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Chinese Carpets – Art From the Steppes

Writing about so-called Chinese rugs in 1972, HA Lorentz commented that, "Chinese literature, so eloquent in other fields so far, is silent about them, their origin is obscure."


Oriental rug books invariably describe a certain type of rug as 'Chinese'.These weavings are usually attributed to workshop production from northern China., the most renowned being those of Ning-shia. In addition, it these carpets that are usually mentioned when considering the design origins of weavings from the adjacent Tibetan plateau.

I find these notions unconvincing for a number of reasons, most crucial of which is the nature of the Chinese rug production. I do not regard formal workshop rug production as an indigenous Chinese craft. Rather it was a commercial activity whose products were intended for use only by the upper echelons of sedentary society – the court, the beaurocracy. And the monasteries. I contend that the ethnic Han Chinese people have no long standing tradition of pile carpet weaving.

There is little doubt that weaving in what we understand today to be China began with the steppe tribes, who, at various times, occupied areas of northern China. Early Chinese dynasties involved in a constant struggle with these northern hunters and herders, from as early as 1400 BC, Chinese histories refer, briefly but persistently to encounters with the 'barbarians'.

"Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of the Lady Wen-chi". A detail image of the scroll paintings depicting the legendary tale of a Chinese princess abducted by the northern horsemen from the steppes. Note the shape of the saddlery seen on these horses, similar to Mongolian saddle rugs depicted in Ningxia style rugs from the 18-19th centuries. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dillon Fund, inv. no. 1973.120.3

The mobility of the 'barbarian' tribes reached its zenith in the lengthy Shang period (ca. 1700 –1028 BC) with the development of a highly effective new military technology in the form of the horse-drawn chariot. Paradoxically, this innovation served to strengthen the societies surrounding the steppes. "In effect, the heartland had called into being a ring of states round itself... the chariot had been an instrument of change as well as or war.... In the littoral societies of the centuries following the chariot eruptions... in the emergent China of the Shang dynasty – a new outlooks is discernible in the exercise of statecraft." It can thus be argued that the Shang, the first dynastic rulers "who were not to some extent legendary", emerged in reaction to encounters with the norther horse-barbarians, the Hsiung-nui nomads as they came to be known.

Ningxia Carpet, Northwest China, 18th century. 1.60 x 2.80 The design of scrolling lotuses and chrysanthemums can be traced back to much earlier felts, possibly of Mongol origin. Photo Courtesy John Eskenazi

Subsequent histories are dominated by descriptions of of struggles with the mounted hordes to the north. The construction of the Great Wall in the latter part of the 3rd century BC is tangible evidence of the threat presented by these tribes. When, as a consequence of uncharacteristically conciliatory gestures from the Hsiung-nu "jenuye" (khan) in about 49 BC, the Imperial Council debated the wisdom of maintaining frontier
watch posts, a member asked, "...how can it be expected that a pack of unsophisticated Tartars wiell be law-abiding without any display of power to compel it? The frontier posts are as much needed for keeping Chinese traitors out of Tartarland as for keeping Tartars out of China, not to mention that a large part of our own frontier population is of Tartar stock now in the process of assimilation."

"Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of the Lady Wen-chi". A detail of the picture at the top of the page. These details from an 18 foot long handscroll painting on silk of the story of the Lady Wen-chi, a Han princess abducted by the northern horsemen-barbarians, the Hsiung-nu, portray steppe nomad life and nomadic (Mongol style) rugs. Although tentatively attributed to the 13th century, it has been suggested that they are 14th century 'copies' of the Song period originals.

Central to my argument is a precise geographical definition of China. "The farming communities which represented its fist steps towards nationhood had taken root in the fertile beds of loess, their fine tilth easy to cultivate with and tools, lying along the Hwang Ho or Yellow river; and from there they had expanded westward into the valley of this tributary the Wei, where the soil was especially rich. Early China thus lay entirely to the north of the Yangtze Kiang River, which now runs through it center, and this northward focus meant that any concentration of hostile power in Mongolia or Manchuria was a threat not merely to one section of the country but to its heart."

