Thursday, April 19, 2007

Excerpt from Lydia Chen's book Chinese Knotting


An excerpt from Lydia Chen's book Chinese Knotting (Periplus Editions 2003), pg 25-26:

"Unfortunately, Chinese knotting, ancient as it may be, was never the subject of scholarly treatises. Instead, it remained in the background, a marginal art that was often overlooked. All we have in our hands today are fine examples of knotting from the late Ching and early Republican periods, creations of our grandparents and their parents The complexity of these knots and the ingenuity of their designs bespeak the culmination of a long, unbroken artistic tradition. Secondhand traces of this ancient folk tradition appear hear and there, and the inferences drawn from these tantalizing bits of evidence suggest that the origin of Chinese knotting predates even the possibility of written record.

"The first hint of the earliest Chinese knots dates back to the paleolithic age, seventy to a hundred thousand years ago. Artifacts found from that era in a cave at Choukoutien include several awl-shaped instruments with holes at one end. Archaeologists maintain that they were used for sewing, implying that thread and some rudimentary form of knotting must have existed at that time.

"Tenuous as this remote and humble beginning may be, there is no doubt that later inhabitants of the Yellow River basin had need of highly developed knotting techniques. In a commentary on the trigrams of the Book of Changes, we discover that "in prehistoric times, events were recorded by tying knots; in later ages, books were used for this." In the second century A.D., the Han scholar Cheng Hsuan expanded on this passage to say that great events were recorded with large knots and smaller knots signified events of lessor importance. Of course, no samples from prehistory exist.

"The only indigenous evidence of this practice consists of simple pictorial representations of the symbolic use of knotting in the Warring States period, from the fourth to the second century B.C. Number symbols on the surface of bronzeware from that age clearly reflect the earlier practice of making records with knotted cord. For example, the numbers 10, 20, 30 and 40 were tied [see actually text for diagram]. The Similarity between the rope figures and the script forms is striking. On the other hand, these knots represent rather simple abstract concepts. The design of the necessarily more complex and intricate knots that were tied to record events during Chinese prehistory must be left to the imagination. But turning to a satellite culture, the Ryukyu Islands [including Okinawa] off China's southeastern coast, we can find concrete examples of knotted ropes that are used to keep records. Perhaps these reflect the ancient Chinese knots that were used in a similar way. Examples from the Ryukyu Islands and the numbers on ancient Chinese bronzes tend to lend credence to the assertion that at least a part of the Chinese written language evolved from these knotted cords. At the very least, they establish the fact that knotting was an abstracted form of symbolic communication that predates the Book of Changes"



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