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Articles from Nepal Traveller on the Tibetan Carpet

Auspicious Carpets: A Tibetan View of Aesthetics
by Ted Worcester

May 11, 2007

This article first appeared in The Nepalese-Tibetan Carpet, edited by John Frederick, a special issue for the carpet trade published by Nepal Traveller, January 1993; one of a series of issues on Himalayan carpets. will be publishing further articles from this now rare series.

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It's an exciting time for those interested in Tibetan carpets and the wider world of Tibetan design. An incredible wealth of old and antique Tibetan carpets have been uncovered in the past few years. In their stunning numbers, breadth of imagination, and design virtuosity, they may soon well turn conventional carpet wisdom on its head. As with many things Tibetan, no one knows quite what to make of this treasure trove. Previous theories of a "crude imitation" of Chinese carpets simply will not do. The corpus is now too large, representing in endless variety an aesthetic sense or "aesthetic space" all its own. Together the thousands of pieces that have recently appeared form a unique world-view, one that can be felt almost subliminally, but that is very difficult to describe. They are not generally otherworldly or mystical, but rather transcendently playful, a pleasing vision of the propitious. In the Tibetan view they are, along with other decorative goods, more like auspicious companions, helping to light up the day and the night with positive energy. They are auspicious carpets.

Auspicious, however, does not mean sacred. While lama artists had a very large role in creating myriad design forms, these carpets with few exceptions were not intended for sacred use. Rather they were intended to help create an auspicious environment, an environment of good fortune, in some general way emanating a favorable connection to the unknown, yet very powerful, forces around us. Here they succeeded in a previously unimagined proliferation. There are now literally thousands of pieces available, and research is really only beginning. This research, however, will have to take a wider view than ordinary rug scholarship. Simply describing the constituent motifs is not sufficient, for the whole is greater than the parts, and the successful whole was the intended effect in the first place.

This article will present a few illustrations of these rugs, which have recently come through Kathmandu. Some are familiar, and some show an imagination that was at the outer limits of human consciousness. But this is only a hint of what is now being collected. To really get a feel for the magnitude of Tibetan creativity in this field, one must go to the literature and then to the wool.

Fortunately a number of recent publications have introduced the subject, and through these one can begin to get an idea of the totality of the Tibetan aesthetic (Kuloy, 1982, 1989; Myers, 1984; Harrer, 1987; Lipton, 1988; Page, 1989; da Costa, 1989). And the field is growing. In all the arts Tibetans had a way of keeping the best pieces back. New collections are being formed, energetic young dealers with an affinity for the auspicious are continuing to unearth ever more fantastic examples, and new publications will soon be coming out. Research is being undertaken with old Tibetan master weavers and craftsmen, and we may soon have a much clearer picture of the processes involved, both conceptual and practical. In any case there is now enough material to reach for a greater appreciation of the craft and its art.

The Mystery of Tibetan Designs

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This article is basically intended to illuminate the mindset behind the craft, and to contrast this with the neighboring Chinese tradition. Carpet making in Tibet was essentially a folk art in the sense that it was not accorded the seriousness of purpose of such religious arts as painting or sculpture, but there is more to it than that. The designs did have a purpose and a function, and there was, and is, a design tradition. What was generally not known is that this tradition was so vast. The carpets were for the most part intended for utility, comfort, and decoration. But this practical end was enhanced with a special vision. Carpets were a medium on which to play; motifs were created, combined, and recombined in literally tens of thousands of unique and refreshing design conceptions. In fact, with a relatively small population (but covering a vast area, in which Mongolia must be included), Tibetan carpet making may turn out to have been one of the most prolific indigenous design traditions in the world.

It is this astounding variety, only now coming to light, that reveals in a through-the-looking-glass sort of way, a significant window into the Tibetan world view. This was prodigious and uniquely integrated. To invigorate their universe Tibetans everywhere enjoyed dramatic colors; to lighten their minds they combined these colors with patterns of good omen. This became an endless theme in wool.

The literature, which tends towards structural analysis, has in general not recognized this. As recently as 1970 "authoritative experts" on Oriental carpets were writing such opinions as "examples of knotted carpet production from Tibet are lacking. What knotted carpets have come out of Tibet were all made in Khotan, and the provinces of Kansu, Ninghsia, and Suiyan...." (Hubel, as quoted in Eiland, 1979). More recent authors give more credence to an indigenous Tibetan tradition, but many still postulate that all but primitive village designs were directly derivative of Chinese carpets.

