Chinese Batik And Silk

Made In China: Textile Design

Silks and Batik

Silk Legends

Silk was discovered in ancient times and is developed from various types of arthropod’s cocoons during metamorphosis eg. spider silk, silk worm, mulberry worms.

Like many ancient Chinese discoveries, it is unknown who exactly or how silk was discovered or first created. There are many tales and legend with this discovery – one of which being the tale of the young woman who lived with her father and their magic horse, who could fly as well as understand human language. Once when the girl’s father went out to work  he didn’t return and the girl made a promise to the horse that if he could go out and bring back her father that she would marry him. When the horse returned her father back home, the girl’s father refused to allow the marriage to take place and killed the horse. He then skinned the horse and hung its hide out to dry, the hide then took flight and grabbed the daughter then flew away only to land on a Mulberry tree and when the daughter was released onto the branch she turned into a Silk Worm.

Another more convincing story being that in Ancient times, workers found the silk cocoons by accident and thought they were fruit from the Mulberry tree. After failing to eat these incredibly hard “fruits”, the ladies tried to boil them to soften the shells but when this too failed, the women lost their patience with the hard white fruits and beat them with sticks thus discovering the silk.

Silk Production

Silk is produced from Silk Worms (Bombyx Mori) which feed on the leaves from the Mulberry Tree and produce silk during their metamorphosis. It takes on average 24-28 days for a silk worm to grow old enough to begin to spin a cocoon. From this cocoon, the silk must be harvested at the right time for unwinding before the moth hatches out of the cocoon, spoiling the strands. So the cocoons are heated to kill the pupae inside. When reeling the silk into raw strands, 1 silk cocoon may harvest 1000 metres of raw silk – It has been said that it may take 111 cocoons to produce 1 man’s tie.

Batik Printing

What Is Batik?

Batik is a method of printing silks and other similar fabrics by masking images and pattern on fabric with hot wax, dying the fabric then washing in hot water to dissolve/separate the wax from the fabric allowing the masked areas to be repeat printed over or left  bare. The wax is applied using a tool called a Tjanting, which is a small round bowl-type tool with a small peak from which the hot wax would controllably dispense.

This process can be repeated until the desired image is created. A highly skilled process, Batik is one of China’s Ancient treasures and it was commonly passed on from mother to daughter for generations as a skill that every young girl must learn.

Batik was found in China as early as the Sui Dynasty (AD 581- 618), It is said to have been developed by Chinese artists who then took the technique to the likes of Japan, the Middle East and Indonesia.

Batik is a very skilled process when done well but can be very simply yet effectively copied for simple designs, I in fact taught a group of Students at my work placement this method of printing in a small class at the end of the week for students who had completed their class work. Using small sections of silk, hot wax and batik fabric dyes, we took turns in sketching out our designs onto paper then tracing around them through our silk squares and leaving the hot wax to dry before painting on some fabric dyes.

The kids thoroughly enjoyed this process and it proved that this would have been a great way for young Chinese girls to spend time with their mothers and grandmothers learning a valuable trade as Batik became a very popular method of printing and decorating silk.

Dragons in Chinese Art

Dragons have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years and today Chinese dragons are recognised the world over as positive symbols of power and prosperity.

The earliest Chinese dragon depictions discovered so far date back some 7000 years. An ancient Yangshao burial site found in the 1980s in Henan Province showed an adult male skeleton lying between images of a dragon and a tiger made with clamshells. Ancient dragon imagery has also been found on clay pots and jewellery at many sites in China. There are only theories as to where dragon images came from but dinosaur bones were being dug up in ancient China and are referred to in documents from the time as ‘dragon bones’ and were often used in medicine. However, dragons may only be the artistic interpretations of wild animals – crocodiles and snakes. Although their source is still unknown for certain, dragons were common in Chinese mythology and legend.

