Completed research on behalf of the publication Dragon & Horse. Saddle Rugs and Other horse tack from China and Beyond, Amsterdam – Hong Kong 2013.  

Research into oriental carpets in general and Chinese carpets in particular

Until recently, little was known about Chinese carpets and rugst. Most of this knowledge was and still is based on the study of the carpets themselves. First of all, this knowledge was handed down to us by carpet dealers. Their knowledge was chiefly based on practical experience and, by tradition, not on scientific research. This situation changed completely when some specialised dealers, collectors and museum curators started to work together, to share the results of serious research, and in 1978 to initiate Hali magazine, by which they supplied themselves with an international forum. Another major factor was the growing importance of technical analysis of the structure of carpets, which by itself resulted from professionalization of textile conservation. The standardization of the terminology for the description of carpets also contributed to this development[i].

During the last decades radio-carbon (C-14) dating, developed by archaeologists to date organic materials, gradually became more important. By this method the age of a carpet (or at least the materials that were used) can be determined with a reasonable certainty. However, this method only delivers reliable results when the carpet is more than 350 years old. More recently some promising results have been achieved with the dating of colorants by establishing their respective breakdown curves, but this method is still far from reliable. Very promising indeed is also the rapid development of gene-technology, assuming that one day this new technology will enable us not only to determine the exact race of the animal that supplied the wool, but also its food and life circumstances and, by that way, where it lived.

A second important source is pictures that represent carpets. A century ago the study of this source of information resulted in the first art historian publications about carpets by researchers like Wilhelm von Bode, Julius Lessing and Alois Riegl[ii]. The most important factor to procure a terminus ante quem for oriental carpets proved to be the realistic paintings from Italy, and later on from the Low Countries. In Italy this applies to the very realistic paintings from the 14th to the 16th centuries that represent carpets of which sometimes even the structure is clearly recognizable. Hereafter this realism decreased in favour of a more Baroque idealism, by which this source loses its value for the dating of carpets. In the Low Countries, first during the 15th and 16th centuries in the Catholic south and later on from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries in the Protestant north Low Countries, this preference for realistic painting endured. Although in the 1950’s progress was made in this field, it was during the 1980’s that really ground breaking research took place[iii]. However, pictures as a source for scientific study only applies to carpets that for centuries were imported from Turkey, Persia and India, first by the Italians and Portuguese and later on by the Dutch and the English. So, unfortunately, that will not do for Chinese carpets. The rather late interest in these carpets is closely connected with the second wave of Orientalism[iv], which reigned in Europe during the late 19th century, and the loot taken away in 1858 by the Allies from the burnt Summer Palace in Beijing and once more in 1900 from the Forbidden City. Fortunately, where Western painting fails us, Chinese painting, sculpture and – quite surprisingly – the applied arts too, come to the rescue.

A third and provisionally last source is literature and archives in which carpets and the like are mentioned. However, there are two reasons why, for the moment at least, the importance of this source is limited. On the one hand, it is because the terminology is unclear and sometimes even plainly confusing. This applies to oriental carpets in general but particularly to Chinese carpets and rugs. Some of the earliest Chinese sources mention terms like qu suo, qu yu and ta deng. Thereafter gradually the terms ditan and tanzi, and some variations on these terms become the vogue, although it nearly almost remains unclear what materials and techniques exactly are meant by these terms. Up to the Song period (960-1279) saddle rugs are called cun or anru . On the other hand, it’s only after the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976) that scientific study[v] of artefacts and literary sources and the publication of this kind of research have taken place. Without any doubt, remarkable discoveries will follow.

Although earlier publications by authors like Bidder[vi], Lorentz[vii] and Eiland[viii] do have their merits for the study of Chinese carpets and rugs in general, researchers like Michel Franses and Hans König have achieved a real breakthrough in this field. Their dedicated work resulted in several well-documented publications and culminated in the outstanding exhibition and accompanying catalogue Glanz der Himmelsöhne Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China 1400-1750[ix]  in Cologne in 2005. Nevertheless, up to this day we have very limited information about saddle rugs from China and related areas like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. Therefore it is often assumed that these rugs date from the 19th century. This will remain the case until someone takes the initiative to conduct thorough research. I have undertaken this task with much pleasure. In my research into saddle rugs I have made a choice for the ‘classical’ approach, similar to the methods used by researchers such as Julius Lessing, Wilhelm von Bode, John Mills and Onno Ydema[x]. Based on research into images of early carpets from the Middle East in western painting, they have succeeded in determining a datum ante quem for a number of types of rugs. Although such – in essence, stylistic – research obviously has its limitations, it is a great advantage that a reasonably reliable typology can be developed based on the results. The results of my research can subsequently prove its use within the allocating and dating process concerning preserved saddle rugs.