In Denwood (1974) and Eiland (1979), where cultural factors are included in the analysis, we see glimpses that there may have been something more significant happening. But they didn't have enough examples to analyze, and what was available was all from a certain provenance and a late cultural wave in central Tibet. These were products of some twentieth-century Tibetan noble houses, enthralled with Chinese material culture, and they were more or less direct copies of various Chinese compositions. But even these pieces were significantly "Tibetanized". Many were highly creative, as the aristocrats competed among one another to produce "named" designs. Here, however, we're concerned with the older, seminal tradition.

With Myers, Leeper, and Reynolds (1984) we see the beginnings of serious scholarship of early Tibetan tradition and Tibetan imagery. With more and more catalogs being produced, and shows being mounted, the appreciation for the integrity of the art form has grown. From Ian Bennet: "Firstly, if the contents of this exhibition are used as a yardstick, Tibetan rugs seem to enjoy a clear aesthetic space of their own, which is in itself a sufficient reason for studying them..." (Page, 1990). Lipton (1988), Wright (1989), Kuloy (1989) and da Costa (1989) add to the chorus, as the realization grew that Tibetan weaving was from the beginning a significant art form in its own right.

This slowly emerging awareness, that something very special was going on here, can now be supplemented by a growing flood of actual pieces in the wool. In some ways this deepens the mystery, but in others confirms the suspicion that we are dealing with a very ancient tradition. The totality of Tibetan carpet making can now be seen as much more complex than previously thought, involving complicated cultural interactions over at least twelve centuries. Far from a "crude imitation" of Chinese carpets, further research may prove the exact opposite, that the demand for carpets in Tibet spawned the modern Chinese carpet industry, and that its influence is felt up to the present. Tibetan exuberance rebounded into the craft.

The Carpets

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The examples illustrated here, while not representative (a whole book will be necessary for this), are all very old, at least nineteenth-century, with several perhaps much earlier. (Figures 1 - 7 are shown in this article. Figures 8-13 are included in Part Two.) All clearly show Tibetan genius. They are all vegetable dyed, and with three exceptions, are entirely of wool foundation, warp and weft. Three have cotton warps (with wool wefts), but ironically one of these (figure 9) may be the oldest of all for that very reason. Cotton foundations tended to last longer, and hand-spun cotton was known in Tibet from a very early date. There are six seat carpets (khagang-ma), three bed carpets (khaden), one saddle set (makden and maksho), one perhaps saddle top, and one complete mystery.

The seat carpets were made for lamas or high dignitaries and show a mix of archaic and modern conceptions. Figure 1 contains archaic symbols, particularly the square crosses, which Gantzhorn (1991) calls the "light-symbol crosses." These can be found in the "Pazyryk" carpet itself, the oldest known pile carpet in the world dating to 400 BC, and in prehistoric Tibetan "thokcha" (Tucci, 1973). Figure 2 is an ordinary lozenge pattern, found from time immemorial, but transformed entirely by the Tibetan use of color into an amazing work of art.

All the seat carpets show tremendous imagination from the "Flat-head Dragon" (figure 3) to the simple "Lotus Spray" (figure 5). Figure 4 was probably for a village lama, but is also extremely old. It should be remembered that there were some 300,000 monks and lamas in Tibet, and that nearly all of them had connections with monastic centers of learning. High lamas would visit the village gompas, and there was no great separation in the religious culture. "The Aquarium" (figure 6) is from somewhere in outer-or inner-space. This is pure imagination.

The use of geometrics in the two saddle carpets form an aesthetic whole, uniquely Tibetan, though they are probably among the most recent in the group as both have cotton warps and show hard use. Figure 7 shows wonderful geometric inventiveness and use of color. Figure 8 is the familiar checkerboard with a bird from "far away". Figure 9 is perhaps the oldest Tibetan dragon around, while the other bed carpets present the often commented-upon Tibetan "frog's feet" or belak (figure 10) and "tie-dye cross" or thigma (figure 11) patterns. These are usually described as entirely Tibetan creations, but were also found in archaic textiles. They were later copied in profusion in Chinese Paot'ou production. Finally, figure 12 is a complete mystery, and perhaps more than any other piece shows the vastness and idiosyncrasy of the Tibetan creative mind. It seems vaguely drawn from Khotanese pomegranate pieces, but includes the auspicious lotus sprays beloved by all Tibetans. Look carefully for the ghostly creatures integrated by playful weavers or lama designers.

