Any rug or carpet made in China can reasonably be called a Chinese rug, but in real terms this terminology is saved for those which have been made by hand-knotted or hand woven methods. Many rugs made in China, are workshop or factory machine made. The specific Chinese style and character of a rug, referring to old and antique rugs, referring to old and antique rugs, is a very different object and were made within the borders of “Old China” and not its recent establishment Chinese borders e.g. a Manchurian product rug of the 18th Century may be termed as Manchurian but many dealers refer to them as Chinese, even though in the 18th Century Manchuria was not part of China.
Further confusion is added because China now produces other “borrowed” designs some based upon Persian and other designs. Tibet has its own distinct style but was annexed by China in 1950 and does not produce Tibetan rugs but Chinese rugs, but in other parts of China Tibetan rugs are made – confused, join the club! Contemporary Tibetan rugs are made by Tibetan refugees in neighbouring, Nepal, India and other countries of the Far East.
There are three basic types of Chinese rugs available to purchase today.
1) Those produced within the last 40-50 years and can include any style of Chinese, Persian, Turkoman or other rugs.
2) Older rugs which were produced in territories which were outside China but are now within its borders.
3) The modern general term of a rug with an overall “Chinese” character and style.
The Chinese influence of style, design and colour therefore includes, Tibetan, Mongolian (East Turkestan) and are easily seen as a contrasting style from Islamic rugs, particularly Persian. Chinese rugs reflect the wider, cultural, religious and ethnic divisions between the Islamic Middle East and Southern Asia and the Far East. The dividing line of these influences can be traced by a line traced from northwards and eastwards from the northwest of India which includes India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran etc. These regions rely on the Islamic influences. The area to east and north e.g. Tibet, Mongolia, Chine etc are known to be influenced by the Chinese influence. The pivotal region is the vast area of Central Asia laying between Siberia to the north and Tibet and India to the south. This vast desert landscape is mainly inhabited by the nomadic tribes of Turkoman origin including, Uyghur, Tadzhik, Uzbek,Kazak and Kirghiz tribes as well as Mongolian and the Chinese. During the 4th Century the eastern part of this region was colonized by China and later divided by china and the old U.S.S.R but the former Russian States now are self-governed. As one can appreciate the division is fundamental to the evolution of oriental rugs and most academics of the subject agree that this region was the birth place of rug making. The political schism resulted in the style and development of the two sides’ rugs. The rugs of Afganistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhakistan, Kirghizstan and Southern Kazakhstan are recognised from their dark red colours and the repeated “gul” (one or two types of lozenge shaped motifs repeated in the overall pattern in leaf or floral motifs) These red and blue rugs of central Asia are sold as “Bokhaus”. Islamic and Persian rugs reflect their Islamic influences and cultural heritage. The Chinese influence is seen in the rugs east of the diving line with the use of more subdue colouration using blues, yellows and oranges. The “farther” east one travels the influence of the Chinese increases with the inclusion of Buddhist and Taoist symbols replacing the Islamic ones with Chinese culture and mythology being implemented. China, or the “Greater China” as it is now recognised, is made up of different countries and the culture is a mixture of its peoples and their cultures, and is not all of a Chinese origin, and their cultures, and is not all of a Chinese origin. Influences can be detected as far away as India, Egypt and some histrians maintain as far away as Celtic Britain. These influences no doubt reached China via the trade routes, the silk route and by the conquests of the Mongol leader during the 13th century, Genghis Khan , whose conquered lands stretched from China the Hungary and as far as Poland in the West. The silk route was the conduct of trade migration and influence in both directions and was possibly established between China and Egypt as early as the dynasty ( 206 B.C – A.D 220). There is evidence that this trade was undertaken by sea as well, as early as the 3rd Millennium B.C.
Chinese Rugs are named usually after the place where they were made, or in the case of nomadic tables, they are named after the tribal areas as already discussed under the general title of Tribal Rugs. These towns and tribal regions gave their names to the style of rugs produced there, but not the market place where they were first sols as unfortunately happens in this modern age.
Modern rugs produced in China have the colours, designs and styles not necessarily where they were made- this is the influence of manufacturing and commerce. Only those rugs from Sinkiang Province bear any resemblance to the traditional rugs made in that region. Some workshops specialize in particular styles not of the genre of its location but only perhaps it has become proficient in the production of a particular style of rug. A Paotaos Peking Rug may have been made hundreds of miles from these towns. Some Chinese rugs are named by the merchants, to suggest perhaps, some exclusivity.