In Chinese culture, dragons are commonly associated with water in all its forms: rainfall, snow, clouds, storms and oceans. Because the weather was very important to farming and fishing, dragons were respected and even worshipped. They becomes symbols of strength and power and so many emperors adopted dragon imagery to show off their might and superiority. Dragons adorned clothing, buildings, furniture, walls, flags, paintings and were considered sacred.

Depictions of dragons tend to follow certain rules. They are usually shown as serpentine creatures with four limbs, each limb having three to five talons or claws. There was a time when the four and five clawed dragons were used only by senior figures in the palaces while the three clawed dragon was permitted to be used by common citizens. It was even considered treason during the Ming Dynasty to use a five-clawed golden dragon image, which was permitted for use only by the Emperor.

The dragon traditionally has 117 scales comprising 81 yang and 36 yin (9×9 and 9×4). The number nine is frequently associated with dragons – nine being the highest single digit number. Nine represents the sky in the I Ching (Book of Changes) and dragons are often shown in groups of nine. Chen Rong was a painter in 13th century China and was most famous for his images of dragons. Perhaps his most recognised work is a handscroll, ‘The Nine Dragons’, which shows nine dragons all in their natural element. The ‘Nine Dragon Wall’ is a large screen decorated with nine relief sculptures of dragons that can be found at many historical sites in China such as the Forbidden City in Beijing and Pingyao theatre in the city of Pingyao. Some of these elaborate walls date back to the late 14th century, during the Ming Dynasty.

The dragon is sometimes shown holding a flaming orb. This may represent the sun, as many Chinese people believe dragons have a mythical connection with the sun. However many sources refer to it as a pearl. The pearl is a symbol of good fortune and is often a feature of dragon designs. It also resembles a miniature moon, and the moon has links to water, particularly tides, which ties in with the dragon’s connection with the sea. The Chinese dragon image is now quite familiar in the West. Although the spiritual and cultural meanings of the dragon are sometimes lost, it is universally recognised as a symbol of China and the East. It is often used in branding and marketing food products that claim to be authentic. It is also used frequently in the Chinese tourism industry. Basically, the dragon image is used wherever possible to help sell any product or service that has any link to China, as if it were some kind of seal of authenticity. In some ways the Chinese dragon has become what you might call a gimmick.

The iconic dragon image might be loosing it’s meaning the way many symbols do, but the fact is that it’s visually appealing, and the depiction of a golden dragon still sparks the imagination, inside and outside China.

Chinese Product Design

In the ways of innovation, China is a growing power with many products beginning to be developed in China, and the ones that are not, are most likely manufactured there. China’s big issue is trying to step up from its current position where everything is ‘made in China’ to one where everything is also designed in China. This opinion has only changed over the last 20 years, and places Chinese Product Design firmly in its infant years. The improvements have come about with an increase in skilled Chinese students, meaning China does not need to outsource talent, and with its cheaper production costs, it may well benefit companies to completely up stick and move to China to design and produce its product range.

Some of China’s achievements are visible: for example, a doubling of the global percentage of patents granted to Chinese inventors since 2005, and the growing role of Chinese companies in the wind and solar-power industries. China aims to push its creative thinkers further by encouraging them to replace their four ancient great inventions (mentioned below) with brand new world changing inventions;

“Electing four great modern inventions will encourage the new generations to press forward on the road of discovery,” said Wang Yusheng, former director of the China Science and Technology Museum.

Innovation in China, although heavily outweighed by manufacturing, dates back thousands of years in history. Pre 1900’s the compass, gunpowder, paper making and printing are regarded as ancient China’s four great inventions. Regarding gunpowder, China innovated several other war tools, such as the flamethrower, hand cannon and the cast iron bomb. From gunpowder came one of Chinas most explosive inventions, fireworks, which is now one of China’s largest exports.

The Beijing fireworks display.