Together these examples show a design exuberance that is totally Tibetan, despite elements of Chinese or Central Asian art that might be incorporated. They are imaginative, animated, colorful, playful, and alive with individual character. They form a separate and well integrated tradition, somehow connected to the Tibetan soul.

The Cultural Context

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There are many clues for the assertion that Tibetan imagery seriously influenced Chinese carpet making, mostly having to do with cross fertilization in northwest China during the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties. In the north and the east of Tibet processes have occurred which were quite distinct from Tibet's relationship with India or Nepal as sources for Tibetan art. "In Central Asia and China the situation was different in that there was a two-way process, for Tibet, whilst absorbing foreign influences, left its own cultural imprint," (Karmay, 1975). Here we will find that the Tibetan monastic demand for carpets was the most significant impetus in Chinese production.

Firstly, carpet stylization shows the work of creative lamas, whose influence on the entire art form is far more extensive than generally realized. Most books and articles mention that some designs were obviously intended for monastic use, but there has been little discussion of the role the monasteries played in Tibetan life. In brief, monasteries were central to the Tibetan's cognitive universe. In addition to performing their everyday religious role, they were economic centers, refuges, universities, social centers, and progenitors of profound art. They were totally a part of Tibetan society, not somehow separate, as in some Christian sects.

Carpets of some kind had always been produced in the cold, high plateau, wool culture of Tibet (Leeper, 1984, 1992). But it was the Tibetan Buddhist monastic expansion of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, throughout Tibet, but particularly in Kham, Amdo, northwest China, and Mongolia, that led to ever increasing proliferation of carpet design. Totally supported by the Tibetan people, lama artists created a lush monastic environment filled with a wealth of design, both sacred and decorative. Supplementing the holy ritual objects and paintings were endless geometric, floral, symbolic, and stylized animal representations that could generally be termed "auspicious". This tradition flowed into carpets as well, and eventually seeped into the population as a whole. Very simply, Tibetans just liked exuberant, auspicious decorations; they liked to live with them.

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To visualize this, we have to understand something of Tibetan cultural evolution, development, and expression. Certainly there was a great deal of cultural diffusion, and there were many trends and design adaptations over the centuries. Compared to ancient India and China, Tibet was a recent civilization (having initially gelled around the seventh century), but relative to others it was old, strong, and well-focused. It had a unique world view, which was constantly reinforced by common experience, language, religion, and culture. It had a fundamental cultural unity (often surprising for the distances involved), extending from Amdo to Ladakh, involving everything from the clothes they made to the tea they drank. Central to the Tibetan mind was, of course, Buddhism. Over the centuries they expended enormous effort to translate and internalize all Indian Buddhist texts. Eventually a coherent and profound Buddhist philosophy emerged, which infused the language and mind of all Tibetans. Having developed this great pearl of wisdom, they seemed totally self-reliant and content in their mountain environment and took very little interest in other cultures. As Snellgrove (1968) said, Buddhism "remained throughout their history the one pearl of great price for which they seem to have sacrificed everything else, even their independence as a nation."

Nevertheless, and contrary to popular myth, Tibet was historically not a closed society. The idea of a closed and isolated Tibet only came about -with the machinations of the British and Chinese (and the lamas) in the nineteenth century. Prior to that time Tibet was open on all sides, to whoever could make the arduous journey. Tibet was a flourishing civilization; it was in fact rich when compared in relative terms to other contemporary- and particularly Asian-societies. Tibet had endless wool and over the centuries had built up tremendous wealth with which to trade. Trade relations were maintained with Central Asia, Kashmir, India, Nepal, Mongolia, and, significantly for our purposes, with the various peoples of Northwest China. Active communities of Kashmiris, Khotanese, Newars, Mongolians, Hui (Chinese Muslims), and Han Chinese were present in Lhasa and other trading centers. Religious practitioners were particularly welcomed- even, for a time, Christians. Western missionaries established themselves in the early eighteenth century, when intriguingly an Armenian business community was already operating, probably from Calcutta. Could these Armenians have been involved with carpets?

