Chinese knotting

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Eight examples of one traditional Chinese knot. Eight chinese knots.jpg
Eight examples of one traditional Chinese knot.

Chinese knotting (Chinese :中国结; pinyin :Zhōngguó jié) is a decorative handcraft art that began as a form of Chinese folk art in the Tang and Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) in China. [1] The technique was later popularized in the Ming dynasty and subsequently spread to Japan, Korea, Singapore and other parts of Asia. [1] This art is also called "Chinese traditional decorative knots". [1] In other cultures, it is known as "decorative knots". [1]


3D structure of Pan Chang knot (one of the Chinese knotting) 3d structure of Panchang knot.png
3D structure of Pan Chang knot (one of the Chinese knotting)
3d structure of Pan Chang knot (Chinese knotting) sideview 3d structure of Panchang knot (Chinese knotting) sideview.png
3d structure of Pan Chang knot (Chinese knotting) sideview
3d structure of Pan chang knot (Chinese knotting) topview 3d structure of Panchang knot-topview.png
3d structure of Pan chang knot (Chinese knotting) topview

Chinese knots are usually lanyard type arrangements where two cords enter from the top of the knot and two cords leave from the bottom. The knots are usually double-layered and symmetrical. [2] On the right you can see examples of Pan Chang knot's 3D structures.


Archaeological studies indicate that the art of tying knots dates back to prehistoric times. Recent discoveries include 100,000-year-old bone needles used for sewing and bodkins, which were used to untie knots. However, due to the delicate nature of the medium, a few 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 (481221 BCE), Buddhist carvings of the Northern Dynasties period (317581) and on silk paintings during the Western Han period (206 BCE9 CE).

Recording and ruling method

Based on the archaeology and literature evidence, before 476 BCE, the knots in China had a specific function: recording and ruling method, similar to the Inca Quipu. According to ‘ Zhouyi·Xi Ci II’ (Chinese: 周易·系辞下), from the ancient times of Bao-xi ruling era, except the use for fishing, [3] knots were used to record and govern the community. [4] The Eastern Han (25-220 CE) scholar Zheng Xuan annotated The Book of Changes that "Big events were recorded with complicated knots, and small events were recorded with simple knots" (Chinese: 事大,大结其绳;事小,小结其绳). [5] [6] Moreover, the chapter of Tubo (Tibet) in the New Book of Tang recorded that "the government makes the agreement by tie cords due to lack of characters" (Chinese: 其吏治,无文字,结绳齿木为约). [7]

Ancient totem and symbol

Mawangdui silk banner from tomb no1 Mawangdui silk banner from tomb no1.jpg
Mawangdui silk banner from tomb no1

Simultaneously, additional to the use of recording and ruling, knots became an ancient totem and belief motif. In the ancient time, Chinese brought knots a lot of good meanings from the pictograms, quasi-sound, to the totem worship. [8] An example is the double coin knot pattern painting on the T-shape silk banner discovered by archaeologists in Mawangdui tombs (206 BCE – CE 9). [9] The pattern is in the form of intertwined dragons as a double coin knot in the middle of the fabric painting. In the upper part, the fabric painting illustrates the ancient deities Fuxi and Nüwa who are also the initiator of marriage in China that derived the meaning of love for double coin knot in many ancient poems. [10] The tangible evidence has been excavated that 3000 years ago on the Yinxu Oracle bone script, knots recognised as the use of symbol rather than functional use. [11]

Decorative art

According to Lydia Chen, the earliest tangible evidence of using knots as decorative motif is on a high stem small square pot in Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE) which now are displayed in Shanxi Museum. [12] [13] However, the archaeology research in the latest decade confirmed that the earliest artefact of the decorative knot in China can trace back 4000 years ago when a three-row rattan knotting of double coin knot was excavated from Liangzhu Ruins. [11] [14]

