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In a vast aircraft-hangar sized workshop on the southern outskirts of Xining, hundreds of women toil on gigantic imported mechanical looms as fine carpets of every imaginable size, colour and design are slowly woven together.
Outside the factory gates, thousands more women in homes across Xining use small hand looms to make individual carpets, expertly working the wool as they produce the exotic and unique carpets that have been made by their ancestors in Qinghai and Tibet for centuries.
Meanwhile, more than 7,000km away in St Petersburg, customers line up to buy the carpets in one of the first of a chain of overseas shops that cater to global demand.
These three threads – the factory and homes in Xining and the shop in St Petersburg –tell the colourful story of the successful commercialization of a traditional skill that is now spreading from Qinghai’s capital Xining around the world. In a hi-tech world where business is done at the push of a button, it is the refreshingly old-fashioned story of the continuing appeal of a commodity that is as much in demand in homes today as it was centuries ago: A beautiful carpet to cherish for life.
And in a fitting twist to the story, the carpets being made in Xining today are following the same route from Qinghai around the world as they have done throughout the centuries – along the Silk Road. The difference today, of course, is that with the help of 21st century infrastructure and communication networks, they go much faster and further and arrive on doorsteps in Russia, the US, Europe and Asia far sooner.
It is Qinghai’s unique geography that makes the carpets so special, says Ma Xin Min, general manager of the Tibetan Sheep Carpets Group, as he proudly shows off a collection of ornately patterned hand-made rugs in his factory’s showroom. “The art of Tibetan carpets goes back 2,200 years and this area is renowned around the world for weaving carpets. The Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is 2,500 metres above sea level and the hair of Tibetan sheep grows to 22cm in length. They are sheared only once a year, between June and August.”
The unique material provided by the sheep from the plateau provides a particularly hardy and fine wool for the manufacture of the carpets. His factory also produces carpets made with yak hair, which is renowned for its softness but comes at a premium: three times the price of sheep hair.
Ma’s factory employs more than 12,000 but 70% of them weave carpets in their homes, working to designs and using looms provided by the company. The rest make carpets on modern machines at the factory imported from Europe since 2008.
The factory turns out a staggering 1.68 million square metres of carpets a year and sells in countries and territories including the US, Germany, the UK, Russia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. It also makes Muslim prayer mats that are sold throughout Asia and the Middle East.
The appeal of Tibetan carpets is global and growing. Ma says there are powerful reasons for their popularity. “They are principally made by hand and the weaving technique is very unique and idiosyncratic,” he said. Tibetan carpet making in particular uses a knotting method not used in other countries and regions.
“They aren’t just carpets – they’re works of art. They are very special and they have a different feel to them. The other element is the Tibetan culture that gives the carpets their distinctive design and colours. This culture is very famous throughout the world.”
The Tibetan Sheep Group encompasses 13 enterprises and produces 48 types of hand-made and machine-made carpets. One of its objectives is to make Xining the centre for Tibetan carpet production.
The carpet factory in Xining was founded more than 50 years ago and moved to its current home in 1996. Until 2008, all of its carpets were exported but since then there has been a surge in demand from the domestic market. “There is a tremendous amount of potential in China,” says Ma. “In 2008, the economic crisis hit the US and Europe and demand slowed down. In China, though, demand is growing rapidly. There are a lot of people who want carpets for their homes. People are going up in the world and demand is rising.
“The economy in China is getting better day by day and living standards have improved. People have money and they can afford to buy high quality carpets. China is now the number one country in the world for buying carpets as well as the number one country for making carpets. That is why we are paying more attention to the domestic market.”
On a guided tour of the huge workshop, one of the factory managers points out a loom producing brightly coloured large floor carpets. “These are for Xinjiang province,” she says, referring to the neighbouring far northwest province of China. “People there have large houses and it is cold so there is a long tradition of using carpets in their home and now that the area is more prosperous, we find more and more business coming from Xinjiang and other northern provinces.”
Before 2008, the company’s chief business was hand-made carpets for export. Then it imported its giant industrial looms from Europe, allowing it to expand into machine-made carpets which have opened the door to a whole new world of trade. Being less labour-intensive, they produce carpets that are less expensive than the hand-made ones. “As a result, many more people can afford them,” says Ma.
The New Silk Road has turned the focus of Ma’s company to Central Asia, as road and rail links put Xining within easy reach of a host of new markets. “We want to increase our business there,” Ma says. “We want to open our own shops to sell carpets there. Qinghai province is very important to the ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy. The old Silk Road crosses this area. It carried Muslim culture and Buddhist culture around the world. You can see the Muslim culture expressed in the carpets that travelled along the Silk Road from Iran. Another route crossed Tibet and took a totally different culture around the world.
“There are two main types of carpet in the world now. The first one is Persian rugs. The second is Tibetan rugs. Persian carpets have a history of 3,000 to 4,000 years. Tibetan carpets have a history of more than 2,000 years.”
Ma’s target markets with the opening up of the New Silk Road are countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, which have traditionally sourced their carpets from Turkey. The opening of the corridors of communication will, he hopes, persuade them to turn their eyes eastwards.
As well as its shop in St Petersburg, the company has three shops in Moscow, two in Kazakhstan and one in Belarus. The aim is to expand that network significantly as the New Silk Road branches out across Central Asia.
A traditional handicraft has become a global phenomenon as the appeal of Tibetan carpets continues to grow. From Sydney to San Francisco, there are customers for the Qinghai Tibetan Sheep Carpet Group as well as a flourishing domestic market.
It has, however, become a truly international operation. The company is holding talks with companies from Berlin to talk about setting up outlets for its carpets in the German capital. Meanwhile, it has drafted in experts from overseas to teach its employees new skills.
In an interesting meeting of different cultures within the same industry, experts from Pakistan have been brought to Xining to teach hand stitching of carpets to employees. Meanwhile, experts from Belgium have visited to train staff in the using of the vast imported looms used for machine-made carpets.
Globalization has clearly made its mark on a traditional industry that has always held a fascination for foreigners looking in on one of the less visited corners of China. But it has done nothing to dim the mystique of Tibetan carpets. More than 100 years ago, a European traveller on the Tibetan plateau described his wonder as he stumbled across “a courtyard entirely filled with the weaving looms of men and women workers” making what he described as “beautiful” rugs.
Today, as ‘One Belt, One Road’ opens the way to new opportunities, the future for Tibetan carpets looks certain to be every bit as exotic and colourful as their past.
Published in conjunction with Xining Municipal People’s Government