Author: Sara Clugage

In celebration of the fourth annual New York Textile Month, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month of September. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

This portrait of Karl Marx was woven in Hangzhou, China at the East Is Red textile factory (so named after a popular anthem of the Cultural Revolution). Hangzhou has an extraordinarily long history of sericulture, or silk production, a technology that has defined Chinese economic relations with the rest of the world. In Hangzhou, before the Communist revolution in 1954, most silk weaving was done in family workshops clustered in town, each one operating only one or two looms. In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward (China’s immense–and disastrous–drive to industrialize their national economy) silk weaving in Hangzhou was modernized and expanded.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chairman Mao Zedong aimed to erase the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Foreign and traditional elements of Chinese culture were violently suppressed and materially destroyed, to be replaced with Mao Zedong Thought, as well as widely distributed portraits of Mao himself. Those portraits were mostly posters, but in addition, reels and reels of portraits were woven on Jacquard looms. Meant for display in public places or to be hung outside during parades, this set of woven portraits depicts the “Five Fathers” of communism: Mao himself, along with Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels, and Joseph Stalin.

Along with their clear communist messaging, these portraits encode the nationalist pride of China, drawing on the country’s proprietary and wealth-generating silk weaving technology. Silk looms large in the Chinese economy and imagination; according to a foundational national myth, silk production began in the 27th century BCE when a silk cocoon fell in the empress Leizu’s teacup and unraveled. Although apocryphal, this story highlights both the ingenuity and the absolute secrecy of Chinese sericulture, a monopoly held by China until at least 300 CE and expedited by Silk Road trading routes.

A woven portrait of Marx is especially poignant, given Marx’s unrelenting criticism of the textile industry. In his early manuscripts of 1844, he quotes at length the capitalist abuses of laborers at textile mills, that newly-formed industrial proletariat, including long hours and poor pay. Interestingly, Marx points to textile workers as the first to have their skills subsumed to wage labor, erasing the specificity of skilled work and turning it into a laborer’s salable commodity. This portrait is a deft piece of propaganda, turning from the alienated labor of textile production under capital to its reclamation by workers in a communist society. It successfully encodes communist economic values with nationalist party values.

Hangzhou is now home to the China National Silk Museum, a research and conservation center that specializes in the history of Chinese silk production. Hangzhou is also a center for finance and technology often likened to Silicon Valley in the US and the base of e-commerce giant Alibaba. The juxtaposition is not incidental–Chinese silk export is still a vital sector of the Chinese economy and a focus of the Belt and Road Initiative, a government effort launched in 2013 to revive the Silk Road as a freight network, making China the geographical center of global trade. As part of the world’s only communist trade empire, silk weaving in China remains a special economic case.

Sara Clugage is a writer, an artist, part of the leadership collective for the Wikipedia campaign Art+Feminism, and editor-in-chief of Dilettante Army.

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