Ningxia pictorial rug, Northwest China, 18th century, 1.32m x 1.96m The design of horses (one with a Mongol style saddle, similar to those depicted in the above scroll painging detail, may corroborate the theory that Chinese rug weaving originates in the steppe-nomad ("horse-barbarian") tradition. Photo courtesy Eberhart Herrmann

Legge's description shows why much that is considered relevant to a study of early Chinese history takes place with these northern areas. Modern China is a large multi-ethnic country, but in the past, areas outside the agricultural center were in reality occupied territories. Significantly, western China, including the vast expanse of Xinjiang (East Turkestan) is excluded from this historical perceptions, being considered as part of the 'Heartland' of the steppe people. The early rug fragments discovered in the Taklan Makan Desert, and the Tarim Basin by Sir Aurel Stein and others are of Central Asian origin, and are thus not relevant to speculation about the existence of an early Chinese tradition.

A pile weaving excavated in the Takla Makhan Desert of East Turkestan presently in the Urumchi Museum, Xinjiang Province, W.China.

Chinese attempts to absorb the Hsiung-nu through the introduction of Han blood into the nomadic rulers' lineages came back to haunt them. By the early 4 century AD, less than a century after the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220AD), "the marriages by which centuries earlier, they had hoped to bring the Tartars under their thumb in the end placed Tartar Emperors upon the throne of China."

The Hsiung-nu effectively disappeared as a unified force from the northern steppes in about 200 AD. Fragmented by subjugation to successive Chinese dynasties an ddivided into northern and southern hordes, (the former defeated in flight, the latter vassals and allies of the Han), an attempt was nevertheless made to recall previous relationships., the 'jenuye' of the southern Hsiung-nu maintained that, "...owing to their many intermarriages with Chinese princesses, he was descendent of the Han.... And since the Han had been submerged in the current disorders, he was the rightful heir to the imperial throne." Worship of the Han ancestral tablets was ordained and the armies of the Hsiung-nu moved south within the Great Wall. Thus in 308 AD, a Tartar dynasty was born.

From the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, another scene from the story of Wen-chi. This may be one of the original Song period paintings rather than a later copy. It depicts a Hsiung-nu khan accepting tea being poured by an attendant. The rug on which he sits is an exceptionally interesting design with a compartmented field and an interesting border arrangement

Meanwhile, on the northern steppes, newcomers from the east, the ancestors of the Mongols, usurped the position of power vacated by the Hsiung-nu. "The Chinese called them Sien-pi." In the 5th century, the Sien-pi "...emerged supreme and from its leading clan came a line of rulers known as Toba, who drove out their nomad rivals, patched up the frontier defences...", while "k... as the terror raged in the north all who could do so, gathered what was left to them and moved away. A stream of migrants headed southward into the colonies beyond the Yangtze Kiang...." The northern areas became an amalgamation of Tartar steppe culture an the conquered Chinese society.

In the early 7th century, Li Yuan, the founder of the T'ang dynasty, challenged Sui (Sien-pi) authority with the support of the Turkic khan, Shih-pi. The Turkic nomads had little interest in China's internal politics or in occupying cultivated land, so Li Yuan appealed to their desire for economic gain by declaring that "...the population and the territory belongs to the Duke of T'ang; the treasures, cloth , goods, and precious things belong to the Turks." With the assistance of the Turkic 'barbarians', the Chinese overthrew the decaying imperial rule of a proto-Mongol horde. Thereafter the T;ang continued to use the Turks for their own ends, securing the profits reaped from the Silk Road trade and employing their vassals to confront less friendly tribes in territorial disputes – while hoping to ensure that the power of the hordes would never be consolidated into a unified threat to the settled, agrarian Chinese population.

Another scene from the scroll painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Compartmentalization of the rugs seen in these scroll painting seems to be a common theme. These rugs appear to be audience rugs on which the Hsiung-nu khan is often seated as he greets others.

Toward the end of T'ang rule (late 9th century AD), the sinicized Sha'to Turk emperors sought an ultimately dangerous alliance with the Khitan nomads in their struggle for power against the Liang from the north. The Khitans, a grassland people who lived by herding and raiding, manouvered themselves into a favourable position, employing Chinese defectors who provided technical, bureaucratic, and administrative skills. Taking advantage of perceived weakness, they seized the moment and established their own dynasty, the Khitan Liao (907-1125AD), eclipsing the T'ang. The Khitan were succeeded by hyet another northern horde, the Jurchen of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234AD), also known as the 'Golden Tartars', who ruled northern China for more than three centuries. Finally, in 1279 the Yuan (Mongols) came to power. All of China and its many riches lay at the feet of the 'barbarian' conquerors from the north. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) once again supplanted the northern invaders with ethnic Chinese rulers, but their successors, the Zing (1644-1911) represented a return to domination by nomadic tribes from Manchuria in the northeast. It is clear, therefore, that much fo the last 2000 years of Chinese history has been inextricably involved with, and at times dependent on the movements of the hordes, with long and significant periods of Tartar occupation of the Chinse imperial throne.



