The earliest carpets of Chinese origin have been excavated from tombs dating back to 3rd century B.C. The carpet trail is lost until the 16th century when large pieces of Peking ( Beijing ) origin were woven for the Ming Dynasty emperors. Other early Chinese carpets primarily emanate from Western China : Ningsha and Kansu Provinces. Later pieces come from Peking in the 19th century and Tientsin in the 20th century.
While Kansu carpets still bear traces of East Turkestan styles , Ningsha rugs are purely Chinese in motif and technique : lion dogs, 100 antiques , cloud wreath medallions , overall fret patterns , “ grains of rice “ , bats and butterflies overall ; paeony borders with all cotton foundations and soft wool piles . The best Ningsha pieces date from the 17th and 18th centuries, and often appear in large square sizes, say 14’ x 14’. Fields are ivory or yellow ( faded from red ) .
After the early court carpets, Peking production seems to have languished and it is not until the 19th century that pieces are found again in quantitiy. The earliest probably date from early in the century, but production ramped up vastly by 1880. Peking carpets are essentially an export creation. Although Mandarins and merchants used pile carpets with their seating furniture, there never was a broad middle class to employ them as essential furnishings. Antique Pekings are always on cotton groundweaves in Persian ( asymmetric ) knots, in medium weaves and usually of medium thickness. A few pieces are finer and thinner.
Patterns are truly Chinese. On the most popular ivory ( “blue and white” ) or dark blue fields there are lotus or paeony medallions, floating floral sprays, cherry blossoms, bats and butterflies, vases, scrolls and brushes, various antique objects, good luck ( “Shou” ) medallions in quasi calligraphy, coins, etc. A fewer pieces may have landscape or pictorial motives, or mythical animals.
The borders are equally unmistakable: cartouches enclosing traditional devices; fences and lattices; swastika, key and T-frets; paeony and lotus scrolls, etc. Since these carpets were made for the West, they had to be absolutely Chinese . Popular sizes run 8’ x 9’-10’ to 12’ x 18’ .There are some small pieces available also in the 4’ x 6’, 3’ x 6’, or even some 2’ x 2’ .There are no red or green pieces, and even yellow is rare. The best period is 1890 to 1915 .
The Art Deco Period ( 1920-1940 ) opened up a new weaving centre in Tientsen downriver from Beijing. The American importers Nichols and Fette produced a large number of mostly 9’x12’ pieces.Nichols have a striking range of colours ; grass green, deep gold, burgundy, lavender, with contrasting borders and asymmetric, often open patterns.Thick heavy pile gives them good wearability.Purely geometric Art Deco pieces, each one unique, are less frequently found and are still undervalued.Fette carpets are tonally softer,but still thick and heavy.Round or oval Fette carpets are not infrequent.Prices of Nichols and Fette carpets in good condition are still very reasonable.
After WWII and the communist takeover, rug weaving declined and only in the last few decades has it revived, emphasizing mostly Persian designs and more finely knotted rugs.