With gradually developing, the knots became a distinctive decorative art in China starting from the Spring and Autumn Period to use the ribbon knotting and the decorative knots on the clothing. Written in Zuo zhuan : "The collar has an intersection, and the belt is tied as knots" (Chinese: 衣有桧,带有结). [15] It then deriving the Lào zi (Chinese: 络子) culture. The word Lao (Chinese: 络) is the ancient appellation in China of the knot, and it was a tradition to tie a knot at the waist by silk or cotton ribbon. The first peak of Lào zi culture was during the Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty (581-906 CE), when numbers basic knots, such as Sauvastika knot (Chinese: 万字结) and Round brocade knot (Chinese: 团锦结), generated the Lào zi vogue on the garments and the common folk art in the palace and home. [16] Therefore, knots were cherished not only as symbols and tools but also as an essential part of everyday life to decorate and express thoughts and feelings. [17]

In Tang and Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE), the love-based knot is a unique element as evidenced in many of the poem, novel, and painting. For example, in the memoir Dongjing Meng Hua Lu written by Meng Yuanlao noticed that in the traditional wedding custom, a Concentric knot (Chinese: 同心结 ) or the knot made like a Concentric knot was necessary to be held by the bride and groom. [18] Other ancient poems mentioned the Concentric knot to portray love such as Luo Binwang's poem: Knot the ribbon as the Concentric knot, interlock the love as the clothes (Chinese: 同心结缕带,连理织成衣). [19] Huang Tingjian‘s poem: We had a time knotting together, loving as the ribbon tied (Chinese: 曾共结,合欢罗带). The most famous poem about the love knot was written by Meng Jiao Knotting love (Chinese: 结爱).

Tang Yin - Making the Bride's Gown - Walters 3520 Tang Yin - Making the Bride's Gown - Walters 3520.jpg
Tang Yin - Making the Bride's Gown - Walters 3520

The phenomenon of knot tying continued to steadily evolve over thousands of years with the development of more sophisticated techniques and increasingly intricate woven patterns. During Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1368), Pan Chang knot, today’s most recognizable Chinese knot started popularly. There are also many artwork evidence showed the knots as clothing decoration in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), for instance from Tang Yin's beautiful paintings, knotting ribbon is clearly shown.

During the Qing Dynasty (16441911) knotting finally broke from its pure folklore status, becoming an acceptable art form in Chinese society and reached the pinnacle of its success. The culture of Lào zi then caught a second peak during the period of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). During that time, basic knots became widely used to grace objects such as Ruyi, sachets, wallets, fan tassels, spectacle cases, and rosaries, in daily use, [20] and extended the single knot technique into complicated knots. According to the Chinese classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber , Lào zi was developed and spread between the middle and higher hierarchy, making Lào zi was a way to express love and lucky within family members, lovers, and friends in Qing Dynasty. [21] It is also honourable craftsmanship studied and created by maids in the Imperial Palace, written in Gongnv Tan Wang lu (Chinese: 宫女谈往录) that when knotting, the maids amusing for Ci Xi were able to quickly produce objects of various kinds proficient.” [22]

In the period of the Repulic of China (1912–1949), knots can be seen from modern Chinese style without intricate and over decorative. For example, Pan Kou, which was already appeared before Qing Dynasty, [23] using knot buttons ornament were designed particular for Qi Pao in this period. [24] Even though the craft of Chinese knotting declined before 1970s, [25] Pan Kou on the clothing and knots as a folk craft still alive in China. [26]

Forming the name of Chinese knotting

It was not named as Chinese knotting before Lydia Chen’s research. In the 1980s, Lydia Chen (Chinese name 陈夏生), who funded the Chinese knotting Promotion Centre, cooperated with ECHO magazine (traditional Chinese: ECHO漢聲雜誌) and sought out the few remaining keepers of the knotting tradition by recording their work in a series of articles and books. [27] She named these knotting crafts as Chinese knots and assembled practical manuals to disseminate the art of Chinese knotting to a broader audience. Chinese knotting then became a popular symbol and souvenirs in the festival and commodity market nowadays. [17] [28]


A Chinese knot Chinese knot.JPG
A Chinese knot


Historically knotwork is divided into cords and knots. In the dynastic periods, a certain number of craftsmen were stationed in the court and outside the court to produce cords and knots in order to meet the increasing demand for them at various places of the court. Cord, knot and tassels were made separated and combined later.

