BEIJING, Dec. 18, 2010 – Like the other countries of the ancient Silk Roads, China has a rich carpet tradition.
But it is a younger heritage than those of Central and South Asia or the Middle East and very much unlike them.
Because the first pile carpets in China seem to have been woven only some 500 years ago – in the 15th century -- it seems clear pile carpet weaving arrived to China from elsewhere.
The best guess is that the technique traveled up the Silk Road into northwestern China from neighboring East Turkestan.
Northwestern China was, and is, a vast steppe land peopled mostly by Turkic-Mongol peoples. At that time, these steppe lands, which today include Inner Mongolia, were outside the Great Wall protecting China proper.
So, the early carpets were not ethnically "Chinese" -- in the sense of the Han Chinese who lived within the wall (outlined in red here).
But for reasons that still fascinate historians, they almost immediately became a medium for Chinese – not nomadic – art.
And it is that quality which makes Chinese carpets so unlike their more "oriental" relatives.
Carpet scholars Muray L. Eiland Jr. and Muray Eiland III write in their book Oriental Carpets (1998) that "although it is possible that the pile carpet is not indigenous to China and was introduced from Central Asia, its designs have become as classically Chinese as those of textiles of porcelain.
"The same floral forms, of lotus and chrysanthemum, appear repeatedly, while the same simple devices of frets and swastikas are common in the borders. There is a lavish style of mythical animals and scrolling vines and more styles of the repetition of simple geometric figures."
Here is a carpet showing a mix of floral and geometric figures. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
The picture at the top of this page is of a naturalistic carpet from around the northwestern town of Ningxia.
That the carpets should become so classically Chinese is surprising because the steppe lands -- which are a rich wool producing region -- had a millennia-old tradition of felt carpet making with its own rich vocabulary of motifs.
But it may be that by the 15th century, the people of northwest China already were heavily influenced by the overwhelming culture of China proper.
It is likely, too, that in many of the main commercial centers for the rugs, such as Ningxia right beside the Great Wall, urban populations were already ethnically mixed.
The rugs woven in northwest China had several markets.
One market was the nomadic lands to the north, Mongolia and beyond, where the rugs were used to decorate yurts.
A second market was Chinese Muslims who needed substitutes for prayer rugs, which were not woven in China.
And the third and richest market – and the one which undoubtedly did the most to determine styles and designs -- was temples and noble homes.
Ningxia rugs, for example, were used extensively in the monasteries of Tibet and northwest China. The temple carpets included Banner rugs, Hanging rugs, Curtain carpets and Pillar carpets.
The Pillar carpets were sometimes made in two halves to fit around a column. Picture here is a column carpet from the 1880s in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection.
Interestingly, special colors were reserved for special audiences. Yellow was reserved for royal use, such the court and temples, while red was for gift carpets exchanged between aristocrats.
But if these pile carpets are so distinctly Chinese in appearance, does it mean that the indigenous people of the northwest contributed no influence of their own?
Hans Bidder, a German diplomat and carpet historian who lived many years in China before his death in 1963, believes the felt carpet culture of the steppe lands had a great effect on how the pile woven carpets were decorated.
Bidder is particularly intrigued by the way the fields of Chinese carpets so often appear to be blank canvases upon which motifs – from animals to Taoist and Buddhist symbols – are placed in almost 'applique' fashion.
Shown here is a carpet from the northwestern city of Baotou (or Paotou) showing objects in sharp contrast with their background.
Often the motifs stand out so dramatically from the background that almost appear to have been inlaid into the field of the carpet the way motifs are rolled and pressed into the plain backgrounds of felt carpets.
The appearance is sometimes heightened by cutting the pile to put the motifs in even higher relief – a practice that remains very common in Chinese carpets today.
That preference for high relief makes a fascinating link not only to the art sensibilities of the nomadic felt makers but also to a period in China's own history when – due to the Mongol conquests of the 13th century – felt carpets briefly and unexpectedly rose to the level of a court art in Beijing.
Bidder writes that "during the period of Mongol Chinese rule (1260 to 1341) the felt carpet developed into a very luxurious object."
He continues, "in the year 1299 felt carpets with an area of 331 square meters were manufactured for the 'Palace of the Special Chambers' (imperial harem) … felts became so refined and improved in quality that the artistry of felt carpets finally equaled that of the best Oriental carpets and sometimes exceeded it." (Bidder, Carpets from Eastern Turkestan, published 1964.)
It is interesting to speculate on how much this experience may have helped set the subsequent taste for bold, high-relief motifs on knotted rugs. But the impact of Mongol rule on Chinese rugs may have been still larger than that.
Bidder notes that ancient China – the Han peoples within the Great Wall – traditionally associated wool with the barbarian world. Their fabrics of choice were cotton and silk, instead.
Here is a Ming Dynasty carpet that looks much like a silk robe in its pattern.
It was only through centuries of contact with nomads on the northern border that Chinese slowly began to adopt the use of felt mats as utilitarian floor coverings or insulation padding on beds. The example of the Mongol court would have done much to convince Chinese to regard wool as an artistic medium, as well.
Still, when weaving looms for carpets arrived in China, many people still regarded them as something alien.
Bidder, a scholar of Chinese texts, cites the earliest known mention of the technology as noting the "weaving process has been taken over from the barbarians and is performed in their strange way." The book was written sometime in the Ming period of the 14th to 17th centuries.
But if wool carpet weaving took hold relatively late in China, it rapidly developed into a major industry.
The most active centers in the northwest – the ones most early carpets are named after – became the provinces of Kansu, Ningxia, and Suiyan (a now defunct province located in today's Inner Mongolia), as well as another part of Inner Mongolia near the city of Baotou (or Paotou)
These centers thrived in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, setting the stage for the phenomenal growth of the Chinese export carpet industry when China opened to the world and major new weaving centers appeared in Peking and its nearby port Tiantsin.
From historical records, it appears wool looms appeared in Beijing in the early 1860s. There carpet-maker developed new patterns based on Ningxia carpet designs but which progressively responded to Western market demands.
Like the earlier Chinese carpets, the new Peking rugs depicted Chinese symbols and designs used for hundreds of years.
But where the symbols tended to be profuse and cluttered together on domestic rugs, the new rugs spaced them out -- usually around a central medallion -- in harmonious designs more suited to western tastes.
Blue Peking rugs made in Western room sizes gained huge popularity, particularly in America. They were followed by other rugs directly produced for the American market, often by companies owned by American expatriates in China.
The most famous of these "American" exports were the Chinese Art Deco rugs of the 1920s and 1930s. But their success is another story (see: The Jazz Age: Gowns, Tuxedos, And Chinese Art Deco Carpets).
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