Rugs are marketed mainly under their Wade- Giles names; a method where Chinese words and places are pronounced as they would be in English. However, some rugs are sold under their pinyin version, a system introduced by the Chinese government in 1979 to replace Wade-Giles. If the name of a rug is sold under a weaving group’s name it should only be used for an antique or old rug. “There are no contemporary Chinese weaving groups” as Lee Allane states. The terminology of rugs, carpets and runners are disclosed under the title of Tribal Rugs.
Chinese rugs are made from natural fibres and if they contain synthetic fibres this is an indication that they are machine made. A few antique rugs include gold and silver threads woven into the wool or silk.
Wool is the most widely used material for rug making. Wool is a natural fibre containing natural oils e.g. lanolin, which resists dirt and hence makes the rug easier to clean; it is both soft and durable and the best wool is derived from lambs aged between 8 and 14 months which live in the colder harsher regions in mountainous regions. China imports much of this type of wool, from Tibet, Mongolia, Kansu and Simkiang and even from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Older Chinese rugs are made from goat, Yak and Bactrian camel wool and hair but these fibres are not usually found in modern Chinese rugs unless they are from a Chinese goat wool range of rugs which derive their origins from the Semi-nomadic ethnic tribes of Tibetans living in India and Nepal.
Most modern Chinese rugs are made from specific wool mixes, the better the rug the higher the grade of wool is used, spun by machines. Some Tibetan rugs still use hand spun yarns.
Cotton is grown in China but is normally only used as a foundation material, the warps and wefts because, most Chinese rugs have wool or silk piles. as a foundation cotton has the advantages of being stronger, vermin resistance and maintains its shape better than wool; as the weave is thinner it is infinitely suitable for finer weaving- it suffers from mildew however!
Silk is derived from silk worms (Bombyx Mori) which is native to China and has been used for rug making for many centuries. Most rugs are made from “waste silk” which has been spun like wool or cotton and which has been derived from damaged cocoons. A silk pile is durable and has aesthetic and textual characteristics. If it is extremely robust and is capable of being spun into fine threads which allows exceptionally fine knotting. Unlike wool it is cool and visually pleasant as it reflects light rather than absorbing it. It allegedly has the ability to reflect away malevolent psychic forces thus protecting from evil spells, repeat, spells not spills! Silk is more expensive than wool but has the disadvantage of scuffing more easily and is prone to being inflammable and melts in excessive heat. A silk rug requires more protection and care and should never be folded but rolled as they have a tendency to retain and creases in the pile. Artificial silk is where mercerized cotton has been used as a substitute pile.
Colours Of Chinese Rugs
The colours of Chinese rugs are derived from natural and vegetable dyes as mentioned in the section under Tribal rugs. Chinese rugs are particularly mellow in their colours and consistent in their shades. The authentic pre 19th Century rugs’ dyes were inconsistent which gave them a charm of their own. The pressures’ of large western stores have encouraged a uniformity of colour shades and so chemical dyes are used in modern rugs. Any buyer of a contemporary rug can be assured that the dye in Chinese rugs whether natural or synthetic, are stable and generally improve with age. A brash is a term used to identify a sudden change in the fullness of a particular colour usually caused by the use of a new batch of separately dyed yarn during the making of the rug. The colour in the rugs’ early years will look the same but the two batches of dyed yarn may fade at different rates. Abrashed are common and are acceptable in nomadic and village made rugs made outside China but are unacceptable in workshop made specimens and thus are sub-standard.
Sinkiang rugs are deliberately made as reproductions of older and more tribal rugs. The mellowness of a Chinese rug will be usually due to its exposure to sunlight as they are cut from the loom with brilliant colours. Modern rugs are often chemically treated to create this washed effect and to make them appear aged. It cannot be assumed that a rug is old if it is faded , its age in relation to the fading depends upon the sunlight’s intensity e.g. conservatories are bright sunshine spaces as a general rule. If the colour of the pile from its roots to its tip is faded, this fading has been achieved by chemical treatment; if this fading is only at the surface of the carpet, it is probably faded by sunlight; no it is not rocket science!
The colours used in Chinese rugs have significant meanings as much as the designs and motifs. The colour red is observed in fire and the rising sun and represents vitality; blue represents the sky and water and reflects the heavenly force of serenity, purity and harmony. Chinese primary colours, all five of them, correspond with earth, lightening, flames and the sun. Yellow warms the blood and promotes growth and contains a mixture of lunar fire, sun fire and moisture and symbolizes the mystery of life and immortality and the sacred colour of Buddhism. Imperial yellow was reserved for the Emperor. Red dragons, as mentioned above, are associated with fire, the sun and Mars. It represents summer and the young properties of vitality and joy. Blue dragons are associated with the yin qualities of peace, serenity and harmony and connected with the east, water and sky and the “Great Mother”. Blue to green is associated to the essence of plant life and by extension supports the symbolism of jade. White dragons are associated with the moon, the stars and day as well as with purity of the Great Mother, represented by pearls, shells, the dew and white jade. These dragons reflect the west, autumn, wind, metal and Venus; white is also the colour of morning. Black dragons rule the night, darkness and the “Other world” and appear as Tortoises and represent the north, winter, cold, rain and drought.