Around the times of Chinese new year festival, Chinese knot decorations can be seen hanging on walls, doors of homes and as shop decorations to add some festival feel. Usually, these decorations are in red, which traditional Chinese regards it as "luck".


The tying knots tradition in Japan is called hanamusubi (hana means "flower" and musubi which means "knot"). [29] It is a legacy of the China's Tang dynasty when a Japanese Emperor in the 7th century was so impressed by Chinese knots which were used to tie a gift from the Chinese that he started to encourage Japanese people to adopt the tying knots practice. [29] Japanese knots are more austere and formal, simple, structurally looser than the Chinese knots. [29] In function, Japanese knots are more decorative than functional. [29] With a greater emphasis on the braids that are used to create the knots, Japanese knotting tends to focus on individual knots.


In Korea, decorative knotwork is known as maedeup (매듭), often called Korean knotwork or Korean knots. Korean knotting techniques is believed to originate from China, but Korean knots evolved into its own rich culture as to design, color and incorporation of local characteristics. [30] The origins of Maedeup date back to the Three Kingdoms of Korea in the first century CE. Maedeup articles were first used at religious ceremonies. [31] Inspired by Chinese knotwork, a wall painting found in Anak, Hwanghae Province, now in North Korea, dated 357 CE, indicates that the work was flourishing in silk at that time. Decorative cording was used on silk dresses, to ornament swords, to hang personal items from belts for the aristocracy, in rituals, where it continues now in contemporary wedding ceremonies. Korean knotwork is differentiated from Korean embroidery. Maedeup is still a commonly practiced traditional art, especially among the older generations.

The most basic knot in Maedeup is called the Dorae or double connection knot. The Dorae knot is used at the start and end of most knot projects. There are approximately 33 basic Korean knots which vary according to the region they come from. [31] The Bong Sool tassel is noteworthy as the most representative work familiar to Westerners, and often purchased as souvenirs for macramé-style wall-hangings.

Types of knots

A 4-row Pan Chang knot with cross knots Chinese Knot P4R.jpg
A 4-row Pan Chang knot with cross knots
An example of the "good luck" knot Chinese Good Luck Knot.jpg
An example of the "good luck" knot
A Chinese butterfly knot lanyard with cross knots Chinese Butterfly Knot.jpg
A Chinese butterfly knot lanyard with cross knots
An agemaki knot MAP Expo Armure Honkozane XVII 06 01 2012 2.jpg
An agemaki knot

Lydia Chen lists eleven basic types of Chinese decorative knotwork in her first book. More complex knots are then constructed from repeating or combining basic knots. They are:

NameAlternate names
Cloverleaf knotFour-flower knot, dragonfly knot, ginger knot (Korean)
Round brocade knotSix-flower knot
Chinese button knot Knife Lanyard knot, Bosun Whistle knot
Double connection knot Matthew Walker knot
Double coin knot Carrick Bend, Josephine knot
Sauvastika knotAgemaki (Japanese)
Cross knotSquare knot, Friendship knot, Japanese crown knot
Plafond knot 藻井結Spectacle/glasses knot (Korean), caisson ceiling knot
Pan Chang knot 盤長結Coil knot, temple knot, Endless knot, Chrysanthemum knot (Korean), 2x2 mystic knot
Good luck knot

One major characteristic of decorative knotwork is that all the knots are tied using one piece of thread, which is usually about one meter in length. However, finished knots look identical from both the front and back. They can come in a variety of colors such as gold, green, blue or black, though the most commonly used color is red. This is because it symbolizes good luck and prosperity.

There are many different shapes of Chinese knots, the most common being butterflies, flowers, birds, dragons, fish, and even shoes. Culturally they were expected to ward off evil spirits similar to bagua mirrors or act as good-luck charms for Chinese marriages.

See also

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