Tibet was, then, not a backwater, but a strong civilization with a distinctive and rather self-satisfied material and spiritual culture. As mentioned, trade in wool (the backbone of the economy), salt, borax, and animal products led to the accumulation of considerable wealth, which expressed itself in an enormous variety of decorative items (Reynolds, 1981). Each of the foreign communities was engaged in trade, or in the production of material and spiritual goods of interest to the Tibetans, and each of course brought some design traditions with them. In the "higher" arts Tibetans kept meticulous records of styles and designs, giving specific credit to Kashmiri, Indian, Newar, Khotanese, or Chinese traditions adapted by particular religious lineages. Tucci (1973) has comprehensively studied these styles. For instance:

"From Iwang we are left only with the paintings, which we know from the accompanying inscriptions were executed in two different styles (lugs), one Indian (rgya lugs) and the other Khotanese (li lugs); and this statement is supported by a study of the paintings themselves."

In the decorative arts, on the other hand, Tibetans did not particularly keep track of design influences, many of which had in any case been extant from prehistory. Interestingly they could (and still do) readily identify Chinese carpets (gya-rum) from Ninghsia, and "Mongolian" carpets (sog-rum or sok-trum) from Paot'ao or Suiyan, or direct Tibetan copies thereof, and there has never been an effort to pass these off as Tibetan. As with most things they were happy with their own creations, although latterly imports were prestigious for aristocratic families. Thus it is left to carpet scholars to endlessly debate where particular motifs may have originated, from "Indo-Scythian" to "Phyrgian-Urartian". In carpet making, with so many common motifs, it is in any case a fairly fruitless speculation best left to real design historians like Gantzhorn (1991). Further these arguments often miss the forest for the trees. It was the overall style or aesthetic that counted the most.


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From a western aesthetic viewpoint, Eiland (1979) gets it about right:

"In the Tibetan carpet there is much that is pleasing and stimulating to the eye, perhaps because foreign elements have not been merely copied, but have been integrated into a unity that has its own validity as art...the best pieces churn with kinetic vigor and vitality."

But from a Tibetan perspective it is Tom Guta (1976, 1978, and in this issue), as always, who best understood this vitality and lyrically presents the Tibetan view. The sole consummate weaving artist among all the commentators mentioned here, Guta says stylization is the most important factor in understanding a particular tradition, a particular aesthetic mind. Stylization is the "expression of motif". With the Chinese the Tibetans shared a repertoire that was "mutually intelligible" going back many centuries. In a pure sense it becomes totally irrelevant where a particular motif may have originated, but is much more important to concentrate on how the motifs were used in a cultural context.

In the selection illustrated here we see lotus flowers (figures 5 and 12), which are connected with all Buddhas, but particularly the "Lotus Born" Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), one of the most revered figures in Tibetan history. There are thousands of variations on the lotus theme, as with most of the others. We see dorjes (figures 4 and 9); swastikas (figures 4 and 11); dragons (figures 3 and 9); mountain and wave borders (figures 3 and 6?); floral lozenges (figures 1 and 2); birds holding flowers (figure 8); "frog's feet" (figure 11); crosses (figure 10); pearls (figures 4,7,9,10, and 11); and expressive geometrics (figures 7 and 8). All of these elements, but not necessarily their execution, will be familiar to carpet aficionados. Here is unique Tibetan stylization, and all have auspicious connotation. In the Tibetan's view sitting on them brought good luck.

Further, some of these motifs are "mutually intelligible" with Chinese art, but in expression they are all Tibetan. For Tibetans, carpets were an auspicious and decorative addition to their lives, and they simply produced what they liked, in new combinations, according to their own aesthetic sense. Over time their creativity was staggering. As shown here, fine examples are appearing almost daily. They are the tip of the iceberg for what must have been a tremendous output.


