History of Chinese Knotting
    Overview | History | Sheng-hung Chen | May-lu Jen | Marjorie Li

Archaeological studies indicate that the art of tying knots, which has been most simply defined by the Chinese dictionary Shuo Wen Chieh Tzu as "the joining of two cords", by the Chinese people has a legacy that extends back nearly 70,000 - 100,000 years. Recent findings including 100,000-year old bone needles used for sewing and Bodkins, instruments used to untie knots have been discovered to reveal this ancient tradition of knot tying. However, due to the inherent delicate nature of the medium, few extant examples of prehistoric Chinese knotting exist today. Some of the earliest evidence of knotting have been preserved on bronze vessels of the Warring States period (481-221 BCE), Buddhist carvings of the Northern Dynasties period (317-581) and on silk paintings during the Western Han period (206 BCE-CE6). Further references to knotting have also been found in literature, poetry and the private letters of some of the most infamous rulers of China. From these precious artifacts, it is undeniable that knots were an inherent and integral part of the everyday life of the Chinese people.

Some experts have suggested that the origins of Chinese knotting can be traced back to a cultural period in history that has more recently been termed a "knotted cord culture". The worshipping of knotted cord or rope by the Chinese people is both an interesting and multifaceted phenomenon. For instance, the actual term for "rope" has similar pronunciation and subtle links in meaning to the terms "spirit" and "divine". Thus, knots were cherished and imbued with profound spiritual and religious meaning. In other words, the manipulation of rope was used to make sacred objects of worship. Moreover, rope took on added cultural and spiritual significance due to the fact that knotted cord resembled a coiled dragon. Subsequently, manifestations of dragon spirits were imbued in the intricate rope designs of this period. Since the Chinese people believed themselves to be descendants of the dragon, rope or knotted cord was used to make sacred objects of devotion, serving to unify the society at large. Thus, the art of knotting was not only multifarious, but also commonplace among the Chinese people.

Knotting simply cannot be looked upon as mere folk or leisure art. Even in its most rudimentary form, the functional and practical importance of knotting in Chinese society is undeniable. In fact, the knot was the basis for written and symbolic communication, a method of record keeping and a symbolic representation of meaningful historical events that occurred over time. For instance, events of importance were symbolized by the tying of knots; the size or girth of the knot itself was reliant upon the importance of significance of the event being archived.

Another critical aspect of knotting is its purity of aesthetic expression. For instance traditional Chinese garb, including dresses, jackets and night attire were oftentimes enhanced with knotted waist sashes, belt ornaments and button knots. In addition, Chinese button knots were not only functional and more durable than bone buttons, but were also a striking ornamentation to apparel worn by both men and women alike. In addition, common household objects were often adorned with highly intricately woven knots embellished with jade or beads. Musical instruments, swords, lanterns, jugs and mirrors were decorated with carefully crafted and delicately twisted handmade cord.

The lyrical rhythm, unabashed intensity of color, highly defined texture and detailed patterns of Chinese knots are deeply entwined in folkloric tradition. It is evident that decorative knotwork is ripe with symbolic meaning. There are currently 18 basic types of Chinese knots: including the "cross knot", "ring hitch" and the "Chinese lanyard knot" to name a few. Certain knots such as the "mystic knot" pattern with its seemingly endless and repetitive pattern evokes one of the fundamental truths of Buddhism and the cyclical nature of all existence. In essence, knotwork serves to create an atmosphere of well-being, good luck and health, longevity and harmony. As gifts, they are emotional, sentimental, and are often keepsakes between lovers and friends.

The phenomenon of knot tying continued to steadily evolve over the course of thousands of years with the development of more sophisticated techniques and increasingly intricate woven patterns. Decorative knotwork would ultimately reach its pinnacle of popularity during the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911). Knotting finally broke from its pure folkloric status and became an acceptable art form in Chinese society. Knotting continued to flourish up until about 1911 AD when China was experiencing modernization. Moreover, the influx of Western science and technology ultimately proved less practical concerns such as knotting to be rather obsolete.

It is evident that the tradition of Chinese knotting has had a long and tenuous history. The perpetuation of this seemingly timeless art form was single-handedly spearheaded by Lydia Chen (Chen Hsia-Sheng). This knotting movement was initially revitalized in the 1960s-1970s by Chen. In the 1980s, Mrs. Chen focused her energies on the knotting artifacts preserved during the Ching Dynasty. Also a practicing knotter herself, Chen's unrelenting and impassioned interest in this art form has not only uncovered historical artifacts, but has reinvigorated this dormant craft while propelling its livelihood and development into the future.