A detail image of this ancient felt. Note how colourful it is and the variety of colour, a different aesthetic than what is normally associated with Chinese style rugs.


Felt, 8th-9th century, Shoso-in Treasure House, Nara, Japan The elaborate floral designs and palette seen on this felt are remarkably different from those other felts seen below, also housed in the Shoso-in.Perhaps this marked difference is due to the sinicisation of design elements during the reign of the Sha-'to Turk emperors in the late T'ang period

Paintings of the story of Wen-chi, a Han princess abducted by the Hsiung-nu portray the steppe nomad life and nomad rugs (some of these paintings have been tentatively attributed to the Song period, but may in fact be 14th century copies of Song originals). However, paintings of this period depicting sedentary Chinese life are without evidence of rugs or other woven floor coverings. Certain T'ang period paintings from Dunhuang in Central Asia show royalty standing upon rugs.

The Hsiung-nu khan seated with the Lady Wen-chi on a rug with a somewhat different design, what appears to be large cross motif in the center. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dillon Fund, inv. no. 1973.120.3

We may assume the Mongols were familiar with rugs in the 13th and 14th centuries, but only ambiguous references to them are found in written records. Ming documents are without any hint of carpet manufacture and/or use. It is not until the reign of Kan Hsi, the first Qing emperor, that carpet production was documented (by Europeans) in Taiyuan, capital of Shansi, and in Ningxia, the early 13th century capital of the Tanguts (a Tibeto-Mongol group), both of which had been occupied by steppe hordes in previous eras. These early descriptions mention the similarity of Chinese and Turkish rugs, an apparent anomaly noted by Murray L. Eiland Jr., who believes that these comments must refer to the type of weave (knotted pile as opposed to felts or flatweaves) rather than the design. However, the design pool of the workshop rugs from northern China may represent a local interpretation of Turko-Mongol steppe motifs, so superficial similarities to Turkic rug designs from other regions are quite possible, despite entirely different palettes.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dillon Fund, inv. no. 1973.120.3 Here we see a aimilarly patterned rug to that in the previous detail , with a cross motif within an octagonal 'gol', all within a central compartment.

The Chinese aesthetic embraced fugitive logwood red, monochromatic indigo blues and 'imperial yellows'. Considering the workshop nature of the Chinese production, this choice of colour is not unexpected. "A characteristic of all desert dwellers is their predilection for simple, intense colours, red, and blue in particular.... In carpet art decadence begins with the onset of muted colouring in deference to a supposedly more civilized or cultured aesehtetic which condemns the instinctive joy in colours of the original folk arts as crude, and feels the need to tmodify what it considers an 'unsophisticated' use of primary colours." Workshop production from China follows suit.

Considering that the history of northern China is dominated by epic tales of entanglements with the nomad north of the Great Wall, it is possible the felts were made by Turkic vassals of the T'ang dynasty with an eye for a Chinese market. This assumption is made on the basis of what I perceive to be, at time, embellished (sinicized) design; others may be pure Mongol productions.

Eiland describes the design of one of these felts as suggestive of elements seen in later Chinese rugs, and concludes that it is probably therefore a Chinese felt. But a detailed 13th century account of Mongol yurts and their felts is revealing. "The felt around this collar on top they decorate with various pretty designs. Before the entry, they also suspend felt ornamented with various embroidered designs in colour. For they embroider the felt coloured or otherwise, making vines and trees, birds, and beasts." This description appears to preclude the idea that these designs, as described by Eiland, represent a Chinese model for later rug production. The ornamentation of the Mongol yurt probably reflects a long traditions, with few, I f any, foreign influences. The possibility or artistic inspiration from a settled agrarian population on the decoration of the yurt is remote.

Two felts from the Shoso-in Treasure House, Nara, Japan, 8th century. Given the description of felts in early texts, it is probable
these two pieces are Mongol pieces, possibly used as door covers on the yurts or tents.