Auspicious Carpets: A Tibetan View of Aesthetics II

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All writers have pinpointed Ninghsia, an oasis market town formerly on the western edge of Kansu and now part of its own Autonomous Region, as the genesis of the Chinese carpet industry. This is an oversimplification, as both Bidder (1964) and Lorentz (1972) clearly show that Ninghsia was simply a market town and wool trading center exhibiting wares from all over Central Asia and Mongolia. Along with other towns in the northwest of China, especially Sining, Ninghsia opened a trade window on the vast steppe area of what was really Tibet (Amdo), Kansu, and Inner Mongolia. A confusing mixture of nationalities have interacted here for centuries: Turkestanis, Tibetans, Mongolians, Hui (Chinese Muslims), Han Chinese (protecting the Silk Road from early Han times), Tanguts, and probably several related peoples (such as the Hsi-hsia) who disappeared completely during Mongol ascendancy of the thirteenth century.

Ninghsia has thus become a symbol of all carpet making in this steppe area where good wool had always been available. There is no doubt that the Chinese industry began in the great steppe area, but not necessarily in Ninghsia itself. Rockhill (1894) visited before the turn of the century and found only sixteen workshops averaging ten looms each-not a very extensive production. He also noted many Tibetans in the area.

At various times Tibetans controlled the entire region (seventh to ninth centuries) and have always had a presence. More recently (sixteenth to twentieth centuries) Tibetan Buddhism was a major and distinct cultural influence. As recently as 1948, Tibetans (Amdos and Goloks) effectively controlled all of Chinghai up to a few miles from Sining (Clark, 1954). Beyond the eastern edge of lake Koko Nor, at the "Sun and Moon" mountain passes, Chinese Muslims under the warlord Ma Phu Fang maintained isolated garrisons and would periodically mount punitive campaigns, but in effect if was still a Tibetan cultural area. The Mongolians to the north were in an analogous position. Basically the Chinese (whether Han or Hui) were townspeople, traders, and military, while the Tibetans and Mongolians ranged with their herds over vast distances, producing wealth. Despite numerous local uprisings against Chinese farming penetration, all these people had generally learned to live side by side in a kind of symbiotic interrelationship. Wool was wealth, and wool was a very basic currency in use for everyone. Uneasily, the various groups tolerated and dealt with each other, trading wool and the products of wool.

In this vast confused mosaic of peoples Tibetan Buddhism was the dominant cultural (as opposed to political) thread. The current Dalai Lama was in fact born here. This thread connected the area with Central Tibet right through to Mongolia, where by the sixteenth century Tibetan Buddhism had been adopted with a fervor that was equal to that demonstrated by the Tibetans themselves. The Mongolians adopted not only the religion, but a whole panoply of cultural expression, including carpet designs. Over time Mongolian lamas became integrated into the highest level of the Gelugpa sect. How this happened is outside the scope of this article, but the major point is that together (in Tibetan and Mongolian areas, excluding Turkestan) the Tibetan Buddhist cultural ethos dominated about ninety per cent of the Central Asian plateau and steppe area. As the wealth makers, these Buddhist groups influenced much of the material production in the steppe wool belt.

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It was at this time (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) and in these areas that Chinese entrepreneurs began to develop carpet making of their own. While it had always been a folk art in Tibet, Turkestan (Bidder, 1964), and probably Mongolia (curiously during this period the Mongolians became customers rather than producers), here it became more formalized to supply a small but exclusive market in China. This is an important point. Chinese entrepreneurs jumped in when there was a market to fill and rarely made carpets for themselves. Very few were ever found in Chinese homes. This led Bidder (1964) to expound:

"What little China has accomplished in carpet manufacture is entirely derivative from the West and from Turkestan, and moreover, has been achieved only in recent times.... For China the question of the necessity for, and development of, floor carpets was settled in the negative at a very early stage. Even to the present day China has therefore no form of carpet which has sprung from Chinese soil, and in consequence, no genuine Chinese carpet designs have been created."

This goes too far, but even Eiland (1979) agrees up to a point: "There is little reason to believe that rugs were used extensively outside the Ch'ing court and Lamaist temples, even as late as the 1880s and 1890s".

