Lion-dogs, Hundred Antiques
Classical Chinese Carpets 1

A brief introduction to classical Chinese carpets
Michael Franses

Carpets have been made from at least as early as the fourth century BCE and are still produced today in a region stretching from Spain to Japan. Yet of all the carpets in the world, the classical Ningxia weavings from western China remain amongst the least well known. One reason for this is that so few surviving examples can be attributed with any real certainty to before around 1700, when the art reached its peak. The vast majority are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the art was effectively dead but the craft and production of Chinese carpets were at their high points. As we become more familiar with them, the classical Chinese carpets made between around 1550 and 1735 will show themselves to be masterpieces of both art and technique. The great skill of their weavers allowed them to create the most complex curvilinear designs as well as simple geometric forms, with perfect balance and symmetry. These people were amongst the most highly skilled, sophisticated and sensitive weavers, craftsmen and artists in the history of carpet making.

We know today of less than five hundred classical Chinese carpets surviving in western collections that can be attributed to the high period of the art, 1550 to 1735. Few appear to survive today in China, as most were exported a century ago when China sold off much of the artistic heritage it retained in this form. Classical Chinese carpets can be divided chronologically into a number of groups: carpets from the fifteenth century and earlier; Ming dynasty examples from the first half of the sixteenth century; Ming dynasty Imperial Palace carpets from the second half of the sixteenth century; Imperial Palace and other Ming period carpets from the first half of the seventeenth century; Qing dynasty carpets from the second half of the seventeenth century; Qing carpets from the first half of the eighteenth century. Examples from the latter group demonstrate the beginning of the decline in the art, and help to place the true classical examples in context.The classical Chinese carpets of Ningxia represent the fusion of two different traditions, both of which may once have stemmed from a common heritage: the symbols of the ancient tribal peoples of Asia, for whom the carpet was a prime medium of artistic expression; and the repertoire of Chinese ornaments from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Unfortunately, nothing was written contemporaneously about the history of the Chinese carpet. Our knowledge, sparse as it is, has been drawn from the close study and comparison of the few surviving examples. During the past century, few people in Europe and America have understood the original functions and importance of oriental rugs, which have mostly been acquired merely as luxurious floor coverings. When we look at an oriental rug today, we can only superficially grasp its full importance and significance ­ the older examples represent a lost language illustrating the traditions, beliefs and fears of forgotten cultures. The classical Chinese carpets that survive are recognised, collected and admired by a relatively small group of people, and apart from these few true experts, connoisseurship seems to be lacking in this very tiny corner of Chinese art history. Hopefully, through this book and the publication of a small selection from some of the most beautiful Chinese carpets, a wider audience will begin to be able to appreciate their merits as important works of art.

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All text and illustrations © textile-art 1999: not to be reproduced without permission