Kesi, also known as k’o-ssu, are exquisite Chinese silk tapestries that trace their origins back to the Tang dynasty. These venerable artworks are not only visually striking but also represent some of the most ancient tapestries globally. Let’s delve into their history and discover the elements that render them truly remarkable.

What Exactly Are Kesi?

Kesi are renowned for their ethereal lightness and delicate yet sharply defined imagery or patterns. The name itself (k’o-ssu) translates to "cut silk," alluding to the distinct, unblended color areas in these tapestries that create the illusion of cut threads. Remarkably, these tapestries are reversible, showcasing a flawless weave on both sides. Unlike many European weavings that employed horizontal looms, kesi were crafted on vertical looms with vertical warps. While luxurious versions incorporated silk and metallic threads, not all kesi featured metallic elements.

Kesi tapestries often mimicked paintings and served similar purposes. They could be mounted on scrolls narrating stories, akin to painted illustrations. Some kesi were designed for adorning large wall surfaces, resulting in slightly heavier and brighter-colored pieces. Additionally, like tapestries from other cultures and eras, kesi were occasionally used to embellish furniture and attire.

Unraveling the History of Kesi

The Tang dynasty, spanning from 618 to 907, boasts surviving kesi artifacts, discovered along Silk Road trade routes in remote regions of Central Asia. Fragments and remnants of 8th-century tapestries have been unearthed in Xinjiang's deserts and Gansu province's caves in China. However, these findings primarily feature basic repeating patterns, believed to be incomplete representations of fully developed Tang dynasty kesi. Notably, a nearly intact wall tapestry housed in Japan's Taima-dera temple sheds light on this era's weaving art, attributed to the Tang dynasty priest Shandao.

Subsequently, the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) witnessed a flourishing of the arts, including tapestry weaving. The Yuan dynasty established a weaving factory in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, producing opulent kesi with intricate designs, often incorporating gold and silver threads.

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) under the Qing dynasty produced exquisite kesi, depicting religious and philosophical themes. However, artistic and technical decline became evident in later pieces, with woven designs gradually supplemented by painting by the 19th century.

Around the late 15th or early 16th century, the art of kesi weaving migrated from China to Japan, where it evolved into tsuzure-nishiki, characterized by thicker, more pronounced tapestries using cotton weft.

The legacy of kesi weaving spans ancient to modern China, showcasing a rich and intricate history. These early tapestries pioneered the art of weaving, leaving a lasting imprint on tapestry and rug making in China. Explore our collection of Chinese rugs below to witness the same awe-inspiring weaving techniques prevalent across the country's tapestry and rug traditions.