Lorentz (1973), in high dudgeon and good humor, rebuts Bidder in his wonderful book on a certain type of Chinese aesthetic, prior to Western influence. Carpets were made, adopting the Senneh knot from Turkestan, but it seems at first only in small numbers for specific purposes. The Emperors K'ang Hsi, who visited Ninghsia in the company of Jesuits, and Ch'ien Lung took an interest, and some were made for the Manchu court. Some were made for the kangs of noble families, and others were produced for ceremonial or formal occasions. As illustrated by Lorentz some beautiful pieces were made, in wonderful vegetable dyes, and incorporating the rebus symbols the upper class Chinese delighted in (also Eiland, 1979- Rostov, 1983; Larrson, 1988). Nevertheless the production was never very great and was never mentioned in exhaustive court records or Chinese encyclopaedias. About all early Chinese writers had to say about carpets was "the weaving process has been taken over from the barbarians and for this reason is performed in their strange way...." (Bidder, 1964).

For later Chinese dealers Ninghsia became a symbol of quality, but it's not exactly clear where most of these fine antiques were made, as weaving did spread throughout the steppe area. Carpets were, however, never integral to Chinese culture. Until the advent of Western importers in the 1880s Chinese interest seemed to be mainly a curiosity. Unlike Tibet and Mongolia, theirs was not a wool culture, and they disdained the use of wool in most things. They were primarily interested in wool as an item of commerce. Aside from a few hundred exquisite pieces in museums and some private collections there don't seem to be very many around. Eiland (1979) noticed that many of same pieces have been repeatedly published giving a "false impression" of a widespread art form. Of these genuine pre-Western-oriented carpets, even Lorentz says, "Now nothing remarkable is coming out of China nor is to be seen there." When markets developed, however, the Chinese filled them with alacrity.

Something was happening in the Ninghsia area, but from the literature we don't know exactly what this was. What we know today as the Chinese carpet only emerged at the beginning of this century specifically to fill rapidly expanding Western markets. The first Beijing manufactory was supposed to have been established by a Tibetan lama in 1860 (Eiland, 1979; Rostov, 1983). Eiland quotes from Nagel (1968):

"During the second half of the 19th century the Pao Kuo was famous for its carpet making, an art much appreciated by the Manchu. A monk from the west arrived with about twenty disciples, all from Kansu and Tibet, who were skilled carpet makers."

As Western markets increased dramatically, production quickly spread to all its current centers from Tientsin to Shanghai. This market also seriously influenced the older weaving areas of Paot'ou and Ninghsia. Paot'ou did manage to retain a charming style of its own, but continued to make carpets for the Tibetan market as well. But this leaves a question: if very few "genuine" Chinese carpets were ever made (that is Chinese carpets made for themselves) where did all the "Ninghsia" production go?

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The answer is clearly that the vast majority of "Chinese" production went to the Tibetan cultural area. Most of it went specifically for monastic use. The designs and coloration in turn were inspired directly by the taste of Tibetan and Mongolian lamas. While some design elements were extant from time immemorial and others stemmed from Chinese or Turkestani cultural sphere (generally from early Buddhist inspiration), the overall design conceptions come from the Tibetan mind. The Ninghsia carpets were a reflection of their aesthetic view, spirit, and style, emphasizing the auspicious. Until Westerners entered the picture this was the major market. The Tibetans had the wealth. The lama artists, as customers, directed the designs. The Chinese, as astute businessmen, responded to their customer's preferences.

This phenomenon was noticed by some early Western visitors, but its ramifications have never been addressed properly. During Rockhill's (1894) visit of 1891, he noted some rugs of "kang" size, but that: "Prayer rugs, cushions, saddle blankets, etc are made in larger numbers than any other style of rugs, as nearly all of them are sold to Mongols or go to Tibet." A few years later Tafel (1914) added that "they were dragged away as far as Tibet." In discussing "Ming Dynasty" carpets Rostov and Jia (1983) talk exclusively about the Tibetan market: "Among the important customers for the northwestern carpet industry "were the Lamaist temples and monasteries." The treasure trove of carpets in the Kumbum monastery near Sining was beyond belief and comes in for special mention. Completed as a Gelugpa foundation in 1560 it has 168 pillars wrapped in beautiful carpets and 21,300 square feet totally covered with carpets in Tibetan design. Though their book is a transparent promotion for modern Chinese carpets, they had to concede the extreme importance of Tibetan taste and influence. Proceeding to the Ch'ing Dynasty they continue the theme:

"The magnitude of the lamas' purchasing power was astonishing. Their demand for religious carpets inspired the workshops of Baotou, Yinchuan, Lanzhou, and Huangzhong, and carpet making became a prosperous industry in the northwestern districts. Moreover, Lamaist patronage enabled carpet making to survive as folk art in certain regions, such as Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia, the upper reaches of the Yellow river, and Shanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai. (That is the entire steppe area).