Chinoiserie is actually quite difficult to find in modern Product Design, especially with a view to discuss it. Products that are designed to look Chinese without actually being Chinese do not really appear in many sectors, with technology, automotive industries and many other modern day sectors lacking instances of it. Products such as furniture and crockery, namely coffee tables and tea sets, are part of a vast market of products with a resemblance to the Chinese style, and may be one that proves worthy of time and investment for other industries to dwell into. A great example can be found in this posh clock shop from London… the workmanship demonstrated in these pieces really is beautiful. Chinoiserie Comitti Clocks.

The capacity for innovation is growing in China, and in many industries it is taking the markets by storm. In 2010, China became the largest producer of wind technologies, leaping ahead of rivals the USA, Germany and Spain. This rise has been led by the minds of her industry leading companies, Goldwind, Dongfang, and Sinovel. The extent of China’s renewables development is highlighted by the fact that in 2009 she had already surpassed her 2010 target of 10GW by 15.1GW. By 2020, the Chinese governments hopes to have designed and manufactured enough high tech wind turbines to push that figure up to 100GW. The initial future target set by the Chinese government was 10 GW by 2010 but the total installed capacity for wind power generation in China has already reached 25.1 GW by the end of 2009 China aims to have 100 GW of wind power capacity by 2020.

In December 2011, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) announced it is aiming for the country’s installed solar power generating capacity to reach 15 GW by 2015. This is a 50% increase from its previous plan. China’s share of the global turbine market more than doubled to 32% since 2008 and its manufacturers comprise seven of the world’s top 15 suppliers.

30-megawatt solar power station in China’s Qaidam Basin, aiming to be the worlds largest.

Regarding Product Designers in China, the number of successful and recognised persons is certainly on the up, and the work of one in particular, Liu Zhili, has caught my eye. An example of his very poetic work can be seen here, called the Shrub Table.

To conclude, China has a past full of inventions, some which have shaped the world, and others, which have become an integral part of our everyday lives. Although times changed since with manufacturing becoming her key role, China is now not only a hub for production, but a world full of creative thinkers, and it is now innovating at a frightening pace. It is up to the rest of the world to keep up, or buy Chinese.

Chinese Web Design

When you think of Chinese design you think of ancient practices and styles that have been around for centuries, but China has evolved and is still evolving along with the rest of the world, and design for digital media is now an important outlet. It’s a fair statement to say that although the Chinese are masters in many areas, innovation in digital and interaction design is not currently one of them. In this respect they are followers and not leaders, at the moment anyway. There is a very stereotypical view that Chinese children are pushed by their parents to succeed strongly in academia, and not really encouraged in creative subjects, but with more than four hundred design schools in China to date, clearly China is growing up into a creative nation. The proof for this is that good Chinese generated design is in a rapid state of growth.

China found itself following in the paths of nations that are already developed in digital design. They may be the forerunners in production, but many of the plans and designs for goods and services manufactured for retail and use in the West came from the West and had just been brought to life in China, and often design originating from China was actually imitations from other nations, with China following the “fashions”. Was this partly because China was impeded from absorbing from and keeping pace with other countries because of a lack of open web environment? With restriction on Internet usage in China, perhaps spending time creating great design and content for the Internet wasn’t really seen as appealing or worthwhile.

A few years ago there was a trend where Chinese websites were imitating Korean ones, they were vibrant, colourful and heavily flash based. All focus was on the visuals but as the average Chinese Internet user developed, the websites and designers were forced to develop too. Website’s aren’t now shunning the heavy visual basis for their sites, but they are making a big effort to incorporate good content hierarchies and design to optimise their sites to suit Chinese Internet users, and not the users of any other country.


It’s important to realise that China is developing a web style all of it’s own, it is not just trying to match the quality and character of other countries that are web leaders. China is such a huge country and therefore has an instant huge market, it can easily thrive without trying to gain business from the rest of the world. This allows Chinese web designers to design for China and nobody else, so naturally as culture plays a massive role in the lives of the Chinese, it also plays a big role in the messages they communicate through the medium of web design.


Lytous Zhou, a Shenzhen based visual designer and author of the book UI Evolutionism provides an example of the differences between an American site and a Chinese site, both selling the exact same product but offering different experiences.


