Chinese Textiles in Early Modern Portugal: discovering its past in the present

For over two decades, TTT member Maria João Ferreira has been investigating the influence of the Portuguese trade on the production of Chinese textiles for Portuguese markets. Based on the review of primary historical sources and the examination of Chinese textiles in Portuguese collections, she has been able to catalogue and classify the artistic background of this vast group of cultural heritage objects.

The label “made in China” is well present nowadays in many products consumed in Portugal. These perfectly testify the strength and responsiveness of the Chinese industries to generate a myriad of products at competitive prices, and impressively available in a great variety (ranging in terms of quality and features), to respond worldwide market demands.

Such combination of factors that define the current panorama of our 21st century, reminds us of the reasons that led the Chinese, five centuries ago, to incorporate European designs into Chinese textiles, in order to reach out to Portuguese consumers. Chinese fabrics in gold and silk, most especially the embroidered ones, were not only different and appealing, but also cheaper when comparing to the European ones (namely the Italian); and still profitable to Chinese traders.

From the middle of the 16th century, they started to be directly exported to Portugal, through Macau in China, and through other ports in India, that were under Portuguese control. Once in Portugal, they were used for Catholic sacred ceremonies, as liturgical ornaments, and for domestic purposes, as home furnishings and apparel. Today, one may recognize in these textiles delicate representations of botanical motifs and real or imaginary animals of the Chinese bestiary; but also European heraldry, saints or related Catholic symbols, and many other motifs that reflect the multiple intercultural connections between China, Portugal and the world.

Although visual representations of these objects (in paintings, for example) have not been encountered yet in Portugal – as frequently happens with Persian and Indian carpets – other sources and analytical methods have permitted researcher Maria João Ferreira to confirm and to help reconstructing the complex extension of the Portuguese trade on Chinese textiles.  This has been possible through the review of primary Portuguese sources, namely probate inventories, sumptuary laws, inquisitorial processes, cargo loadings and other type of historical documentation, but also through the inventory and cataloguing of remaining textiles in public and private Portuguese collections. This work has enabled to answer several research questions: Who were the recipients of this trade? How were the textiles received, accepted and appreciated? Which were their characteristics? How much did they cost?

Despite painstakingly slow, this project has already detected over 200 Chinese textile specimens in collections from North to South of continental Portugal. For this, a technical, material and plastic characterization of these textiles has been carried out through their direct observation, and through a comparative study of their materials, i.e. the chemical analysis of their fibres and dyestuffs. Consequently, this process has permitted to identify decorative patterns and variants; recognize specific characteristics, in terms of the ornaments, materials and technical production; establish morphological, functional and plastic classifications; and hypothesize over possible chronologies.

This project is still in progress and it is far from completion, as Ferreira keeps continually localizing new objects – especially liturgical vestments in the collections of many churches throughout the country. Moreover, its research questions still require proper clarification. In fact, this project should even consider, in the future, the possibility of relating all the aspects related with the methods of production, commerce and distribution of these textiles in China. Certainly, the knowledge acquired from the review of Chinese sources appears now to be an essential and challenging step that deserves further exploration.


Detail, crisanthemus, appliqué embroidery with silk and gilt paper-wrapped thread, China.
Detail, Saint Paul, embroidery with silk and gilt paper-wrapped thread, China, 17th century.


Detail, pair of lions playing with ribbons around a pearl or brocade ball, embroidery with silk and gilt paper-wrapped thread, China, 18th century.
Dalmatic, embroidery with gilt paper-wrapped thread, China, 18th century.
Detail, pheasant, ducks, peonies and lotus, embroidery with silk and gilt paper-wrapped thread, China, 17th century.

Maria João Ferreira has started this project in 1995, as a student in Art History. She then continued it through her Master, which started in 1998, and later her PhD, between 2006 and 2011. Currently, Ferreira continues to dedicate to Chinese textiles, but now within the larger project of her post-doctoral research, which has been granted by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technologies (ref. SFRH/BPD/76288/2011), and it is based at the Centre for Humanities (CHAM), Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa.


Diverse publications have already resulted from this project. See full list here.