from Issue 2

Steppe 2 Cover

Chinese Whispers

by Brigid Keenan

Originating in the far western corner of China, the carpets on the following pages tell a story of ethnic blending between the local Muslim population and the predominant Han Chinese. The Uighurs, age-old masters of carpet weaving, have created a colourful canvas on which they have interpreted the cultural symbols of the Middle Kingdom. Brigid Keenan takes us on a journey to uncover the origin and true meaning of these enchanting textiles. Photographs by Tim Beddow.

I first came across the mystery carpet in the Hajj market in Damascus. This temporary bazaar, set up each year by Muslim pilgrims from the Caucasus making their way overland to Mecca, is a thrilling event. No one knows exactly when the convoy of battered old Russian buses flying the green flag of Islam will belch and stutter into the city, and everyone wants to be the first on the scene to get the pick of the rugs the pilgrims have collected and brought to Syria in order to fund their religious journey.

For three days, the rather dreary modern square at Bab Musalla becomes a kaleidoscope of colour. It is carpeted with rugs of all sizes, shades, origins and conditions, and peopled by multitudes (Daghestanis, Chechens, Ingushetians) speaking strange tongues and haggling with the local merchants from the souk as well as those lucky foreigners who have heard the market is in town. It is as though time has flipped back more than a century to the days when Damascus was the assembly-place and trading centre for pilgrims from all over the Near East, Central Asia and even China, when Bab Musalla was the traditional departure point of the great caravans that left Damascus for the long and dangerous haul across the desert to Mecca.

It was pouring rain at the end of the last day of one of these Hajj markets. My husband and I were heading home, picking our way across the huge square towards the car park, when an extraordinary bright red and yellow rug, patterned with vases of flowers, furniture and what looked like a bunch of bananas, literally stopped us in our tracks. It was ragged and dirty and sodden with rain, but still glowed seductively. We had never seen anything like it before and asked the owner where it came from. ‘Samarkand,’ he told us. None the wiser, we bought it; we just could not leave such a curiosity behind.

I had the carpet mended in Damascus (the city is full of skilled carpet repairers), and when our posting to Syria was over we took the strange rug back to England. We put it in the hall of our house in Somerset, where its luminous colours and peculiar design cheered us up every time we passed by; and though I tried, I was not able to find anything more about its origins.

Three years later we were posted to Kazakhstan, and very shortly after arriving we spotted another bright carpet with fruit and flowers at a craft fair. I began to investigate, and discovered that the real place of origin of these carpets was not Samarkand (which had been one of the major trading centres for Central Asian carpets), but was instead just east of Kazakhstan across the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains) in China’s far western Xinjiang province. Xinjiang is an extraordinary region, home to deserts of shifting sand, extremes of temperature, fertile oases, rivers that disappear, ancient Buddhist caves and ghost towns that died when the water ran out. Its history is complicated, but it is necessary to know it in order to understand the curious origins of these carpets.

Until recent times, Uighurs were the dominant ethnic group in this region. A Turkic people who came to Xinjiang in the ninth century (after being driven out of their homeland in Mongolia), the Uighurs mostly settled in the oasis towns around the Taklamakan Desert and gained a reputation as traders and creators of beautiful carpets, many of which are now collector’s pieces.

Xinjiang’s location on the Silk Road made it a hub for international trade, and here languages and religions crossed borders along with goods (the Uighurs became Muslim when Islam reached Central Asia). For centuries, the Uighurs’ carpets reflected the artistic traditions of their trading partners (India, Persia, Turkey and Central Asia), but their own input made the carpets unique.

The Chinese have always had their eye on Xinjiang, in the past coveting its mineral wealth of jade, gold and silver and today its coal, oil and minerals. From as far back as 200 bc, they made incursions into the area, maintaining their occupation until each time they were forced to retreat. From 1759 onwards, however, despite several serious uprisings led by local Muslim leaders and warlords, the Chinese managed to maintain their grip until 1949, when Xinjiang was formally annexed to the People’s Republic of China. In recent years, millions of Han Chinese have been settled in the region and now outnumber the local Uighur population.

In response to domination by the Chinese (and probably at their behest), the Uighurs started to make carpets for the new Chinese market. They abandoned their own designs and began producing carpets that used traditional Chinese “Auspicious Symbols’ and ‘Precious Objects’ instead. But the Uighurs had not been raised in Chinese culture, and therefore did not completely understand the symbols; so they interpreted them in their own way. The results were delightfully eccentric.

Take the finger citron, for instance; also known in China as the Buddha’s hand, this peculiar fruit is a Chinese symbol for long life, and usually appears in a bowl or basket with the other auspicious fruits like pomegranates (with part of the skin removed to show the seeds inside) standing for fertility and peaches for long life. For Uighur weavers, who had most likely never seen a real finger citron, it evolved into a pair of antlers, a geometric pattern, a human hand with a pointing index finger or, as in the case of my Damascus rug, a bunch of bananas.

In the same way, a table holding a vase of flowers is a popular Chinese image that represents peace, long life, prosperity, wealth and distinction, but the many Uighur versions of the same symbol are flamboyant, exuberant and as far removed from the neat flower arrangements of the ‘real’ Chinese version as Matisse is from the Dutch masters.

Some designs on Uighur rugs are almost impossible to decipher. Even with the Dictionary of Chinese Symbols in hand, I am still baffled by something that looks like a Dalek wearing a decorative belt: could it be a tripod (a good-luck symbol from the Eight Precious Things) with add-ons? The Uighurs wove wonky bowls inhabited by unlikely looking goldfish (for ‘riches in abundance’); Chinese books (one of the Eight Symbols of the Scholar) that look like early bakelite radios; vases adorned with fake Chinese characters; and bottle gourds (one of the symbols of the Eight Immortals) evoking Munch’s The Scream. Just occasionally, too, one can spot an incongruous teapot or spoon incorporated into the design, which is not a Chinese representation at all but rather a Central Asian symbol of hospitality.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, chemical dyes came into being and the Uighurs – lovers of bright colours, flowers, music and dancing – used them with relish; but the carpets made fifty to one hundred years ago have faded to gentler tones now. (The ones woven in Xinjiang today are too gaudy and crude even for my taste, but they are popular with Uighurs, who hang them on the walls of their homes or spread them on the household kang, a raised platform heated from underneath in the winter, on which most Uighur life is lived.)

There is very little published on these unique and vivacious late-nineteenth and early-to-mid-twentieth century rugs. Experts and textile collectors have not taken them particularly seriously, partly because they are not the ‘real thing’ in terms of traditional design but are instead a relatively modern hybrid made for a specific market, and also because they are often more coarsely woven; and then there is the unashamed chemical dye ‘problem’.

Nonetheless, these Uighur carpets will become increasingly rare, as they were only made during a particular time. There are many collectors who do appreciate their joy, humour and decorative value. Of course, there is also the additional attraction that every rug is like a woven greeting card that brings, in Chinese whispers, warm messages of goodwill and good luck to thousands of homes, from China to Somerset.

Carpet Stockists:


79–91 New King’s Road, London SW6 4SQ

Tel: +44 (0) 207 731 4686


 Joss Graham Oriental Textiles

10 Eccleston Street, London SW1W 9LT

Tel: +44 (0) 207 730 4370

Brigid Keenan is the author of Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse, published by John Murray (£7.99).