Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 4, April 9 -15

Carpet Schmarpet  

Hey Ayi,
What are all the dilapidated signs I see around Silk Street advertising Chinese carpets? My apartment floor is covered in linoleum and my office is carpeted with static-inducing grey nylon. Whatís so great about a Chinese carpet?

Sign me,
Less Linoleum

Dear Less,
Just as us Chinese were using chopsticks while your ancestors were still shoveling grub with their fingers, the masses of the Middle Kingdom have been sitting and standing on carpets for millennia so donít give me attitude about floor coverings. We Chinese used to refer to our nomadic brethren in Mongolia and Central Asia as barbarians (yeman), but they were among the earliest people in the world to make and use carpets. The earliest surviving knotted rug, the Pazyryk carpet, was found by Soviet archaeologists in 1949 in the Altai mountains near the intersection of the present day borders of China, Mongolia and Russia. The rug was covered by ice in a burial chamber and had been preserved that way for more than 2,500 years. Such carpets were probably used as insulating wall hangings rather than floor coverings. We now use PLA surplus store blankets for this purpose which shows you how far things have declined since the Tang Dynasty. But I digress. The technique of making knotted rugs spread from the Northwest to eastern China, and to present day Xinjiang and beyond to Persia (now Iran).

This type of rug is best made with sheep wool but nomads sometimes used goat and camel hair. Early Chinese carpet makers also used silk pile which displays subtle color nuances and changes its appearance in different light but silk is expensive and very fragile, not ideal qualities in a carpet (especially if you are a nomad who has just trodden in camel droppings).

Asian carpets are woven with a horizontal yarn (the weft) and a vertical yarn (the warp). Colored pile yarns are firmly knotted around two warp yarns and held tightly to the carpet base by the weft yarns. The tufts of the knotted piles stick out above the warp and the weft and the colored end of these tufts is what gives the carpet its pattern. Like most oriental carpets, the design of Chinese carpets emphasizes the flat surface of the pattern instead of going for the kitsch realist effect like European designs later attempted.

Chinese carpet design features have spread throughout western Asia. The arabesque - a complex scrolling-vine design - was first used in China in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 BC) on bronze mirrors. The design motif spread west along the Silk Route and was adopted by Persians who since the 12th century AD have used it extensively in the design of carpets. Another Chinese motif that became an important part of Persian carpet design is a stylized band of clouds, sometimes knotted, sometimes straight.

Chinaís own carpet industry took a great leap forward when foreign Capitalist Silk Roaders journeyed to the east from western Asia in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907). The opening of the Silk Route allowed merchants to sell wool from sheep-raising areas of Tibet, Xinjiang and Ningxia to carpet factories in eastern China. As recently as 1925 there were probably half a million camels transporting wool along this route and the trade still goes on today. Scholars may object, but it is your ayiís theory that this trade is where the term "carpetbagger" originated.

Before you say "Chinese carpet shmarpet, the rugs in my villa are a vomit-inducing neon pink," remember that it hasnít always been so: Chinese craftsmen have been making wool and silk carpets in tasteful black, blue, red, white and yellow for more than one thousand years. Using rudimentary looms that were only replaced after Liberation in 1949, carpet makers produced functional artworks of a beauty modern machines have never rivaled.

The designs of Chinese carpets often have the same elements found in other Chinese arts. Buddhist and Taoist symbols such as the reverse swastika and tíai chi (yin and yang) are common, as are animals like dragons, phoenixes, elephants and horses. Tibetan carpets made for aristocrats also often depict animals, especially tigers and elephants, while temple carpets commonly feature religious symbols such as the lotus flower and images from the lives of the Buddha. Rugs from Mongolia, Ningxia and Gansu have adopted elements of both Tibetan and Chinese carpet design, while craftsmen from Xinjiangís famous carpet oases like Khotan (Hetian) and Yarkand (Shache) preferred to weave abstract designs due to Muslim belief that representational art is profane. Handmade carpets have patterns that may not be symmetrical and sometimes the colors are uneven because dye lots were small.

Most traditional rugs from China and Central Asia date from around a hundred years ago but newly made replicas abound. While Beijing is not a good place to buy carpets with contemporary designs, it is an excellent place to purchase a traditional rug. The prices are much lower than in the west and there are enough rug dealers that a wide selection is available. But donít take your time: replicas excepted, there is a limited supply of these things and capitalist roaders are taking them all away as we speak. So, Lino Less, get thee hence to a carpet factory and help invigorate our socialist market economy by removing yet another priceless relic of our glorious past!

Qianmen Carpet Factory
One of the best places to buy a rug in Beijing, and certainly the most interesting, is Qianmen Carpet Company, housed in a former bomb shelter underneath the Chongwen District Workerís Cultural Palace near the Temple of Heaven.

About 80 percent of the rugs are antique, handmade and colored with natural dyes. The carpets range from about •400 to •40,000. Tibetan rugs are the most expensive, sold at about •900 per meter. Others may go for •500 to •650 a meter. There is room to bargain, however.

Shopping here demands a certain tolerance toward dust. None of these carpets are spotlessly clean, but the staff can advise you on how to clean and care for your carpet. Even so, your eyes will be dazzled by the Xinjiang pinks and greens, and Tibetan reds and yellows.

Qianmen Carpet Company
Inside Chongwen Workerís Cultural Palace
44 Xingfu Dajie, Chongwen District
(North of the Tiantan Hotel, near Temple of Heaven)
Telephone: 6715-1687


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