A fabulous example of a felt that may very well be Mongol also. The aesthetic is very refined. 8th century, Shoso-in Treasure House, Nara, Japan. A detailed 13th century account of Mongol yurts adn their felts, quoted by Bertold Spuler, in 'The History of the Mongols', notes that embroidered "birds and beasts" were featured in the designs of Mongol felts.

The manufacture an designs of these felts, and many silk textiles of the same period, have not been identified with any particular are or workshop. Until they are, attribution will remain uncertain. Many of the early (pre-Ming) Chinese silks illustrated in the literature are textiles of less than certain origin, with little or no relationship to what I perceive to be the Chinese design pool. But strong evidence is presented in early histories as well as by the textiles themselves, for a profound steppe influence on Han Chinese culture.

An early Han Period textile. The swirling forms and incredible artistry are more reminiscent of conteporaneous textiles from the Altai Mtns. than Han China. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

The apparent absence in Han Chinese culture of a tribal or village weaving tradition, and of wool as anything but a commodity imported from the 'barbarians' to the north and west, precludes the possibility that the design pool of 'Chinese' rugs from the northern workshops represents a weaving language passed down through the centuries, the criterion by which one may define a true tradition..
Given these strictures, I contend that Han China has never had a real weaving tradition, and that the identification of rugs from these workshops as simply 'Chinese', without further qualification is a fundamental error of conventional carpet studies. More accurate terminology should encompass the undeniable influence (if not origins) from the Turko-Mongol and Manchurian steppe hordes who contributed so greatly to Chinese culture as we understand it today.

Postscript – 2003

'Chinese Carpets – Art from the Steppes' was the result of more than one month of solid research which is reflected in the extensive bibliography. The effort was motivated by the reaction of some to my presentation at the first ACOR in Boston in 1991. Upon completing the presentation on Tibetan rugs, I casually mentioned that I did not think there was a true tradition for weaving in China, supporting my claim of a Central Asian origin for the Tibetan rug weaving phenomenon. The statement was met with silence from everyone but from the back of the room, Alan Marcuson, then editor of HALI, laughed out loud. I spoke with him after the talk, and he urged me to put together an article but would not accept anything less than a well considered scholarly effort. And so it came out like this. I always joked with people that if they were suffering from insomnia, they should read Chinese Rugs – Art from the Steppes. But upon re-reading and preparing it for reproduction here on the web site, I am amazed at the breadth of material covered in these few short words. And I was pleased to see it mentioned on a University of Michigan web site, identified as a valuable research tool on Chinese rugs. It is one of the very few things about rugs that I have written to which there was no critical reaction. While the first Tibetan rug article (Tibetan Rugs - A Tribal Tradition, HALI 49) was considered controversial at the time, this piece, intended as a corollary, was never met with similar skepticism. Curiously, it is one my least memorable articles among the subscribers to HALI and attendees at the various conferences and rug society meetings.


Bidder, Hans ................ Carpets of East Turkestan, Accokeek Maryland, 1964

Christie, Anthony ............ Chinese Mythology, Harmondsworth Middlesex, 1983

Eiland, Murray L. ............ Chinese and Exotic Rugs, Boston, 1978

Erdmann, Kurt ................Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets, London, 1972

Jagschid, Sechin & Van Jay Symms ............. Peace, War and Trade Alonhg the Great Wall – Nomadic Interaction through Two Millenia, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1989

Legg, Stuart ..................The Barbarians of Asia - The People of the Steppes from 1600 BC, New York, 1990

Lorentz, HA ..................A View of Chinese Rugs, London & Boston, 1972

Matsumoto, Kaneo.......... Jodai Gire 7th 7 8th Century Textiles in Japan from the Shoso-in, Kyoto, 1984

Parker, EH....................A Thousand Years of Tartars, New York, 1987

Ping Ti Ho ...................The Cradle of the East – An Inquiry into the Indigenous Origins of Techniques and ideas of Neolithic and Early Historic China 5000-1000 BC, Hong Kong, 1975

Rossabi, M ...................Kublai Khan, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1989

Sinor, Dennis................The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Cambridge, New York & Melbourne, 1990

Soame, Jenyns R. ..........Chinese Art, Oxford, 1981

Spuler, Bertold .............The History of the Mongols, New York, 1988

Original text & photos appeared in HALI 67, © 1993
All text by Tom Cole, © 2003
No parts of this text or any photo may be re-produced, transmitted or copied by electronic means or otherwise without permission from the author.
I wish to thank HALI for permission to reproduce this artile for the website.

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