“Pizza Hut China, which is an example I like to use every time I explain cultural differences, uses Chinese elements heavily all over its website: in the color scheme and family theme. Warm reds and yellows are colors symbolic of festivity in China, and the family dinner is highly regarded in Chinese society.”



“By comparison, Pizza Hut US highlights fast food and online ordering on its home page. Red is also Pizza Hut US’ theme color, but it’s more solid, darker and cooler than the warm red on the Chinese website.”



Zhou also states that when targeting a Chinese audience a websites profile should reflect the profile and aesthetics of its users.


This is not the only difference in approaching web design that Chinese designers take note of. The Chinese use the same keyboards as the West and typing Chinese on an alphabet based keyboard is hard, therefore sites are designed so that users can click their way though the site rather than searching. To Western eyes the sites just look complicated and cluttered, but for the Chinese it’s practical.



Back to the point in the beginning paragraph, that the Chinese are followers and not leaders when it comes to website design. This may be true for the techniques and technologies used, but for style and usability they are designing for their own unique market and are therefore not trying to follow anybody else. Chinese web design is moving into a category of its own.

Chinese Philosophy in the Western World

Ancient Chinese thought was a blend of two philosophical movements. In 500 BC, Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was teaching from the Six Classics, ancient Chinese books about art, philosophy and history. He combined these books with his own ideas to make what would be called Confucianism – a philosophical system studied all over the world. Within China this system would become a part of society, affecting the education system, influencing social behaviour and developing customs and traditions in family life.

In balance with this was the school of thought called Taoism, established at about the same time by Lao Tzu. The Taoists drew their inspiration from nature and focused on observing and understanding its Tao, or ‘Way’. The Way is interpreted as the ultimate force that pervades all matter and events. It is the process of the universe and is known as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya or ‘Suchness’ in Buddhism, and is what Christianity might call God.

These two different philosophies both appreciate the underlying principle of balance in the universe. The idea that any two opposites are bound together. In the West we are familiar with the ‘Yin and Yang’ symbol. It illustrates the endless cycle of change, which is the main focus of the I Ching – a Confucian Classic that has a following in the western world. I Ching translates as ‘Book of Changes’ and focuses on understanding the flow of change in the world. The system described in the book can also be applied in day-to-day life, and for this reason it seems more accessible to Westerners.

In attempting to study Chinese thought, the main problem is with the vast difference in language. Mandarin is an emotional language – the characters are pictorial. They haven’t totally lost their visual meaning the way the western alphabets have. Words in Mandarin seem to be sung in tones, their words have different meanings and can be nouns, verbs, adjectives. The language conveys emotions and feelings on a level that is hard for Westerners to pick up on unless they are fluent.

Because Mandarin is fundamentally different from Western languages, it is very difficult for people in the West to access the wealth of philosophical and mystical knowledge available in China. This is the same reason the ‘Yin and Yang’, known in China as T’ai-chi T’u (‘Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’), is recognised in the West as an icon  depicting the constant flow of change and the balance of opposites. It was designed, like many logos and motifs, to transcend language.

Another way to bypass the language barrier is using physical movement and meditation. In Taoism, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation is used to clear the mind and find balance, and ultimately to observe and understand the universe. But as well as having spiritual value, meditation can be helpful in everyday life. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a meditative martial art that has close links to Taoism. Its philosophical aim is to combine the two opposites, yin and yang, into a Supreme Ultimate, but T’ai Chi Chuan has become popular all over the globe for its health benefits and as a self-defence technique, as well as its value as way to clear the mind and relax.

Both Taoism and Confucianism have become recognised and studied in the world outside China. Books such as the I Ching are available online anywhere. Confucius is a big name in philosophy studied and appreciated internationally, and T’ai Chi Chuan is practised in many places in the world. But because of their complex, malleable language and very different customs, much of the knowledge and wisdom of the old Chinese masters seems unobtainable in the West.