The Design of Chinese Rugs
Chinese rugs’ designs are unique not only in their appearance but also in their religions, cultural and aesthetic influences. The art forms are used on ceramics and in paintings and draw their themes from a common source. The motifs are employed as visual talisman or iconographs to guard against evil spirits or influences and so enhance favourable fortunes and desirable characteristics on the rugs owner and hopefully his family. The Chinese culture sets great store to the power and influence of such symbols, and contemporary Chinese surround themselves with symbols in an attempt to promote their own well being. Hence modern Chinese rugs not only contain symbols from the past but also they contain symbols prominent to the perception of modern life in the 21st Century.
However modern Chinese rugs do reflect Persian and Sinkiang Designs, no doubt to satisfy the world wide trade they enjoy. Such designs draw their inspiration from original designs, the usual Chinese art forms of landscape, religions and mythological sources, but also adding a touch of Western culture e.g. Floral designs. The Chinese also “borrow” the designs from East Turkestan, Tibet and other traditional Chinese sources. Often these designs, originating from various sources, are mixed to appease the worldwide tastes of their customer base. The rugs for the western market appear less intricate and less finely knotted and normally contends itself with its own repertoire of designs. Chinese tapestries tend to be finely knotted with a low pile and having brilliant colouring. The Chinese standard antique finish also employs the same characteristics but with a thick pile.
The basic designs include all over patterns, repeating patterns, paralleled designs, pictorial designs, prayer rug design, saph designs (multi- prayer mats), tree of life designs, gul designs, medallion and corner designs, mythological, animal, dragon, tiger designs etc. Such designs contain the following symbols which are drawn from religious, historical, legendary and philosophical influences. The most significant influences are Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and the various myths, legends and magical belief dating as far back to circa 1766 B.C., the Shang Dynasty. Chinese symbolism is founded upon, a belief that every object, animate or inanimate, has its own soul; that there is a symbolic understanding between an object and a quality that has a similar sounding name embedded within this symbolism is the ancient Chinese science of geomancy, known as Feng-Shui which delineates as good or bad forces. Feng-shui in design is as important as the site for a dwelling and its layout, the furniture and of course its rugs and carpets. Everything must be compatible in the rug design the creatures, plants and objects or put another way, be aesthetically harmonious. The should substance, according to Chinese beliefs, appears in every living thing and object each having their own soul substance a dog is different to a pig and a peony is different to a chrysanthemum. Everything has a rating and is carefully graded to its specific attributes and to cause its overall strength and these attributes can be transmitted by association or contact. If one meditates on a lion skin the meditator. If you have a rug, sitting on it or it being within your decor, will transmit its power of soul substance to you.
Similarly the “ling” are spiritual inhabitants of everything of the mythological and natural world. The ling have their own powers as well but because they are quasi0human in character, can transmit mischievous and unreliable faces unless prevented or appeased. In the hierarchy of creature, which bear the ling characteristics, the dragon is the most powerful and numerous of ling subjects followed by phoenix, the unicorn and the tortoise. Another Chinese belief is the influence of alchemical symbols. Its central belief is the search for immortality because age is still venerated by the Chinese. The motif then is the pursuit of long life-”good luck and long life”. Objects that share the same meanings is a belief the Chinese have, that all things are in the same way connected. One being the proximity of another will transmit to each other; the deer transmits wealth and the peony is associated with status, comfort and well-being; because the deer was only hunted by the rich and peonies were grown in the garden of aristocracy. With all designs the traditional and cultural motifs are mixed together yet they remain separate from one another in the overall design.
The flowers included in the rugs’ boarder are small tokens of good luck. The inclusion of the peach wishes longevity and prosperity is indicated by the peony. Medallions are usual the motif in the centre of a rug or carpet but the mandalas is perhaps the most powerful and universal symbol of Buddhism, Hinduism with Taoist thought acting as a visible metaphor for the universe, creation, the wheel of life and eternity and can be used as a focus for meditation. In modern rugs Persian designs and many Sinkiang designs employ medallions rather than mandalas.
Individual Motifs And Their Meanings
We have recognized that Chinese art in general and rugs in particular, reflect the religious and philosophical beliefs of this ancient cultured race.
