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The Small Chinese City Selling Persian Rugs to the World

The city of Nanyang, in central China’s Henan province, is one of the world’s largest producers today.

Nanyang’s modern history is richly interwoven with carpet-making. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came into power in 1949, the national economy was in a sorry state because of the succession of wars. The country needed to increase imports from abroad in order to revitalize the economy and strengthen industrial output. However, there was a problem: China’s lack of exports meant that it held scant reserves of foreign currency. So the government started selling domestic products to overseas buyers — sometimes even at a loss — just to bring in foreign currency to buy equipment from abroad.

In 1971, as relations between China and the United States began to thaw, the People’s Republic of China was recognized as the sole legitimate China at the United Nations. In the same year, China saw the gradual demise of Cultural Revolution’s philosophical underpinnings, according to which the export of Chinese goods was seen as equivalent to selling out the nation’s interests for the benefit of the Western bourgeoisie.

In order to seize the favorable international and domestic conditions, China’s then-Premier Zhou Enlai called for the production of handmade goods for overseas export. Located in a region with long history in silk production, Nanyang heeded the call. In 1972, the counties of Xichuan, Zhenping and Nanzhao started building carpet factories. Instead of following traditionally Chinese designs, Nanyang’s weavers emulated Persian styles that were popular in foreign countries.

Local farmers worked in carpet factories in their spare time for extra income. In 1974, the region was home to around 140 looms and 750 employees; by 1988, it had 20,000 looms staffed by tens of thousands of workers.

After graduating from high school in 1980, Yang Guangchun worked as a carpet pattern designer at the No. 2 Chengjiao Rug Factory in Nanzhao County. He reminisces about the boom years of the ’80s, saying: “In virtually every household at the time, there were one or two women who would weave rugs.”

Yang adds that business boomed during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, a conflict that decimated the Middle Eastern states’ carpet industries. “When Iran and Iraq were too busy fighting to weave rugs, that’s when the business truly flourished.”

The city’s silk rug industry has survived largely because it is an important local employer, but the fact remains that more and more residents are earning higher salaries in other cities.

Unbeknownst to Yang, however, this burst of prosperity actually augured a crisis. Nanyang’s Persian-style carpet industry is contract-based; workers weave rugs for foreign retailers, not for local brands. In addition, Chinese weavers design carpets based entirely on another country’s artistic traditions. Despite their usually excellent handiwork, overseas consumers are often willing to shell out more money on Middle Eastern carpets they deem more authentic.

 

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