Knotting, like so many Chinese folk arts that evolved into a fine art, had its roots in antiquity.
Because of the perish ability of fibrous plant and animal materials, however, the best archaeological evidence of this handicraft is old needles as well as images on bronzes, sculptures, and later paintings. Jade pendants, sceptres, and beads with holes merely suggest the complexity of knots that once bound them together.
Glossed by Chinese dictionaries as “the joining of two cords”, knotting evolved from being simply a functional product to multifaceted forms of decorative embellishment.
During the Qing dynasty, knotting reached an apex of creative ingenuity, technical skill, and refined aesthetics before sliding into relative obscurity in the second half of the twentieth century.
A revival of interest in Taiwan in the late 1970s led to a renaissance in the art form not only on the island but more recently throughout east Asia at about the same time that decorative macramé gained renewed popularity in the West.
Chinese knots are normally tied using a single red cord about three feet in length and are fashioned into a symmetrical body that is tightly bound, three-dimensional, and complete on both sides. Cords traditionally were made of cotton, flax, silk, and leather, in addition to gold and silver.
Knotting guides today typically present more than a dozen basic designs, each of which has many variations and permutations: cloverleaf knot; round brocade knot; pan chang knot; constellation knot; good luck knot; Buddha knot; double connection knot; plafond knot; flat knot; creeper knot; double coin knot; button knot; cross knot; and tassel knot.
Four fundamental techniques are employed to tie them, including pulling and wrapping outer loops; using single flat knots; overlapping outer loops; and, knotting outer loops.
Rudimentary knots become complex by duplicating the original knot or by adding a different knotting sequence. While knowing the sequence of tying a knot is fundamental, it is the tightening of the knot in order to even out its structure that elevates the resulting form to an art object.
Knotting provides a means to communicate a full range of auspicious ideas at weddings and birthdays. Propitious designs were commonly used in bridal chambers, where the knots were strung together alongside canopy beds as a form of ornamentation. Mentioned in poems and novels, a specific conjoined knot came to symbolize love and was used often in the marriage ceremony, on sedan chairs, and in the bedroom.
As representative pieces of mid- and late-T’ang painting, such as Wan-shan Shih-nu T’u and Kung-yueh T’u shows, knots of the Wan-tzu pattern were attached to chairs as ornaments.
In the portrait Sung Chen-tsung Chang-i Li-huang-hou Tsohsiang, Empress Chang-i (wife of the Sung emperor Chen-tsung, reigned 995-1003) is seen sitting on a chair decorated with several sets of pendants strung with knots. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) knotted pendants were gradually replaced by tassels as furniture ornaments.
Traditional men’s and women’s garments employed button knots and ornamented sashes to fasten pieces of cloth. In museums, it is often easy to overlook knots since they are usually subordinate to other objects on display, appearing only as accoutrements on frayed and faded tassels.
Traditional knotting simply required the dexterity of two hands, nimble fingers, and a cord.
Today, many also use pushpins, tweezers, sewing needles, and nail polish to facilitate their knotting. In addition to traditional knots, craftspeople in China and abroad have become creative in fashioning nylon knotting cord into three-dimensional objects as tabletop centrepieces and large wall hangings that diverge significantly from the smaller, exquisite traditional forms.
The Characteristics of Chinese Knot work
Chinese knot work has primary utility as decoration, and its intrinsic aesthetical value is truly beyond compare. Not only does it occupy an important position in the decorative arts of China, it has also assumed a catalytic role in the development of the art of knotting in both Japan and Korea.
That the Chinese ways of making knots could have exerted such a widespread influence in East Asia is by no means a coincidence; the causes are found in the structural diversity of the knot work and its versatility in application.
The Chinese knots of both decorative and practical value have in general the following characteristics:
First, Chinese knots are very compact in structure.
The strain which pulls against the knots would draw the constituent parts tightly together, allowing them to hold.
At the same time, Chinese knots are highly decorative, making them suitable for a variety of applications.
The practice in T’ang China (618-907) of tying presents with red and white strings or cords serves as a good example; and as a matter of fact it is in this Chinese tradition that the Japanese mizuhiki (Japanese decorative knot) finds its origin.
While the first mizuhiki emerged in the 7th century, the Japanese have through the ages shown a stern loyalty to “tradition” and confined the application of the mizuhiki exclusively to gift-wrapping, and, as a result, no significant or innovative breakthrough has so far been witnessed in the development of Japanese knot work.
This may explain why the decorative knots of Japan are still quite simple in form and relatively loose in structure.
Second, Chinese knots are complex insofar as interlacement is concerned, and in this structural complexity exist many pattern variations.
This characteristic, to be sure, clearly distinguishes Chinese knot work from its Euro-American sibling, macramé tatting.
While the square knots and half hitches are frequently used in the making of macramé, they are nonetheless rather plain, aesthetically speaking.
Further, only when a group of square knots and half hitches are well put together, may the beauty of a piece of macramé be realized.
On the other hand, each of the knots in a Chinese knot work is in itself a delicate piece of art, with its own cosmos of looping, weaving, hitching, and cording. When a group of these knots are assembled, countless combinations of decorative patterns emerge.
Similar to Chinese knots in terms of technical maturity are the knots of Korea.
While tracing the history and development of knotting in Korea is by no means possible, as source materials conducive for such an endeavour are scarce, it is believed that Korean knot work also has its origin in China.
What is even more interesting to note here, though, is that the Koreans, having acquired their sophisticated knotting techniques from the Middle Kingdom, have been able to retain their own traditions and designs and create an art that is truly unique.
Third, Chinese knots, for the most part, are symmetrical in form.
While this design is very much in line with the underlying philosophy of Chinese decorative arts, it has nevertheless curtailed the artists’ options in the selection of themes.
Fourth, Chinese knots are three-dimensional; they consist of two layers of cord, with an empty space in between. This type of interlacement can strengthen the structure of the knot without having to alter its shape, rendering it tenacious enough for hanging. At the same time, unwanted loose ends can be tucked into the space inside.
Further, beads, jewels, and other auspicious objects may also be sewn in, adding to the overall beauty of the knot.
Left: This performed window along a corridor in a Suzhou garden is in the shape of a knot.
Right: Crafted of colour stones, this knot enhances the irregular pavement in a Sushou garden