Early Chinese embroidery from Dunhuang

Fragment of embroidered silk cloth. 9th-10th centuries. Fragment of embroidered silk cloth. 9th-10th centuries. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. LOAN:STEIN.525.

Some extant Early Chinese embroidery from Dunhuang, western China, is housed in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (both in London). The Dunhuang embroideries derive from excavations and clearings in the early twentieth century under the direction of Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943). They date from the second half of the first millennium AD.

Dunhuang lies east of the Tarim Basin, in present-day Gansu Province. When China began to expand into Central Asia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Dunhuang served as a base for both military operations and trade. In the succeeding centuries, Buddhist shrines were established southeast of Dunhuang, in a series of man-made caves called Qianfodong, "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" (now known as the Mogao Grottoes). Dunhuang was also part of the so-called Silk Road, a series of overland trade routes that criss-crossed Asia and the Middle East. It was important both for trade goods as well as for ideas that passed backwards and forwards.

In 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered a secret cave at Qianfodung, which contained thousands of documents and paintings. The cave had been sealed soon after AD 1000, apparently to protect the contents from invading armies. Stein purchased a significant amount of this material in 1907. At the same time he also acquired many textile pieces, including a range of embroideries.

Some of the most elaborate embroideries depict Buddhist legends and processions of donors. The embroideries are worked on a variety of different ground materials, including those woven in a tabby weave (plain weave, linen weave) or a gauze weave. The embroidery threads include both floss silk and spun silk (s-spun), in a wide variety of colours. The main stitch used was satin stitch.

See also the TRC Needles entries on an embroidered Buddha head, and on embroidery with floral motifs (both from Dunhuang)


  • STEIN, Sir Aurel (1921). Serindia: Detailed Report of Exploration in Central Asia and Westernmost China Carried Out and Described Under the Orders of H.M Indian Government, 5 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol. II is of particular interest.
  • ZHAO Feng, ed. (2007). Textiles from Dunhuang in UK Collections, Shanghai: Donghua University Press, 2007.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 5th July 2016).


Last modified on Thursday, 13 May 2021 18:02