is the process of silk making in China? And what was pith painting?

By Shanghai Guanfu Museum

Matching male and female silk moth caterpillarsOriginal Source: On loan from the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, New Jersey, USA

The maritime-continental silk road during the Tang and Song dynasties, plus the export trade to European countries since the 15th century have given rise to unique and remarkable utensils that blend Eastern and Western aesthetics. When it comes to China exporting artifacts, one must allude to the China Fever (Chinoiserie) that swept 18th-century Europe, during which a great number of china from East Asia were introduced to Europe. Apart from the export of china, there was also a enormous volume of trade in tea leaves and silk. Since ocean trading was time-consuming and all these three kinds goods were fragile, the price of the three often soared after entering Europe. People were not just amazed by the exquisite craftsmanship of Chinese artifacts but were also curious about how they were made.

Washing silkworm graines pape sheetsShanghai Guanfu Museum

Pith painting of Guangzhou emerged under these circumstances. From the paintings one may find the combination of Eastern and Western artistic features. In addition to the production of tea leaves, china and silk, people's daily lives were also common topics of Chinese pith painting. If observed carefully, Western style of depicting facial features are not hard to find. Simple perspective, moreover, were employed for the overall composition. Artists of pith painting at that time chose gouache instead of ink and wash, the traditional pigment used in Chinese painting, which was why the paintings could appear glaring and brightly colored.

The first sleepShanghai Guanfu Museum

So, who invented pith painting, the art that differed from traditional ink wash? They might be the first oil painters or gouache painters in China. They were proficient in the skills of Western painting and kept their topics related to everyday lives. One of them was known as "Spoilum".

The second sleepShanghai Guanfu Museum

As described in Annals of Nanhai County, Spoilum could be a painter called Guan Zuolin: "Guan Zuolin, who styled himself as Cangsong, was born in Zhujing, Jiangpu. Growing up in a poor family, Guan wanted to make a living by practicing art. However unwilling to work for others, he decided to board a ship and voyaged through European countries. Being thrilled to see the vivid artistic expression brought by gouache painting, he apprenticed himself to this art. Guan returned after acquiring the skills of gouache painting and opened his own studio by painting portraits for his clients. Those who saw his artwork were all amazed by such lifelike portrayals. It was during the middle of Emperor Jiaqing's reign, Westerners in China were also startled by his paintings, because they had never seen such techniques.

The third sleepShanghai Guanfu Museum

Whoever this painter was, what we now know is that there were plenty of studios around the area of the Thirteen Factories, which had nurtured a group of Chinese painters possessed with Western painting skills. They imitated Western style to represent Chinese topics, innovatively adopting pith paper as the medium of gouache painting.

Picking mulberry leavesShanghai Guanfu Museum

The production of pith paper was much easier than that of rice paper, and the material was a common plant in Guangzhou called pith, also known as tetrapanax papyrifer. People let pith grow for three years and then chop if off to make paper. They choose the trunk and cut the trunk into piece that were 30 to 50 cm long. Then they take the core out of the skin. This can be achieved by soaking the skin and peeling it, or poking the core out with a wooden stick. Finally, the core is carefully cut open and spread into be a piece of pith paper.

Silkworm getting on bedsShanghai Guanfu Museum

This kind of paper absorbs water well, so water-based pigment will not not smudge the paper, which helps create delicate details with gouache paint. In addition to painting, pith paper is also used to make artificial flowers. Pith paper becomes soft when soaked in water, which is then easy to shape. When dried, it still maintains its shape.

Heating the silkworm bedsShanghai Guanfu Museum

Chinese ink wash paintings are good at exploring abstract artistic conceptions rather than realistic depictions. Since the market of pith painting in Guangzhou was European-oriented, the pieces did not follow the style of traditional Chinese painting. They completely "went West", and usually centered on the representation of ordinary lives or Chinese themes, such as the making of silk.

Cleaning coccons in boiling waterShanghai Guanfu Museum

Housed in Guanfu Museum, Picking Mulberry Leaves, a collection of twelve scrolls in pith painting, depicts the complete process from raising silkworms to silk making: matching male and female caterpillars, washing silkworm graines paper sheet, the first sleep, the second sleep, the third sleep, picking mulberry leaves, silkworm getting on bed, heating the silkworm beds, cleaning cocoons in boiling water, spinning, dying and weaving, and making clothes.

SpinningShanghai Guanfu Museum

The first step is to match male and female caterpillars and spreading their graines over a sheet of paper. Then the sheet of paper is sterilized by soaking in lime water. Washing silkworm graines paper sheet not only cleanse the graines but also help wash out unhealthy silkworms. After three sleeps, silkworms are molted to be mature. Then, they are placed on bamboo beds and fed with a large quantity of fresh mulberry leaves. As silkworms get chilled when spinning, people use a fire pan to keep the worms warm, such process is called "heating the silkworm beds". After spinning, the cocoons are collected and boiled in water, after which they are dyed and weaved again to make clothes.

Dying and weavingShanghai Guanfu Museum

This collection of pith painting titled Picking Mulberry Leaves greatly draw inspirations from the depiction of sericulture in Imperially Commissioned Illustrations of Agriculture and Sericulture.

Making clothesShanghai Guanfu Museum

From a collection of pith painting, not only the history of pith paper as a unique artistic medium is shown, but also the process of silk making, which is with no doubt a genius presentation of archaic Chinese craftsmanship.

Credits: Story

Guanfu Museum

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