A story is told in southern Xinjiang about the
first carpet weaver, a princess named Gulem.
One day, her father, the king of his realm, was hunting in the forest with
his court advisors. A little bird flew from branch to branch following the king
and singing into his ear. The king demanded that his court advisors decipher
the bird's song, but none of them were able to. Finally, one advisor told the
king that only his daughter would be able to understand the bird's song.
The king called for his daughter and she came and told the king that meaning
of the bird's message was, "A woman can make a man into a slave or a king."
The king, angered by this, married his daughter to a poor woodcutter and told
her that if the woodcutter became king, he would believe the bird's message.
The woodcutter sold his wood in town and also traded it for thread. Gulem then
wove the thread into clothes and carpets. Her carpets were so beautiful that
the townspeople bought them en masse, making the couple very rich and powerful.
Soon, they were made king and queen by the townspeople.
Since then, carpets made by the Uigher people of Xinjiang have been named kilim
in her honor.
Today, Uigher girls carry on Gulem's legacy, weaving sheep's wool into carpets
in factories and in their homes. Little princesses as young as five years old
begin weaving carpets in Hotan – working after school, on the weekends and during
The best of these girls also work in the factories, making wool and silk carpets
that are sold in the Hotan bazaar, in Kashgar and to tourists from eastern China
Villagers in Bazar county, in the desert around Hotan, grow cotton and wheat,
but make a mere 1,000RMB per year off of these crops. Umar Nayiz has lived in
this county most of his life and his main source of income is in Urumqi, working
the coal mines for 100 to 150RMB per day. He has been traveling back and forth
from Hotan to Urumqi for 32 years.
Umar Nayiz's neighbor Abdul supplements his income with the carpets his three
daughters weave. His daughters can complete a 2m x 3m carpet in roughly two
months. The wool his daughters use is cheap, the colors bright and gaudy and
the patterns relatively simple – his family can earn as much as 500RMB per carpet
or as little as 200RMB, depending on the buyer and the quality of the carpet.
The same carpet at the bazaar is sold for a minimum of 800RMB and up to 1,500RMB.
Girls working in the factories are quick and nimble weavers – the factory carpets
are of a higher quality, with more expensive wool and intricate patterns. The
factory can produce a 2m x 3m carpet in a little less than two months – for
this work, the girls are paid roughly 10RMB per day. The difference lies in
the price the factory can get. A wool carpet of this size is sold for a minimum
of 1,000RMB and as much as 4,000RMB. A silk carpet – usually 1m x 2m or smaller
– starts at 2,000RMB in Hotan.
Antique Hotan carpets sell for as much as $8,500 on the web, but antiques are
extremely rare these days. Carpets from the mid-twentieth century sell for as
little as $500 and as much as $1,200. These prices are unfathomable to local
girls like Pantigul, who works up to 15 hours in a carpet factory at the edge
of town for a little more than $1 a day.
"It is difficult to find a good carpet in Hotan," said a traveling
carpet collector from Austria. "The vast majority of the carpets you see
in the bazaar are machine made and I won't buy a hand-woven carpet from anyone
but the people who wove it – I cannot stand the exploitation."
Hotan carpets are known for their medallion designs and pomegranate trees –
also for their lively colors. Carpets made in the factories today do carry these
characteristics, but the introduction of cheap, pastel wool has reduced the
demand among collectors. To remedy this, some factories are selling rejects
from 50 years ago at rock bottom prices and copying designs from Bokhara, Heart
and Kazakh carpets from Armenia.
China's tourism industry is busy promoting Hotan's jade, silk and carpet industries,
continuously referring to 2,000 years of history and to the exquisite quality
of Hotan's products.
But the rivers that for centuries yielded priceless jades have been squeezed
dry – most pieces pulled from the Karkashar and Yurongkash Rivers are tiny white
jades or dark green jades of no more than 100kg – far less than the 5,300kg
piece that sits in the Beijing palace museum.
Ali, a Kashgar native, has started his own fledgling carpet business after
learning that foreigners are willing to pay a premium for beautiful, high quality
hand-woven carpets. Ali wanders through the bazaar introducing himself to foreigners
and bringing them back to his home to look at his carpets. He has an inventory
of carpets from all over Central Asia as well as local Hotan and Kashgar carpets.
His cheapest carpet sells for 1,200RMB and his most expensive for 4,000RMB.
"I make a few hundred RMB per carpet," said Ali. "After I sell
five or six I send money to my friends in Uzbekistan who help me buy more carpets."
The carpet and jade industries have provided for the locals for centuries,
and tourists from China's east coast and abroad still browse the bazaars and
factories murmuring over the exceptional beauty of the silk carpets and the
sheen of a smooth white jade, but for collectors and experts, Hotan's golden
age has passed into history.