Search our Rug Galleries
Talk, news and links about oriental
carpets, carpet collecting and the wonderful world of east meets west
Why Chinese Carpets, Born On The Steppes, Have
Classical Chinese Designs
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
The most famous of these "American" exports were the Chinese Art Deco rugs
of the 1920s and 1930s.
Tea and Carpets