This booming market helped bring about advances in weaving skills and pattern design, and the northwestern school of carpet making was also enriched by an exchange of carpets of various sizes with the inhabitants of Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Except for those of Xinjiang, present-day carpets are the descendants of this north-western heritage."

Nearly every book on Chinese carpets is adorned with a large number of Tibetan-inspired designs (Lorentz, Eiland, Rostov, and Te Chun Wang put them on the cover), and some form the vast majority. In Te Chun Wang (Rippon Boswell, 1978) nearly all examples, except those from Turkestan, show a direct Tibetan influence.

The Rebound Effect

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Essentially, this is what happened: as Mongolia adapted Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhist culture wholesale; as Gelugpa cultural influence caused an enormous monastic expansion throughout Tibet from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries; and as the Manchu court sought to patronize monastic leadership, the creative edge in carpet design was taken over by lama artists with a Tibetan mindset. This filtered into the population as a whole as "the diffusion of artistic doubtless due to the even distribution of islands of civilization in the shape of the great monasteries and their dependant houses, where...the highest level of refinement is attained." (Pallis, 1939).

As has been often repeated by experts, some symbols and patterns were inspired by other Chinese art forms, many of which (the lotus, wave, mountain and cloud patterns, and so on) were Buddhist to begin with, transiting through China. Others (the "gentlemanly accomplishments", shou symbols, the one thousand antiquities, and ancient Taoist symbols) were also incorporated as pleasant designs in themselves, as well as auspicious connotations of long life and good luck. Still others came from excellent Chinese brocade, damask, and porcelain at various periods, including the dragon and phoenix. As noted above, Khotanese interpretations of the nearly "universal" design pool were also adapted and readapted in the Ninghsia area.

Lama artists turned these into endless carpet designs of auspicious, yet light-hearted, demeanor in order to embellish their sumptuous "islands of civilization." This was in line with all their decorating trends. While statues and thangkas occupied the central places of reverence, walls, pillars, corners, pillar capitals, and virtually all neutral space between iconographic items was filled with auspicious design-floral, geometric, and mythological. Lamas, who in their rituals were often concerned with color and form elaboration, were in fact excellent artists in their own right, and would often design these spaces themselves. Monks from all social strata would be rigorously trained in these arts and crafts if they showed skill or affinity for artistic creation. Their ritual, or "temporary" art showed equal creativity. Every monastery developed a core of skilled artisans, continually renewing the heritage. In their contact with home, village, or nomad camp they would pass these design elaborations along.

This process can be seen in Boudha today in any of the new gompas going I up. Often every square inch of the monasteries is decorated in some way. It is all auspicious. I have seen Tarig Rimpoche, a high Sakya lama, design an entire wall on paper, by himself and from scratch, in a few hours time. This in itself was a work of art. The lamas live these designs, and the whole effect is extraordinary. They also designed the carpets they lived with. Even Lorentz (1972) was reduced to showing pictures of Tibetan lamas when trying to explain the uses of Chinese Rugs: "The reverend gentleman nasal veritable collection of Chinese or Tibetan rugs in use everywhere: upon the floor, upon stools, upon benches, upon chests, upon the wall, and even upon the ceiling!"

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It's another subject to discuss exactly why Tibetan lamas created such lush surroundings, but it generally had to do with the place of the monastery in Tibetan life, and the dignity expected of them. The Tibetan people were proud of these accomplishments and expected their lamas to create a storehouse of merit for the good of all sentient beings. Everyone contributed. For a lama, being an artist was part of the job, and over the centuries an extraordinary aesthetic was created and maintained. Carpets were part of this tradition and led to the recombination of generally auspicious patterns in literally tens of thousands of ways.

As the arbiters of a vast market, the lamas' conceptions and aesthetic wave rebounded into Chinese carpet making, and to some extent can be seen even today. While they are more formal and rigid, in line with Chinese mentality, the effect of the lamas' influence in Chinese carpets is apparent, even when some of the symbology had been absorbed from China at an earlier date. This interaction occurred at the Ninghsia crossroads over the past few centuries, and had simply not been noticed by very many people. The bright shining light of four thousand years of superb Chinese artistry had obscured the fact that, in one small area, a wealthy wool culture had taken the lead. The Chinese did not call Tibet "the Western Treasure House" for nothing.

