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Traditional Chinese Bed post image

Traditional Chinese Bed

Traditional Chinese beds and how they are made.

This man is making a bed. A traditional Chinese bed. Once finished someone will lay a blanket or sleeping mat over the woven rope and sleep on it. This may come as a surprise, but this kind of bed actually provides a softer, more pliable sleeping surface than many other types of beds in China. The clay or brick kang style bed what could be called the modern bed — which is tantamount to a board wrapped inside a mattress cover — are far more stiff and hard than their rope woven brethren. Speaking honestly, the type of bed that this craftsman is making is probably the most comfortable of all the typical styles of bed in China.

Mattress and China are two words that don’t really go together very well. The mention of a box spring here is almost blasphemous. In China, the harder the bed the better. It’s a health thing — kind of like how walking backwards through the streets or eating eggs hard-boiled in little boy’s urine are also good for health.

I know traditional Chinese woven rope beds well

What I remember most from my first apartment in China — well, besides the paint peeling off the walls, the carpet that was blanketed in human hair that wasn’t mine, and the ominous layers of airborne black particulate matter that covered all unregularly touched surfaces — was the bed.

Traditional Chinese bed

Traditional Chinese bed

The type of bed that I used then was just like the one the craftsman was making in the streets of Suzhou. It was more than likely also made by hand, and had ropes that were woven tightly across the frame which allowed for a slightly pliable — though still very stiff — sleeping experience. It was my impression that the Chinese just lay a blanket or sleeping mat over this fibrous baseboard, and being a young vagabond with mantras like “A dollar saved is a dollar to travel another day,” running in a perpetual loop in my head this made complete sense to me — I wasn’t the type to go out and drop money on physical comfort. I just unrolled my sleeping bag, laid it on top of the woven rope, and got use to it. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning with the fibrous pattern embedded on my cheek.

At that time I did not bother to think about how that bed was made, who made it, or the tradition from which it came. I was just grateful that I at least had a bed — I wasn’t going to go around asking questions about it. With good reason, perhaps, I have not thought about this bed for many years. But upon seeing one being made in the streets of Suzhou last week a flood of memories came back to me — memories of accidentally banging my head into the wooden frame, coital rope burn . . . the usual lot of travel woes.

Bed maker weaving rope bed

As I watched the craftsman working an “a-ha” moment set in as I learned how something that I’ve previously took for granted was made. The guy had set up a checkerboard grid of string spanning across the bed frame to serve as a  for the rope to be woven through. His tools were simple, being a massive threading needle, a long, thin, steel guiding pole, a knife, and a trowel-like wedge of metal, and some wooden plugs.

Bed making tools

I asked him how much the bed would cost when he was finished. He replied that he sold them for 1,500 RMB — $250. I understood that a lot of labor went into making one of these beds by hand, but that seemed to be a rather high price. I took into account that the location of the craftsman’s workshop was in Suzhou, a city not deficient of tourists by any means, and the fact that I’m obviously one of this hoard may have had an impact on the price quote.

Or maybe not.

Bed making fibrous rope

My $100 a month flop house in Hangzhou was definitely not paying out hundreds of dollars per bed, but the woven rope beds that were stocked throughout that place were very old. It is my impression that these traditional beds have long grown out of fashion in urban China. Where they still exist they have more than likely been past down generation to generation/ household to household for many years. I highly doubt that many people are going out and buying this style bed new in the stores. The modern “wooden board enclosed in a mattress cover” type of modern bed is by far more common and popular. Apart from in my apartment in Hangzhou, I have neither slept on this style of bed anywhere else in China. I would make a guess that these woven rope beds are throwbacks to another era in this country. and that they are primarily only being fabricated by craftsmen working an outdated trade by hand which has long been rendered “traditional.”

Filed under: China, Craftsmanship, Disappearing Traditions

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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