Dragons, as is well known, are the most popular and significant of Chinese motifs in art and culture and obviously most used in carpet design. Dragons are also popular in South America as they were in Celtic Britain and of course Ancient Egypt. If it is a fusion of the snake and bird gods. Unfortunately, for western view the dragon can take many forms form a white stag to a young girl, no not the mother-in-law, and hence has the ability to change not only its colour but also its shape. In rug and carpet designs they are presented as male or female, winged or without and many other features. They are depicted either coiled, fighting or playing with a ball of fire or a pearl. The number of claws on the dragon signified the customer’s status in the imperial family, 5 for the Emperor, 4 for the first and second ranked princes etc. When China became a republic in 1912 such significances became obsolete. The dragon attributed power, authority, strength, wisdom, divine protection and longevity, as it does today.
The phoenix is also a composite beast heaving the forehead of a crane, the crown of a mandarin drake, the throat of a swallow, the bill of a foul, the neck of a snake, the tail of a fish, the back of a tortoise and he scales of a dragon. I did remark it was a composite beast! It is used through the world as a symbol of rejuvenation or rebirth. The Chinese phoenix is usually portrayed as a female version of a dragon but the male of this species is not unknown. It was associated with the Empress and was associated with her attributes of grace, beauty, elegance, nobility and refinement. It then became a symbol of good fortune, good governance and the belief that one could not find more worth than living under a wise and benign ruler as her husband! Today it reflects happiness, good fortune, peace, beauty and refinement. The five traditional colours of the phoenix are red, violet, blue, yellow and black,- often allied to the five Confucian virtues. The rug designs feature the phoenix in isolation or accompanying a dragon, a male of the species of course!
Tigers, a traditional Chinese beast, are associated with strength, virility and the west. Along with the dragon they rule the mountains and woodlands, they are gods of war, controllers of wind and water but also the protectors of graves and the souls of the dead; alongside dragons they are an integral part of Feng-Shui.
Lions are symbols of valour and energy and traditionally protectors of Buddha and Buddhism and are known for protecting the law and sacred buildings being placed at their entrances. The male on the east, usually with an engraved ball under its right paw. The female lion is placed in the west holding her cub with her left paw.
The famous Chinese fo-dogs are associated with strength and its companion courage and based upon Pekinese or Chow dogs or as is usual, a combination of the two. They are used as companion to Buddha and guardians of his holy shrine.
The horse is associated with nobility and the military; the white horse carried Buddist missionaries into India. Symbolizing, wealth, prestige, mobility and spreading education and usually found tethered to a tree. The unicorns of Chinese mythology appear with the body of a stag or of an ox and represent wisdom and the power of healing. Stags properly symbolize emolument and are associated with longevity because they discovered the location of the sacred “fungus of immortality”. Monkeys are used occasionally representing the monkey god. Tortoises are symbols also of longevity. The bat is a popular motif in Chinese rugs from East Turkestan.
Cranes are popular motifs being companies and messengers of the immortal Taoist and symbolize longevity. These were also the emblems of senior civil servants hence are associated with rank and status. Storks were the companions of the “Queen of the Immortals” and also symbolize longevity along with geese which it appears on its own symbolizes the joy of solitude and peace. Magpies bring good luck and one nesting near your house indicates an improvement in your fortunes. The two mandarin ducks symbolize conjunctional fidelity and with it affection does the Chinese Bulbuls. Butterflies are a common Chinese motif symbolizing happiness and good fortune. Fish Symbolize abundant wealth and a pair are usual betrothal gift to signify a happy and fruitful marriage. Carp are perhaps the only single species of fish used in rug design because they are associated with the dragon and therefore symbolize the ability to conquer adversity and achieve great success as well as longevity.
Flowers and plants are particularly popular motifs with the peony being the national flower of Tibet and Northern China (Hanam) and regarded as the “King of Flowers” as it was grown in the gardens of the nobility. It therefore symbolizes wealth, nobility, beauty and refined affection. Chrysanthemums because they flower in autumn reflect autumn and a peaceful old age and are one of the most popular motifs in Chinese designs. Plum tree blossom because it has survived a long time to flower, symbolizes again, longevity and still is included in rug designs and denote the five blessings of a long life, wealth, peace, health, love of virtue and a peaceful natural death. The cheery daffodil represents good luck and winter, as does plum blossom. Peaches are the traditional food of the gods and also symbolize longevity and the quest for immortality. Peaches also are associated with brides and spring weddings. Speaking of weddings, pomegranates symbolize fertility and the design was imported from Central Asia, circa 100 B.C. and it is also found in modern Sinkiang rugs as part of the Tree of Life. The bamboo is also a common Chinese motif, as it is strong , flexible and robust symbolizing the human attributes of mental and emotional strength and good luck.
Landscapes motifs include clouds signifying a wish fulfilled; mountains and sea to symbolize longevity and good fortune (sea). As observed in Tribal Rugs these symbols are mixed within the designs of rugs and carpets.
