Made in China: Symbolism of Qing Dynasty Embroideries

By Jennifer Mower

On display in Milam Hall through May are several textile objects made in China during the Qing Dynasty during the late 19th and early 20th centuries . Objects feature embroidered animal, floral, human motifs. “Every symbol in Chinese textiles has significance . . . [that has] evolved from several philosophies and concepts,” including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. “The Chinese enjoy plays on words, and symbols were often used if their verbal sound or written character related to a quality or virtue. So, because the words for ‘bat’ and ‘happiness’ sound similar, the bat became the symbol for happiness” (Daveno, 2019: 1).

Objects were donated to the HCTAC by Ava Milam, who, as dean of the Home Economics program at Oregon State College from 1917 to 1950, traveled to China in order to help “home economics education develop” in that country (Milam, 1969: vii). During one trip in 1937, Milam recalled that her party, which consisted of family and other OSC faculty, visited students and faculty at Yenching University, went on sightseeing tours, visited factories, and visited shops and markets. In her autobiography, Milam even noted that the number of luggage in their party, which included her sister and other Home Economics faculty, had increased to “about 60 pieces” (Clark, 1969: 217).

Objects purchased or acquired by Milam on these trips make up a proportion of the objects in the HCTAC and help with the exchange of information between the two cultures. We study material objects in order to learn about the beliefs, attitudes, and values of a society at a given time (Sullivan, 1999). In 1966, many cultural objects were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, making foreign collections like these important to the preservation of Chinese heritage and tradition of embroidery and textile design.

Works Cited

Clark, Ava Milam (1969). Adventures of a Home Economist. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.

Daveno, Heather (2019). “Stitchery Series Part IV: Symbolism in Chinese Embroidery,” August Phoenix

Priest, Alan and Simmons, Pauline (1934). Chinese Textiles: An Introduction to the Study of their History, Sources Technique, Symbolism, and Use. (New York: Metropolitain Museum of Art).

Smithsonian Institution, “A Selected Illustrated Guide to Common Chinese Symbols,” retrieved from

Sullivan, Joan (1999). “In Pursuit of Legitimacy: Home Economists and the Hoover Apron in World War I,” Dress 26, 1: 31-46.

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