To confirm that such a trend might be possible, a similar process can be seen in metal working. A recent article by John Clarke (1992) shows clearly how earlier borrowings by the Tibetans (including Taoist symbols, the four accomplishments, and eight auspicious symbols) had "passed into all Tibetanized areas by the seventeenth century." These were included in ritual metalwork in Tibet. This Tibetan metalwork style was later taken up by Chinese craftsmen for sale to the Tibetan market and other markets in China. Here the decorative elements are clearly in the "auspicious" realm, very close to some carpet designs. Here also were Chinese craftsmen working within the Tibetan cultural context:

"Followers of Tibetan Buddhism in China itself have always been a minority and influence has been confined mainly to the court or to Buddhist pilgrimage centers such as Wutai shan and the lamaist temples of Beijing. On the other hand, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Mongolia was the largest sphere of Tibetan religious and cultural influence outside the borders of Tibet itself. Tibetan Buddhism, which had spread in Inner Mongolia from the sixteenth century onwards, stimulated an extensive program of monastery and temple building that reached its apogee during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The monasteries' need to equip themselves with liturgical vessels and musical instruments, and the private demand for ritual objects from an enthusiastically Buddhist population, would have created a huge market for such metalwork."

The Chinese moved with characteristic energy to fill this demand. This is exactly parallel to Tibetan influence in carpet making throughout the region.

fig. 12

Clearly, Tibetan carpets were not simply crude imitations of Chinese carpets. Tibet was a wool culture, and China was not. While Tibetans were skilled in weaving all kinds of woolen products from the very beginning (and probably before what we know today as Tibetan culture), the Chinese were primarily interested in wool as an item of commerce. When demand cropped up from the court, or from Tibet, or later from the West, some Chinese in the northwest turned to carpet making with energy and skill, producing some very fine examples. But carpets were never integral to Chinese life, the way they were universally in use in Tibet. During the seminal period of the introduction of carpet weaving in China, it was the inexhaustible demand from a wealthy Tibet that drove the industry, This in turn was inspired by monastic evolution and development of an "auspicious" theme by talented lama artists.

While it cannot be determined exactly when this aesthetic emerged in Tibet, it is intimately connected with the Tibetan mind and world view, a playful insouciance alongside a solid religiousness. This exuberance and humor found its way into all truly Tibetan carpets, forming a unique color and design tradition, which can generally be called "auspicious." While heavily influenced by monastic artisans, this aesthetic infused Tibet as a whole, as there was really no separation between monasteries and ordinary life. This vision encompassed all of Tibetan life and expression. Weaving went on simultaneously in monastic settings, villages, and aristocratic estates, retaining or innovating designs according to their view. This resulted in a tremendous diversity of design, the true dimensions of which are only now becoming clear. Yet throughout this variety the auspicious theme held constant. Everyone wanted good fortune, and these were simply the types of carpets and designs Tibetans liked to live with.

fig. 13

With the illustrations here we see a small sampling of immense creativity, a small part of what must have been an enormous production. Thousands of equally astonishing examples are now available for study, and the corpus keeps growing. Tens of thousands of Tibetan carpets, including ancient fragments, may one day be documentable, firmly establishing the tradition as one of the most prolific in the world. A fair number are already illustrated in catalogs and books, with more soon to come. Far from a "crude imitation" of Chinese carpets, they form an aesthetic whole which connects back to some of the earliest designs known to man. Over time creative trends and waves flowed as with all art forms. But its essence remained Tibetan. It remained auspicious. It had a direct connection with the Tibetan soul.

Note: Tibetan words have been spelled phonetically according to general usage, except in direct quotations where the author used transliteration. Likewise, Chinese words have been spelled according to the old Wade-Giles system, which is more familiar to most readers of English. The modern Pinyin is only used in direct quotations, or in parentheses where appropriate for reference. Pinyin is particularly inappropriate for Tibetan as it skews the entire pronunciation to the point of unrecognizability (see Rostov 1983). Emphasis in direct quotations is the author's.

photographs by George Mann
carpets from the Archives of Bob van Grevenbroek


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