Of narrow rectangular shape designed to cover a sutra, the pale blue silk is finely woven with the bajixiang (‘eight Buddhist emblems’) which include the umbrella, the double fish, a vase, a lotus flower, conch shell, endless knot, canopy and the wheel. Each auspicious symbol is set on a pink and blue lotus-petal base borne on a continuous vine tendril which encircles each emblem with blue and green foliate leaves, all effectively setting off and framing the symbol. Ascending and descending bright red flowers are interspersed between the Buddhist motifs. Ten metallic gold dragons pursuing flaming pearls stride in profile through a sky of blue clouds and red flames around the emblems, the short sides with dragons leaping upward, all between double metallic gold-line borders. The high quality of the weaving is particularly evident in the carefully shaded details of each symbol, in various blues, greens, salmons and reds, and in other exquisitely defined details such as the scales of the dragons which are delicately outlined in blue, and even their minuscule bright eyes, each dotted in black.
The ‘eight Buddhist emblems,’ the images of which are subjects of this textile, are imbedded in our perception as the foremost symbols of Buddhist religion which reached China almost two millennia ago. That grouping of symbols, however, was a very late arrival to the Chinese world. It was not until around the time when the Yuan Mongol rulers of China adopted Tibetan Buddhism as a state religion (in A.D. 1260, before their conquest of the south), fostering a close association with the Tibetan clergy, that the group was introduced. The emblems became a standard decorative device during the 14th century A.D., on the porcelains of Jingdezhen for example, and remained thereafter part of the standard repertory of design for Chinese artists and craftsmen.
Some years ago, a good number of finely crafted lacquer objects came on the world market including sandlewood rectangular panels lacquered in red and decorated with these eight emblems in a technique called qiangjin, wherein the delicately engraved or incised lines delineating and detailing the motifs were filled with gold, giving the impression that the designs were painted in a fine-line technique. These intriguing lacquer creations, designed as sutra covers, were produced in the imperial workshops of the Yongle emperor (r. A.D. 1403-1424). According to Robert Jacobson, ‘The sutra cover s were produced in the Ming imperial workshops as part of a set to ornament and protect the special ‘red-letter’ Tibetan language edition of the Kajur (the Buddhist Canon according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition), which was commissioned by the emperor Yung-lo (1403-1425) in 1410 for presentation to Tibetan religious leaders.'
The present textile sutra cover here is a descendent of those early Ming creations. According to Robert Mowry, who wrote an exemplary entry on this piece for the Phoenix Art Museum publication, ‘The size, proportions, and horizontal orientation indicate that this textile was intended to cover the title page of the stacked folios of a lavish Tibetan Buddhist manuscript.' Mowry refers to Julia Meech’s observation that during the Qing period, Tibetan Buddhist texts were copied in Chinese monasteries where Chinese textiles were the preferred covers for the texts.
Finally, for our purposes here and again according to Dr. Mowry, ‘The auspicious emblems on this sutra cover and its congeners appear in an order very different from that established in the Ming…..; in fact, they are arranged according to Qing convention, which gives a clue to the dating of this exquisite piece. The depictions of the eight emblems support the attribution of this sutra cover to the Qianlong reign (1736-1795) of the Qing dynasty, as do the style and configuration of the dragons. In addition, the meticulous craftsmanship—in which every representational element is woven exclusively in kesi tapestry weave, with little, if any, painting of details— further points to a mid-eighteenth-century date of manufacture.'
We therefore have the magnificent obsession with the Buddhist faith of a Mongol and Chinese emperor, along with their Tibetan compatriots and their eventual Manchu successors to the Chinese throne, to thank for the magnificent textile here.
1. Robert D. Jacobsen, Appreciating China: Gifts from Ruth and Bruce Dayton, Minneapolis, 2002, p. 94. Also see Li He and Michael Knight, Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, San Francisco, 2008, no. 49, p. 100.
2. See Robert Mowry in Claudia Brown, et.al., Weaving China’s Past: The Amy S. Clague Collection of Chinese Textiles, Phoenix Art Museum, 2000, p. 8 4. Dr. Mowry also provides a detailed technical description (pp. 83-84) concerning how the textile here was made.
3. Ibid., pp. 84-85.
4. Ibid., p. 86. Dr. Mowry also provides references and scientific analysis as bases for his conclusions (p. 87).