How to look at a Chinese Knotting

© Copyright 2017 Sijia Qian, Ryerson University.

A red Chinese knotting as decorative art hanging in the wall
Ditton, Matt. “Red Knot at dumplings plus”. 2008. Flickr. Web. Feb. 8, 2017.

The Chinese knotting is ubiquitous in Chinese society and an integral part of Chinese culture. I have one at my home in China and it is one of the few things that accompany me through all these years. Most Chinese knotting is symmetrical and is a combination of different knots.

Quick history

The prototype is simply a knot in ancient times. Ancient Chinese made knots to keep records as documented in Yi Ching, one of the oldest Chinese texts, “Complicate knots for big events while simple knots for small events”. As etymology suggests, the “cord” in Chinese is a homophone for “god” or “spirit”, thus knots were perceived to have spiritual meaning and were used for worship. Archeological evidence from prehistoric times shows that knotting is also an essential skill for men to survive because of its crucial role in the invention of tools for fishing, hunting and transportation of goods. It became a sort of decorative art on the basis of its functional use in the Tang or Song Dynasty. There are ample examples of knotting shown in ancient artifacts such as pots, jade, statuary, boxes and paintings. Later in the Ming or Qing Dynasty, it “breaks away from a pure folklore status to an acceptable art form and reaches the pinnacle of its success” (Chen 28). Besides its practical and ornamental use, Chinese knotting is also an important form of communication. People give it to each other as a way of expressing good wish.

Close look

The Chinese knotting in the picture is the most typical one. It is made up of three basic parts: the cap for hanging, the body of knotting and tassel. The body of knotting includes two basic and most commonly seen knots: an 8-row Pan Chang knot in a square shape and two Button knots on either side of the Pan Chang knot.  Zooming into the central repetitive part of the Pan Chang knot, also named as endless knot, we can see a double-layered structure that is three-dimensional and durable. That is why Pan Chang knot is the most used one as a holder for jade in ancient times and continues to be in use up to now. The Button knot works as a closure for other knots. It got the name because of its role as buttons in traditional Chinese clothing. Therefore it is very easy to spot as the shape resembling a real button. There are 11 basic knots identified by Lydia Chen in her book including these two knots. Basic knots can be recombined to form more illuminating designs, which give Chinese knotting unceasing vitality. Another characteristic is that the redundant cord ends are not visible outside as they are all hidden inside the knots.

Next time you see a Chinese knotting hanging on the wall, try to break it down to different knots and think about its intrinsic beauty as a product of the condensation of long history.

Works Cited:
Chen, Lydia. The Complete Book of Chinese Knotting: A Compendium of Techniques and Variations. Tuttle, 2007.

Ditton, Matt. Red Knot at dumplings plus. Flickr. August 10, 2008.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.