Carpet making regions in ancient China
The weaving centres in the Northern and Western parts of China, in particular Inner Mongolia/Baotou Suiyuan, Ningxia and Tibet are located in areas that traditionally produced high quality wool and thus, the raw materials for carpet weaving were readily available. Carpet manufacturing developed in extreme climate zones with very cold winters and hot summers. Carpets offered good protection against the cold, harsh winters whilst beautifying homes and creating status symbols for those who could afford the most elegant pieces. When the Forbidden City was built on the orders of the Ming Emperor Yongle, magnificent carpets were specifically commissioned to decorate the official reception halls. Most workshops would not only supply the imperial court and monasteries but also wealthy merchants and the local population and make some pieces for export. When demand for carpets increased from the mid-19th century, further manufacturing centres were established, most notably around the imperial court in Beijing and the wool-trading hub of Tianjin.
Whilst carpets were predominantly used as floor decorations in the imperial palaces, noble and merchant households and monasteries, other uses included saddle rugs (primarily for nomadic people in the North and the West), prayer and pillar rugs in monasteries and kang rugs in the cold Northern Chinese climate - to mention only a few.
Ningxia autonomous region is located in North-western China and home to the predominantly Muslim Hui people. Ningxia is considered to be the cradle of carpet making in China, a craft introduced by Turk weavers from the Middle East. Ningxia rugs were typically made for use as temple and palace rugs, saddle blankets and kang rugs. The quality of Ningxia rugs was highly appreciated and Ningxia rugs were exported all over Northern China. Emperor Kangxi, a patron of the arts, was an admirer of the Ningxia rugs and travelled to visit the workshops in person to watch the skilled weavers creating these works of art. Nowadays, antique Ningxia rugs are highly sought after by collectors around the world. Some outstanding large pieces can be found in museums and important private collections.
They are easily distinguishable by their soft silky wool and thick pile with a characteristically rough knotting. Their designs are well-balanced using mellow colours, often a yellow or red base with designs in shades of blue, brown, white and red.
Commercial carpet manufacturing in Beijing started in the middle of the 19th century though earlier evidence of imperial workshops exists. In the 1860s, a lama from Gansu province was looking to create employment opportunities for the poor and is said to have started a school and workshop for weavers in a temple. Initially, these elegantly designed rugs were made for the domestic market including the imperial court, temples and wealthy merchants. With increased demand from outside China, the number of workshops increased in the early 1900s and more rugs were made for export to Europe and the US. Beijing workshops produced magnificent carpets until the mid-1930s when domestic turbulences and World War II finally ended production.
The classic elegance of Beijing rugs has captured generations of connoisseurs from emperors to distinguished collectors.
Beijing rugs are more densely knotted than Ningxia rugs and use slightly stiffer, shiny wool. Beijing rugs feature symmetrical designs, often a sparsely decorated field with central medallion. Early Beijing rugs were mostly ivory coloured with blue designs. Later they also used indigo blue and brown as main colours. Beijing rugs were typically made in room sized large formats.
Inner Mongolia/Baotou Suiyuan
Rugs known as Baotou or Suiyuan were made in the former province of Suiyuan, which was integrated into present day Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi provinces in 1949. Baotou was the main trading place for excellent regional wool and carpets made in regional towns. Baotou itself was well known for its distinctive pictorial rugs, often depicting scenes from daily life, traditional stories or still-life arrangements with flowers and auspicious symbols. These were usually made as wedding gifts woven by the mother of the bride as dowry for the new home. The rugs were highly appreciated and displayed on special occasions. Another type of Suiyuan rug was made using several shades of indigo blue with geometrical or abstract floral designs. Earlier pieces from prior to 1900 were made with the warp threads along the width instead of the length. These pieces are quite likely the most elegant pieces of woven art created from nuances of a single colour.
Inner Mongolian rugs have a tightly knotted thick and velvety pile, usually a blue base with white, red and brown patterns. A red base is rare. Formats were typically smaller including Kang format. Large format rugs were made to order for wealthy merchants, high-ranking officials or monastic use.
The origin of rug making in Tibet is unclear but unique rug making techniques indicate a long tradition. To this day, Tibetans use rugs as sitting and sleeping rugs in their houses, saddle rugs for their horses and for decorative and ceremonial purposes in temples and monasteries. Carpets were mainly made in larger cities like Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse and Kampa Dzong. In addition to sheep wool, yak and goats hair is used as well. Patterns range from early monochromatic rugs with a very contemporary appearance to geometric, floral, animal skin and mystic animal patterns. As good wool is abundant in Tibet, carpets were usually made with a wool pile and wool foundation rather than using imported cotton for the foundation.
The creativity and range of antique Tibetan rugs has fascinated collectors for decades and some amazing collections have focussed on different aspects of this art. The variety of designs these woven artworks cover makes them a unique addition to any collector’s home.
Tibetan rugs are usually coarser than other Chinese rugs though some very fine examples exist. Tibetan rugs use a special loop knot as opposed to the Senneh knot used by other Chinese rugs.