Under the heading of Tribal Rugs, Tibet is rarely used on its own because Tibetan rugs with their original designs are woven in India, Pakistan and Nepal by refugee families. These original designs are very similar to designs found in Chinese rugs but with slight variations. The religious and mythological symbolism are very much the same. Tibet does not share the use of homonymic associations of the Chinese obsession with long life nor the desire to have good fortune. Religious designs using sacred Buddhist symbols are avoided, for the inclusion of anything so mundane as a rug! The designs unique to Tibet are included in contemporary Chinese rugs, albeit copies. The tiger rugs do not use live tiger forms but reduces the design to a flat two dimensional form. The tiger have several symbolic meanings associated with Tantric meditation (yoga) and are included in not only Tibetan but also Nepalese rugs. The national animal of Tibet is of course the rare snow leopard which are featured in rug designs in both old and modern rugs, in pairs to symbolize strength, dignity and independence, but do not tell the Chinese! The black and white squared rug designs are found from Romania to China but appear to have originated from Tibet and its symbolism is varied and extensive. The “dorj e” is a small cross like object which is used in meditation and is included in illustrations of the Buddha who often has a dorj e in one hand and a bell in the other. In Tibet, Dorj e dollock is an important spiritual identity and variations of this sign are common in old and modern Tibetan rugs.
Old and Antique Chinese Rugs
This topic is dealt with in simple terms as a guide to any customer setting out on the study of this complex subject. Before purchasing old or antique Chinese rugs it is advisable to consult an expert on this subject, and only buy through bonefide sellers who will be pleased to advise; shop around and get quotes and valuations, do not but just because you like the rug or carpet.
The majority of “old rugs” were made during the 19th Century and a few examples are around from a little earlier. There are a few examples of rugs from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but these are very rare, very expensive and are probably lodged in specialist museums. If you are offered one of these examples, run, it is probably a fake or stolen!
China proper was contained within the area encompassed by the Great Wall together with the provinces of inner Mongolia (Suiyuan, Nig-Hsia, Chahar and Jehol.)which boarders Northern China.
There is little substantive evidence about individual weaving centres particularly in the cold northern provinces; nothing is known about the rugs produced here. There are a few weaving centres that can be recognized, historical evidence is almost non-existence and those rugs produced in recognized centres and so named after that centre, may well have been produced elsewhere but with the characteristics of the named centre. Any rug which cannot be attributed to a location is simply labelled “Chinese” as a caution, some details will attribute the rug to a known locations without any evidence.
Origin Of Chinese Rugs
Peking and the port of Tientsin have been established rug making locations as far back as the Yuan Dynasty, circa 1279-1368. Peking rugs are recognized to have features dating from the Ch’ing Dynasty of 1644 to 1911 which may or may not have been made in the location of Peking. They are considered by dealers and collectors to be of reasonable to good quality and often feature shou or other features together with Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and floral motifs, usually on an open field. Various colours are employed but blue and creams predominate. Rugs of a contemporary nature especially Chinese and Antique finish ranges, use Peking designs.
Towards the close of the 19th Century and the advent of the 20th, the Peking and Tientsim workshops moved to satisfy the need for more Western designs destined for the American and European markets.
These rugs originate from the border provinces of Inner Mongolia and may be firstly termed as Chinese rugs. Such rugs are the easiest of all Chinese rugs to identify as they are small and are thicker than the average pile, frequently consisting of designs produced in various shades of blue using fret mediations, which are not unlike the Greek Key pattern, including peonies, swastikas and other geometric emblems, They also use the horse or deer tied beneath a tree. Modern rugs use the traditional Suiyuan designs and these reproductions appear in the Antique Finish Range.
To the west of Suiyuan, on the Chinese side of the Great Wall is the northern province of Kansu. Here they produce rugs very similar to those of Suiyuan in design and the other characteristics and feel like Suiyuan but are slightly smaller and less of a pile. The defining difference is that Kansu rugs used blue but also whites with additional smaller amounts of other colours rather than manipulating the shades of blue. Saddle rugs are more associated with Kansu. This term is also applied by the Chinese to East Turkestan rugs which they imported. The Kansu and East Turkestan rugs marketed under the same name are fortunately very dissimilar and so hopefully can be recognized with a little practice. In the contemporary rugs Kansu are found mainly in the Antique Finish range. A note of caution, the name Kansu is applied to rugs from the Sinkiang range which is based on the East Turkestan range of rugs.