Definition of the Subject

The subject of my research is the ‘saddle rug,’ as it was traditionally used in China, including Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. My interpretation of the definition of ‘saddle rugs’ includes all textiles used under or on top of the saddle of riding- and pack animals, for purposes of protection for the animal as well as its rider, for covering baggage, for distinction or for ceremonial reasons. Often it concerns a set of rugs with identified functions. Although the emphasis was particularly on the woollen pile-knotted saddle rug, my research also involved ‘rugs’ made from other materials such as felt, woven and embroidered fabric, and leather; not only because this was essential for obtaining a complete picture, but also because it is just not always possible to make the distinction of the materials in the interpretation of the images which are available in abundance. Although focussed on saddle rugs, the outcome this research proved all the more interesting, because we know so little about early Chinese carpets and rugs, i.e., before the Qing period.


The main focus of my research was on the available images. This includes images of saddle rugs published in books, magazines and on the Internet. The special element with regard to this research, contrary to the above-mentioned research into images of rugs from the Middle East in western painting, is that it is not limited to painting: sculpture and applied arts have also been used as sources. This is not that common, because a realistic representation from one material to another – for example ceramics or enamel – is not immediately obvious. However, it soon turned out that this does indeed apply to Chinese art and applied arts. A comparison of all the traced images demonstrates indisputably that the artists and craftsmen were apparently aiming for providing representations that were as realistic as possible, and subsequently developed great skill in accurately depicting all possible details. This may be explained by the fact that in Asian culture, far less importance is attached to the creative role of the artist, when compared to western art since the Renaissance. On the contrary: following the conventions and the renowned masters as closely as possible was of paramount essence in this frame. The literature research I conducted has not been exhaustive. I have used major manuals, museum-collection and exhibition catalogues, auction catalogues, magazines and other publications to which I had access via the National Arts Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the library of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in combination with my own extensive library on the subject of Chinese applied arts. The magazines Hali, Arts of Asia and Orientations deserve a special mention, if only because illustrated advertisements of art-dealers can regularly be found in these magazines since the 1970’s. Furthermore, besides the Internet, I have made use of the extensive photographic collection of the Museum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden. Naturally, this research can be extended and I would cordially welcome any supplementary material.

Method of Research

For all the images of saddle rugs, I registered relevant information both about the image carrier, as well as about the illustrated rug, i.e. its function, shape, materials and techniques, decoration of the field, and main and secondary borders. Special attention has been paid to relevant technical details like the strap holes, middle part (‘seat’), extension piece, ends and edge-finish. I also made a sketch of every illustrated saddle rug because it forced me to take a closer look at the images. Subsequently I have categorised and analysed the registered information and the drawings. The combination, and the mutual comparison of the many details – after all, most of the images show just a small part of one or more saddle rugs – eventually resulted in a more or less complete analysis. As a final step I compared the outcome of this extensive literature research both to the published images of preserved saddle rugs and to the saddle rugs in our private collection.

Technical research

In order to back up the typology mentioned above, I had all the saddle rugs in our collection structurally analysed by Sadegh Memarian, head of the Institute for Conservation of Antique Textiles (ICAT), in Cruquius, The Netherlands. The colours of some extraordinary saddle rugs were analysed by Prof. Dr. Recep Karadağ and his team of the Laboratory for Research and Development of Natural Dyes of the Turkish Cultural Foundation (TCF) in Istanbul. I further supplied this valuable information with the rather sparingly published technical information of other saddle rugs in public or private collections. However, I hope that my publication will be a stimulus for museum curators, private collectors and dealers to analyse the saddle rugs in their collections, too.

[i]  M. Mallett, Woven Structures. A Guide to Oriental Rugs and Textile Analysis, Atlanta, 1998.

[ii]  For a sound survey of early carpet research see: Thomas J. Farnham, ‘From Lessing to Ettinghausen. The First Century of  Safavid Carpet Studies’, in: Hali 154, pp. 81-91.

[iii]  B. Scheunemann, Anatolische Teppiche auf Abendländischen Gemälden, Humboldt Universität, Berlin, 1954 [unpublished]; J. Mills, Carpets in Pictures, London, 1977 [and later publications]; O. Ydema, Carpets and their Datings in Netherlandish Paintings 1540-1700, Zutphen, 1991.   

[iv]  Meant here is the Orientalism in art during the second half of the 19th century, which was inspired by the successive world exhibitions in Europe, the USA and Australia.

[v]  ‘Scientific’ in the Western meaning of the word. Of course it’s beyond question that in China the study of texts, art objects and antiquities has a long tradition, but this is a literary one and follows a very different method.

[vi]  H. Bidder, Carpets from Eastern Turkestan, Tübingen 1979 [first edition 1964].

[vii]  H.A. Lorentz, A view of Chinese Rugs from Seventeenth to Twentieth century, London 1972.

[viii]  Murray L. Eiland, Chinese and Exotic Rugs, London 1979.

[ix]  Exhib. cat. Glanz der Himmelssöhne. Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China 1400-1750, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Köln 2005.

[x]  Julius Lessing, Altorientalische Teppichmuster nach Bildern und Originalen des XV-XVI Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1877; W. von Bode, Vorderasiatische Knüpfteppiche aus älterer Zeit, Leipzig 1901; John Mills,  London 1977 [and later publications]; Onno Ydema, Zutphen 1991.



the book
Simply a must for anyone who loves textiles, horses or the history of China’s military, sports or culture.