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Historical Background

Sun Yanling began learning Bohai Mohe embroidery from her maternal grandmother at the age of six. As a child, she watched her grandmother sew small designs on hats and insoles. Her ancestors produced handicrafts for the Bohai imperial court, and her family has continued this craft for more than one thousand years.

At around the same time the ancient Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) dominated much of eastern and northwestern China, the Bohai Kingdom (698–926 CE) ruled a portion of the northeastern corner. This included lands occupied by the Mohe tribe, although Mohe people also lived in places outside of Bohai control, such as modern-day Heilongjiang Province.

Circa 700 CE, the Tang dynasty occupied the most land, sharing a border with the Bohai Kingdom.
Circa 700 CE, the Tang dynasty occupied the most land, sharing a border with the Bohai Kingdom.
Map by Ian Mladjov

Mohe people lived in very cold regions, where it may snow seven months out of the year. According to Sun, they developed a unique embroidering technique based on their need to stitch animal furs together to serve as clothing:

“If you make stitches that are parallel to each other, they will be like sharp knives and just cut through the skins. However, locals invented a type of stitching called the ‘chicken claw’ stitch that hooked the skins together very well.”

A side-by-side comparison of the “parallel stitch” and “chicken claw stitch.”
A side-by-side comparison of the “parallel stitch” and “chicken claw stitch.”
Graphic by Danielle Wu

Therefore, Bohai Mohe embroidery refers to a very specific moment in China’s history. Today, Mohe is not an official ethnic minority group. Instead, Mohe people are considered ancestors of the Manchu ethnic minority, rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Although some people still use Bohai Mohe stitching techniques in their purest, most practical forms, they have also since evolved to become more of a decorative art. Advancements in technology, such as photography and printing directly on cloth, help artists produce photorealistic artwork.


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