Among ancient silk textiles, jin (brocade) represents a fabric made with the highest level of technology then known. First produced in Nanjing in the Six Dynasties nearly 1,600 years ago, Yunjin (literally “cloud brocade”) is so named for its cloud-like splendor of the fabrics. It epitomizes the ancient art of brocade, and is ranked first of the four famous brocades of ancient China. It is an outstanding representative of traditional Chinese culture, and one of the most precious historical and cultural heritages in China and the world. In 2009, Nanjing Yunjin brocade was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

The ancients said that “one cun (ca. 3.3 cm) of jin equals one cun of gold.” Yunjin is produced by a wooden drawloom with a giant figure tower (hualou) that is 5.6 meters long, 4 meters tall, and 1.4 meters wide, operated by two weavers. One weaver sits on the top of the loom while the other sits lower down in front of the loom. This type of drawloom can produce various types of fabrics, including plain tabby (juan), coarse textured and unpatterned tabby silk (chou), gauze (luo), satin (duan), and thin silk or open-weave gauze (sha). Other materials such as gold or silver threads, or even peacock feathers can also be woven into fabrics; this cannot be done with any other types of fabric. 

Yunjin is characterized by various patterns and colors. The fabric is produced with a single warp thread (“passing through the warp” and “cutting off the weft”) as well as by using the technique of brocading, “whereby discontinuous supplementary weft threads of different colors are woven into the ground weave in specific areas required by the pattern (wahua panzhi).” The colors of the floral patterns in Yunjin change depending on the angle from which they are viewed. The brocade is extremely complicated to make: there are numerous steps, and the craft in each step contains many secret tricks. It is a five-step process that, in general, includes: designing the pattern, transferring it from paper to the textile, tying knots to indicate the pattern, preparing the loom and the raw materials, and weaving.

A large variety of the Yunjin brocade have been created through the centuries. Based on existing information, these varieties can be divided into four major categories: fabric woven with gold threads, “storehouse” brocade, “storehouse” satin, and satin brocade. These fabrics were used for the imperial wardrobe such as the emperors’ dragon robes, phoenix dresses and embroidered shawls for the empresses, beautiful attire for the consorts, palace decorations, as well as some practical articles such as seat cushions, bedding, back cushions, and pillow and quilt covers. Each category can be further divided into several varieties. The first three can be produced by machine in modern times, but so far wahua panzhi can only be done by hand. 

The weaving technique used to produce Yunjin is superb, meticulous, and creative—the meaningfulness of the patterns, the exquisiteness of the designs, the profoundness of the implied meaning, the complexity of the colors, and the luxuriousness of the weaving material—nothing else is comparable. Yunjin brocade embodies an extremely high level of artistry.   

Because of its long history and respected heritage, colorful cultural meanings have grown up around Yunjin brocade; these can be seen in the design elements and their various significance; in the fabric’s use on a variety of occasions, hierarchical differences, as well as the various values passed down to the present day. It can be said that Yunjin itself is a story of “living fossil,” which can never be fully told. 

Yunjin lost its original significance in society following the end of China’s feudal era: its manufacturers, customers, as well as techniques and functions have undergone profound changes. However, since the founding of the New China, Yunjin brocade has received special attention from the government and professionals who support and help revive its production. It is beginning to flourish again. Thanks to the efforts of people from all walks of life, Yunjin has once again become an award-winning art treasure.

In December of 2002, the Nanjing Municipal Government issued its No. 281 [2002] document—“Decision of the Nanjing Municipal Government on the Protection of Nanjing Yunjin Brocade.” This marks the beginning of legalized management for the name “Nanjing Yunjin.” On May 21, 2010, the China Nanjing Yunjin Brocade Global Forum was held at the United Nations pavilion of the Shanghai World Expo. It was proposed during the forum that May 10th be designated “World Yunjin Brocade Day.”

As archaeological discovery, technical research, marketing and promotion continue to evolve, Nanjing Yunjin brocade will continue to be loved, sought after, and collected by more and more people.