Featherwork in Early and Medieval China

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Olivia Milburn



This paper is concerned with the early documented history of featherwork in China, as described in historical texts and literature up until the end of the Tang dynasty in 907 CE. Although featherwork from several Pacific islands and Latin America has recently been the subject of academic attention, the important Chinese tradition has been neglected. Drawing on studies of featherwork from other cultures, this paper divides these accounts by technical criterion into flexible base featherwork (clothing, curtains, hangings, and coverlets); rigid base featherwork (boxes, architectural detailing, jewelry, and screens); and most remarkably of all, deconstructionist featherwork, whereby the barbs of individual feathers were peeled apart and then spun with a silk core to create a feather thread, which was then woven into cloth. Featherwork was produced in vast quantities in early and medieval China to satisfy demand for these luxurious and brightly colored items, and exotic birds—kingfishers, parrots, pheasants, and so on—were traded across the empire to create these wonderful works of art.

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