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Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade,
1500–1800

September 16, 2013–January 5, 2014

Chinese Silk Exports and Trade Textiles in Japan

Length with pattern of scattered rosettes and roundels Sarasa with Small Rosettes (detail). India (Coromandel Coast), for the Japanese market, 18th century. Cotton (painted resist and mordant, dyed); Overall: 86 1/8 x 13 3/4 in. (218.8 x 34.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2010

By the time Europeans sailed into Chinese ports in the sixteenth century, Chinese textile makers had been masters of the arts of spinning, weaving, dyeing, painting, and embroidering silk for more than a millennium. Not until the Portuguese established direct trade relations with Ming China, however, was the first large-scale production of Chinese textiles for export to the West made possible. Satisfying the aesthetic appetites of Europeans initially posed a challenge to Chinese artisans, who had to replicate unfamiliar styles and images sent to them in books and engravings. Over time the Chinese learned to blend their own traditional techniques and motifs with those of Europe, India, and the Middle East.

Unlike China, which enjoyed a burgeoning trade with Europe, Japan limited its contact with Europeans during this period. Maritime restrictions, in place from the 1630s until the mid-nineteenth century, led to the Western perception of Japan as a closed country. Although Japanese merchants could not leave their country to conduct business, they were permitted to trade in a limited manner in Japan with Holland, China, the Ryūkyū Islands (present-day Okinawa), and Korea. The sheer amount of imported cloth on cargo manifests from ships arriving in Japanese ports reveals their desire for exotic European woolens, Chinese silks, and Indian cottons specially designed to suit Japanese tastes.

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