The capital of Suiyuan province is Paotao and it produced a number of Suiyuan rugs, however, dealers are content to give them their own identity of Paotao. These rugs are large to very large and use naturalistic designs in rich colours. Landscapes and animals feature predominantly in the motifs and are depicted as is if viewing through a window or a peephole. The rugs are finely knotted with a short pile and use large pallets of rich blues, reds, yellows and greens.
Ning Hsia Rugs
In the northern border town of Ning Hsia, located on the Chinese side of the Great Wall, this rug making centre is found. This rug making industry can be dated to the Ming Dynasty, (Pre 17th Century) and several authorities ascribe Ning Hsia rugs were provided for the renown Stupa Temple and other Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in China. Such rugs featured Buddhist, Taoist and various mystical and mythological motifs and symbols promoting longevity, good fortune, happiness, fertility and enhanced career prospects. The high quality of Ning Hsia rugs included the designs of dragons through to flowers. The town of Ning Hsia was located on the trade route between China, Mongolia and Tibet and was centre for selling the rugs from a vast hunterland stretching far into the Steppes of Mongolia. All these different rugs received a common title “Ning Hsia”. It also became known for any well made Chinese rug so in these modern times a Ning Hsia rug could have been made anywhere in China or Mongolia and is labelled as such if the dealer wants a better price. Again modern rugs in the old Ning Hsia design are found under the Antique finish rugs and to a lesser extent in the Standard Chinese and Tapestry ranges.
East Turkastan Rugs
East Turkestan is a vast desert wilderness and is considered by most authorities as the cradle of rug making i.e. the Pazaryk – 500 B.C. These East Turkestan rugs reflect diverse cultural and aesthetic characteristics and maintain their own identity. The designs used are mainly Islamic in origin as found in West Turkistan, Afghanistan and the Northern provinces of Iran, but the East Turkistan colours and ambience is without doubt Chinese, incorporating dark reds and blues being substituted by subtle oranges , greens, browns and ochre yellow, together with the reds and blues. The original Turkestan motifs have also been gently altered and perhaps are not illustrative of a clumsy weaving practise because the overall skill shown in these rugs is exceptions and perhaps the freer, less rigid and symmetry of form, together with the subtle palette results in a gentler more contemplative effect. As mentioned above, the pomegranate design appears as a variation of the Tree of Life. This also appears in other Persian Islamic rugs particularly noted are the Belouch rugs but they appear closer to the Chinese idea of fertility and abundance. The Islamic idea is that the pomegranate is a bride connecting Paradise to the world of men to the underworld. The characteristic nomadic designs of the East Turkestan rug, together with the Islamic influences makes them easily recognizable from the Chinese rug, although as already observed, the Kansu and Ning Hsia border areas illustrate East Turkestan influence in colour and design. It can be postulated that they are very similar to the Mongolian rugs in their weaving although they are less brightly coloured and can reflect the Tibet and style, East Turkestan rugs can be found almost exclusively in the Sinkiang Kansu. The weaving groups are even more dispersed than Chinese rugs and take their labels from the major towns along the silk route.
For hundreds of years, nomadic weavers sold their rugs from all over East Turkistan in Somarkand, Tashkent, Yarkland, Kashagar and Khotan and gradually their rugs assumed their towns’ names. In the west, these rugs were called East Turkestan rugs names. In the west these rugs were called East Turkestan rugs or Samarkands because the town of Samarkand was the town nearest to Europe. The Chinese called them Kansus because the promise of Kamsu was the entry point into China itself. When the region was divided into two, between China and the U.S.S.R, Samarkand rugs became part of the people’s Republic of China. These last three names are now used to classify East Turkestan rugs however, they do not necessarily have their own consistent characteristics. Some dealers associate the pomegranate designs with Kashgar, some to Khotan and others to Yarkand. Likewise, a medallion in the centre of a rug is associated by different authorities with all three. It appears a confusing case in identity.
Here’s an attempt at differentiation:
Khotan or Hotan Rugs
This is the most eastly of the group, and very much associated with saph design, (carpets divided into rows of compartments used in family Islamic worship), very similar to carpets and rugs woven in Kayseri and Turkey, although some experts link it with medallion designs.
Kashgar is the most westerly of the group which is associated with pomegranates especially those that employ delicate latticing with the pearly medallions and other all-over floral and lattice designs.
Yarkand is approximately halfway between Khotan and Kashgar and is also associated with pomegranates as well as other traditional East Turkestan work. Popular thought is that Yarkland rugs are woven in a slightly different way to the other two rugs in this group but this hypothesis is not shared by al. Any rug not so identified by these three centres is merely known as an East Turkestan rug which may be a ploy to increase its price!
