What would Chinese New Year be without Beijing being dressed in its best red outfit?
Like every other year, the city is getting ready to celebrate: roads are lined with red lanterns, doors are covered with “upsidedown fortune”red papercuts decorate the windows, new chopsticks are bought, new hopeless bans on fireworks are issued, updated Nianhua prints are framed, and knotted decors hung from every available surface.
Chinese knots differ in size, materials, some may include good luck charms, beading, or jade. However, they are usually red, and they are everywhere!
爆竹声中一岁除, 春风送暖入屠苏。Wang Anshi (1021-1086) “First day of the New Year”, Northern Song Dynasty
Amidst the sounds of fireworks, one year slips away.
Spring winds send warmth and enter the Tusu wine (屠蘇).
Upon a thousand doors and ten-thousand houses, the bright and glistening sun.
All grab a hold of the new peach-wood to replace the old talisman.
The history of Chinese knots
The significance of Chinese knots, 中国结 in Chinese, is deeply rooted in Buddhist and Taoist tradition.
The Pan Chang knot, for example, is inspired by the Eternal Knot, the Buddhist symbol of the ultimate unity of everything, and one of the “Eight Auspicious signs.”
Just like the Eternal Knot, Chinese Knots are:
- made with one single thread,
- are symmetrical in all directions,
- have no distinctions between head and tail.
Those are the characteristics that set Chinese knotting apart from other styles of knotting and macrame.
Even though they are most often consider folk art, Chinese knots embody the fundamental principles of Chinese’s aesthetic and philosophy: symmetry, balance, unity, and interconnections.
However, some of the earliest records of Chinese knots date as far as 500 years before Buddhism, during the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC).
Over time the craft evolved becoming more and more sophisticated. Elaborate knots were used to decorate robes and jewelry, and to hang swords and scrolls.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) knotting spread to Japan and Korea, where it developed it into its own traditions, hanamusubi and maedeup, with local characteristics and flare.
Chinese knotting saw it’s popularity peak during China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912) to almost disappearing in the Republican era. In fact, the art was nearly lost by the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was a recent renewal of interest in local crafts and folklore that prevented this art from disappearing forever.
Traditionally, Chinese knots are expected to ward off evil spirits and act as good luck charms. They are widely used today to decorate homes during festivities and celebrations, but are also very common in traditional jade jewelry.
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What do you need to start knotting?
One reason why I enjoy this craft is that it doesn’t require a whole lot of material. Cord, some pushpins, and a soft surface are pretty much all you need.
For the work surface, you will need a material soft enough to pin the cord in place. For instance, a 20×20 cm foam board would work.
I have used a block of polymer clay to film this tutorial, and I am pleasantly surprised by how nicely it all worked out. Soft boards especially made for knotting are available online; it would probably be a good investment if you plan to knot often but is not a purchase you need to make right away.
- Satin Cord
I use paracord of different sizes and colors. I like it because it’s affordable and it makes it easy to experiment with different sizes and designs. The result might not be as authentically Chinese as the red satin cord, but it’s a chance to create some original “fusion” designs.
Resources and tutorials
While researching this post, I have realized that there isn’t a whole lot of resources on Chinese knots available in English. Although I am using a Chinese book as a reference, I have found some authoritative resources that I would also recommend. In particular, Lydia Chen is the go-to author when it comes to Chinese knotting for English speakers.
The Cloverleaf Knot 酢漿草結
Just like in the West, the cloverleaf is a symbol of luck and fortune in China as well.
The cloverleaf knot is one of the most popular Chinese knots. It is also the foundation knot for the more elaborate Ruyi 如意 knot.
The Buddha Knot 万字结
Ah, writing about this knot gave me a headache. You see, the correct translation would be Swastika knot, as in the symbol of Buddha and the Dharma wheel. And well, the knot looks like one.
But I really cannot get past the historical implications, so I prefer to use Linda Chen’s translation “Buddha knot” or the Chinese name “Wanzi knot.”
The Chinese Button Knot 纽扣结
The Button knot is not simply a decorative knot. It has been traditionally worn in Asia as a functional button to fasten garments, underwear, and jewelry.
They are particularly appreciated since they are softer than traditional buttons and cannot be broken during laundry.
The Double Coin Knot 双钱结
In Imperial China, cash coins were used to predict the future and ward off evil spirits. Ancient coins had a square hole in the middle so that they could be strung together for convenient storage.
The double coin knot is a beautiful basic knot used in many other knots such as the Cloud Knot.
The Cloud knot
Bamboo Cage Knot
The particular name of this knot comes from its resemblance with the waving mesh of a bamboo cage. This is a flat knot and it’s mostly used for decoration and embellishment.
The Good Luck Knot 吉祥結
Ruyi Knot 如意结
The literal translation in English of 如意 rú yì is ” as desired, as [you] wish.”
Together with 万事 wàn shì, it creates one of the most common auspicious idioms in the Chinese language: 万事如意 wàn shì rú yì “to have all one’s wishes” or “may all of your hopes be fulfilled.”
Ruyi can also refer to a ceremonial scepter used in Chinese Buddhism, a symbol of power and good fortune.
The Ruyi knot is auspicious of good luck, good wishes, and peace of mind: It is created by combining four cloverleaf knots.
Pan Chang Knot 盘长结
Traditionally, knots and tassels are created separately and then assembled. To create the tassel, you will need a thinner 0,4 mm thread. Alternatively, beautiful pre-made tassels can be found online at affordable prices.
What do you think? Do you know any other knots techniques?