XU Zheng 徐錚
China National Silk Museum 中國絲綢博物館

Abecedarian Exploration into the Silk Sutra Covers Collected by the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The sutra covers(經面Jingmian)commonly known as the 經皮子(Jingpizi), and referred to as the 掩面(Yanmian)in literature of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912), included the front and back covers of an accordion-fold Buddhist scripture. The Buddhist scriptures printed during the Ming and Qing dynasties, including the Northern Yongle Tripitaka transcribed in the late Ming Dynasty in particular, were mostly bound with colorful silk fabrics used as the mounting materials. Having been handed down and dispersed up to the present, such mounting fabrics have become an important source of information for study of the silk production at that time.

The collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art comprises a total of 539 pieces of silk sutra covers, including 497 acquired from the collection of Carl Schuster in 1940, and two packets of the Northern Yongle Tripitaka donated by Howard A. Wolf and Peter A. Benoliel in 1947. All the mounting and binding fabrics are very rich in both variety and pattern, and fairly comprehensively reflected silk weaving techniques and artistic styles during the period of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

It can be seen from the aforesaid records that the fabrics used for mounting Buddhist scriptures at that time were mostly satin, twill, and plain weave silk. But in fact, apart from the complete sutra packets, the sutra fabrics deposited at the PMA were all patterned-possibly because when a curio dealer tore away a sutra cover for sale, he might have thought that the plain weave was of no value, and he therefore did not care to retain it. Judging from the coloring of the warps and wefts, this collection of fabrics can be classified into two categories, monochrome and polychrome. The scope of the patterns of the sutra covers involves an extremely wide range, including plants, animals, figures, auspices, geometry, cloud patterns, etc., and covers almost all the popular themes of fabrics made at that time. Most of patterns are endowed with auspicious meanings.

It is worth noting that, judging from the patterns of the sutra covers we concluded that such fabrics might originally have been used as patches, robe materials or other trappings. There are even collages of a few spare materials with similar patterns. Consequently, we may infer that these sutra covers were designed to show piety through the use of one's own belongings as almsgiving; it is also possible that, due to a shortage of financial resources, spare materials were used to improvise.

「經面」,俗稱「經皮子」,當時文獻中也稱其為「掩面」,指的是經折裝佛經封面和封底的裱封。明清時期,特別是明代晚期刊印的《永樂北藏》,裝裱材料多以各色華麗的絲綢織物製成,流傳至今,成為研究當時絲綢生產的重要材料。費城藝術博物館共藏有絲綢經面539件,其中大部分來自Carl Schuster的舊藏,此外,還有來自Howard A. Wolf和Peter A. Benolie捐贈的兩函經書,這些織物無論品種還是圖案都十分豐富,較全面地反映了明清時期的絲織技術和藝術風格。根據記載,當時用於佛經裝裱的面料主要是緞、綾、絹等幾種,但事實上,除了成套經書外,這些經面織物均為顯花織物,這種現象的出現,可能是因當時古董商將經面撕下出售時,認為素織物沒有價值,故未保留。從經緯線用色情況來看,這批顯花織物可分為單色織物和多彩織物兩種。而經面圖案涉及的範圍十分廣泛,包括植物、動物、人物、吉祥、幾何和雲紋等,幾乎涵蓋了當時所有的織物流行題材,並大多賦有祥瑞之意。值得注意的一點是,有些經面織物原來可能是作補子、袍料等服飾之用,甚至還有用幾片圖案相近的零料拼貼而成的現象,推測出現這種情況的原因,一種可能是為表虔誠,以自己所用之物布施,另一種可能,則是製作時財力不足,只能以零料充數。