The birthplace of rugs is attributed to Mongolia rather than East Turkestan however the jury appears still to be out. The pile weaving of the region is very old and very similar to weavers from other central and east Asian nomadic tiles; it is a matter of “who learnt what from who”. Mongolian rugs are very similar to Tibetan rugs, hardly surprising as in the distant past because Tibet stretched to the boarders of Mongolia and Tibetan and Mongolian people are related ethnically and they speak a common language. Their cultural and artistic traditions point to a mutual influence. In rug making Mongolian weaving techniques and designs were imported into Tibet during the 16th century when Tibetan Buddhism was exported to Mongolia thus, Buddhist inspired rug followed into Mongolia. However there are two types of Mongolian rugs, secular and religious types. Mongolian secular rugs employ geometric medallions and corner or repeating designs with fret, swastika, meander and stylised floral forms, These secular rugs are often brightly coloured, more than usual for a Chinese or Eat Turkestan rug, or they use browns, whites and ochres. Blue will hardly be used in Mongolian rugs mainly due to the fact that the indigo plant (the source of blue) is rarely found in Mongolia. The Mongolian religions use Buddhist and other Chinese mystical and religious motifs, all imported either from Tibet or China. Perhaps the influence of design is more from Tibet because of their vibrant colours and bolder designs.
Rugs marketed in Mongolia are merely classed as Mongolian rugs. Contemporary Mongolian rugs are to be found in the Chinese Antique Finish and less often, in the Sinkiang range as well as some authentic Tibetan rugs from Nepal.
The nomadic tribes weaved their rugs before they were conquered by China and took their designs and skills to China and so stimulated the industry of rug making in China but over time, the Chinese culture has shrouded the Manchu designs.
Tibet can be traced back to the Yarland Kings of the 1st century B.C. We have witnessed above the influence that Tibet had on Mongolian rug making and vice-versa. In 1950 China invaded Tibet almost unopposed and annexed it to China as is the political situation in 2011. Some experts believe Tibetan rugs are Chinese in character, appearance and even in weaving techniques. It can be argued that Tibetan rugs are more like Mongolian rugs and that Tibet had more influence from Mongolia, East Turkestan, India and Persia. Chinese rugs were made for floor coverings whereas Tibetan weavers used their wares for saddles, bedding seat covers, floor cushions, even beds. The nomadic rugs were usually fairly coarsely knotted enhanced with bright colours and based on a cottage style industry. The weaving groups once more appear arbitrary and therefore one can be found guilty of being sceptical. The rugs are sold as Tibetan rugs but the Central Tibetan rug is generally very well made, of modest appearance in a variety of shapes and sizes; colours were vivid without being garish and used Tibetan and Chinese designs. The weaving centres were around Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse.
Kampa Dzong Rugs
In southern Tibet the Kampa Dzong rugs are associated with Sikkim in India. These rugs are coarsely knotted on woollen warps and wefts, again employing vivid colours and simple geometric designs. They are very attractive examples of nomadic weaving, on occasions known as Tso-rug style.
These very strong Chinese influenced rugs are of a high quality. The Manchu Emperors of China imported these rugs into their domain. They are more sophisticated and larger than most Tibetan rugs and were found in the monasteries and houses of the nobility.
Border rugs are woven in the Amdo and Kham regions of cultural Tibet which has been a disputed area between Tibet and China, hence rugs of a Chinese nature and those of a Tibetan nature all with a mix in the middle. The second group is coarsely woven, brightly coloured very similar to Kampa Dzong rugs, with mainly geometric designs and stylised floral motifs.
Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan Rugs
These had minor rug making industries largely occupied by Tibetan refugees. However, these centres now play an important part in contemporary Tibetan weaving.
Today Tibetan civilisation is in exile and its national, religious and cultural traditions are preserved by small pockets of refugees living in foreign lands. This paper is not of a political nature but the United Nations sponsored Tibetan rug making workshops in India and Nepal. The Nepalese-Tibetan rugs has developed into Nepal’s single most important export industry, employing more than 100,000 mostly female employees. These workshops were established in Boudha, Swayambhu, Jawalakhei, Pokhara and small settlements in the Kathmandu valley. This industry is regulated by the Central Corporate Carpet Association who govern prices, weaving standards and the working environment, The general marketing and promotional body for both is Government controlled. The major Western importers influence quality controls, designs and colours used for different markets.
