What is it?
Chinese knotting is an ancient form of art that has been practised widely in China up until the 1930s. The Chinese name for Knots is 结 which literally means the joining of two cords. A major characteristic of Chinese knots is that they are often tied from a single continuous length of string. The knots are commonly named after the shape it takes. Such shapes include flowers, birds, dragons, fish or auspicious Chinese characters. They can come in many different colours although the most favoured colour would be red as it symbolises good fortune and prosperity in the Chinese culture. Sometimes, decorative beads or coins would be added to a knot for a more complete and elegant look.
The earliest record of knots dates back to the Warring States period (700BC) where knots were found on bronze vessels. Throughout history, knots have played an integral part of the Chinese lives. Initially, knots originated for practical purposes such as to record significant events, to aid in fishing and hunting or to keep items in place. However, their purpose soon evolved to act as decorations as well. The shapes they took became increasingly complicated, intricate and more beautiful to increase the appeal of the item they graced. Knots were added as embellishments to one’s clothing or every day’s product or furniture. They were used in a wide variety of items ranging from tobacco pouches to scented sachets and a host of other common items, supplementing an extra touch of enchantment. On top of being visually aesthetic, knots were often ripe with symbolic connotations and used by people to express blessings, best wishes and amorous sentiments. In Chinese literature for instance, writers often make references to knots to symbolise the emotional ties of lovers. In the photographs below, they are samples that showcases the symbolic meanings behind the different knot shapes.
Unlike other forms of art, Chinese knotting was often overlooked by scholars. Its’ wide presence and the very nature of it being a “mundane” part of life meant that few scholars realised its’ significance and it remained in the background. Furthermore, the techniques of knot tying were passed down orally from one generation to the next and hence there are no direct records of it. To add on, knots were often made of easily degradable material and most of them have rotted and left zero trace for modern historians to analyse. So how did historians come to know about the origin of Chinese Knots? Today, all we have in our hands are knots from the late Qing and early Republican periods. Therefore, most of our knowledge stems from incidental references made to Chinese knots presented in other areas of literature and artefacts.
In a commentary on the trigrams of the Book of Changes, it was mentioned by a Han scholar that large knots were used to record great events while smaller knots signified lesser important events. As no samples of such knots exist, we do not know exactly how the knots looked like. One can only guess from the pictorial representations of Chinese knot patterns found on bronze wares.
Aside from this, literary works of the past have often made references to the Chinese knot, more specifically, “true lover’s knot”. The first ruler of the early sixth century state of Liang, Wu Ti, mentions the knot in a poem when romanticising he and his lover.
“I dreamed the silk cords at our waists
Were bound together in a true lover’s knot”
In historical records, it was shown that when the Sui ruler Wen Ti’s young concubine Hsuan Hua had attracted the admiration of Wen Ti’s son and successor, Yang Ti, Yang Ti turned to the “true lover’s knot” to express his feelings. He packed several of such knots in a box and had them delivered to Hsuan Hua. Here, it is obvious that knots served as symbols that allowed for extra-lingual communication centuries ago in China.
Later on, popular venacular novels also made incidental reference to Chinese knotting and they helped shed a few rays of light in understanding the craft and the part it played in people’s lives.
One prime example would be a conversation about decorative knots in chapter 35 of the Dream of the Red Chamber. There, Pao-yu has summoned Ying-erh to his quarters to ask her to tie a few knots for him. During their discussion, Ying-erh divulges a host of information: where the knots can be used, the selection of the proper colour of cord, a hint at the amount of time needed to tie the knots, and a list of those she is able to tie. In their conversation, she mentions fanciful names such as the incense knot, the sunflower knot, the plum blossom knot, the elephant’s eye knot, the willow leaf knot, and the double diamond knot. While the passage does not reveal how the knots were crafted, it had demonstrated the wide variety of knots and the creative names endeared to them during the Qing dynasty. In fact, of all that were mentioned, the only one that has survived today is the double diamond knot.
Other evidences also point to the conclusion that knots were also cherished as an essential part of everyday life.
The Chinese gentlemen from the Zhou dynasty often carried a special tool tied to their waist sashes, a hsi. This tool is said to be made of ivory, jade and bone and have been preserved in many museum collections. Their crescent like shape with one tapered end suggest that these were tools that were used to loosen knots.
Furthermore, paintings from the past often portrayed both men and women as being dressed in long robes with flowing sleeves whereby the traditional garb at the waist area were fastened with knotted sashes.
Artefacts of household objects in ancient China also displayed evidence that they incorporated knots in their designs. For example, bronze mirrors had rings on their backsides, so that they could be tied to walls by knotted cords.
In Modern Times
These Chinese knots do bring a splash of vigour and appeal to the items that they grace. They are indeed a wonderful addition to anything! These days unfortunately, not many Chinese are familiar with Chinese Knotting. Even though knots still serve as festive decorations like during the Lunar New Year or as product enhancement features, few Chinese actually know how to tie one. Most of such knots are often mass manufactured in factories and sold to the masses attached as a part of a bigger decorative ornament. Much of the more complicated knots are unknown to the masses and only some of the specialised craftsmen know of them. Unlike the past, knots are more often used as decorations than for a practical purpose.
The act of tying knots is a symbol of patience, dedication to craftsmanship, and a celebration of the ingenuity of the Chinese race. If we have time, why not take the effort to understand more about such knots and try our hand at it? Who knows, perhaps these age-old charms can add a few touches of good luck to our hectic daily lives?
The book written by Lydia Chen is a good book to get started in understanding more about knots. Much of the information from this article were derived from this book.