Nepalese-Tibetan rugs are generally well made, durable, attractive and sensibly priced but not as well managed as the Chinese rugs. There are good and poor samples unfortunately still brought to the market and both appear to share the same pricing structure! Nepalese-Tibetan rugs have mainly woollen piles, woven in the traditional way, using good quality and occasionally hand spun wool on cotton warps and wefts. Synthetic and natural dyes or even a combination of both are used. In the better quality rugs, Tibetan wool only is used but most use Tibetan and New Zealand wools. Some items are made in silk or even artificial silk. The standard knot density is approximately 36 per square inch, but the finer rugs have 100 knots; silk rugs also uses 100 knots per square inch. The designs are either traditionally Tibetan or a Western version of the same. These designs include the dragon, phoenix medallion, floral (usually peony), chessboard, the snow leopard and tiger designs. Western rugs include variations on the medallion theme, geometric and floral designs. Complete western designs are produced eg. Aubusson, Art Deco, Art Nouveau or completely original works. The designers of such rugs are, in the main, employed by the large Western importers. The whole range is usually produced in pastel shades, using a wide range of pigments of blues, violets, greens and yellows; sometimes more traditional hues are used which are brighter, for instance brown and orange ochres. The colours are really dependent upon the washing process used and which chemical has been employed by the independent laundries. Often the Western importers wash their own rugs to maintain the quality control. Such rugs are usually marketed as Nepali of Nepali-Tibetan rugs.
Indian-Tibetan rugs are woven around small and widely dispersed Tibetan weavers, working in partially subsidised craft centres supported by three organisations including Dalai Lama’s Charitable Trust for Handicraft exports, Council for Home Affairs and the Council for Economic Affairs. Unfortunately the Indian-Tibetan rug industry has not developed as well as in Nepal at first but during the last 20 years initiatives have been sponsored eg. wool buying agency in Amritsar, a showroom and export centre in New Delhi etc. The rug weaving centres are dispersed throughout Northern India in Ladakh, Sikkim, Aimachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradash and Uttar Pradesh and around Hunsar in the southern state of Karnataka. Production is from either in small workshops to larger manufacturing concerns; in the 1990′s there were 40 established centres producing these rugs but it still lags behind the production of Nepal. The Indian producers are family run or extended family with the ladies doing most of the weaving and the men undertaking the dyeing process, clipping, washing and supervision of the production and designs. Rug making in these Himalayan states is shut-down during the cold months of winter and the whole population migrates south. Indian-Tibetan rugs are more true in character and appearance than those made in Nepal because the production is more traditionally nomadic or peasant in the weaving process. Wool is imported but buying the wool from Tibet and other Himalayan states is being encouraged. The knot density is not set to any standard but is normally about 36 knots per square inch – or fewer! The rugs however are durable, generally well made and attractive.
The design work is influenced by designs found on old Tibetan rugs and carpets togethre with modern variations inspired by the weavers. The rather bright and cheerful appearance is derived from the colours used which are harmonious but more subdued designs, are produced. The designs are traditional using floral, medallion, animal, bird and of course, religious and philosophical motifs. The more obvious Buddhist symbols are avoided as they are considered too sacred to be used in an item to be trodden on. It is almost impossible to categorise these rugs which are produced in many dispersed centres. However, workshops in Dehra, Dun (Utter Pradash), Bomdila (Arunachal Pradash), Choglamsar (Ladakh) and Hunsur (Kamataka) have a reputation for high quality and with some outstanding characteristics. Rugs for the Tibetan market are in the main colourful using some ten or eleven colours ised in the heavy patterned designs. The distinctive borders frame the dark blue ground, and are much appreciated by the Tibetan refugee population, especially in and around the unofficial Tibetan capital of Dharamasala. Rugs bound for the Indian market are also bright and colourful. Coulors are harmoniously used in shades rather than a change of colour. Designs are a variable but floral schemes appear to be particularly popular. Rugs intended for export are generally more pastel in colour with bold and simple designs with distinctive borders. To make them look nomadic undyed wool is used with often vegetable dyes. Weaving in Ladakh and Sikkim is undertaken by the descendants of former Tibetan refugees, perhaps a hundred years or more ago. They are basically nomadic using simple geometric designs, or even without a pattern. To add to the peasant character of the rug, undyed wool and yak hair are mixtured and woven. These rugs are produced for home use – to say they are primitive is an understatement!
Bhutan was closed to foreigners until the 1980′s and still today tourism is restricted. Bhutan does have a Tibetan population and a few Tibetan rugs are made. They are brightly coloured featuring a number of traditional designs eg. dragons as Bhutan is known locally as “The Thunder Dragon Kingdom”. The rugs are similar in quality to the Nepalese-Tibetan rugs at 36 knots per square inch. An export trade has yet to be established.
Any rug made in modern China and its natural borders could be legitimately described as Chinese but in reality the term is used for rugs made by hand knotted or hand woven rugs. The borders of China have changed dramatically and the problem is to be also faced that China is proficient at producing copies of anything it feels will sell. As we have discovered China produces rugs based on Persian and other designs, even Tibetan rugs. The different types of rug here mentioned is an illustration of the extent the Chinese have progressed, to make a whole range of quality rugs especially for the Western markets.