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Splendours of The Sons of Heaven

The recently ended exhibition of Chinese classical carpets at the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologneis already being hailed by those that visited as an important point of reference for carpet scholars and enthusiasts. In order to assess the impact and significance of the events surrounding the show, we have combined a review of the exhibition by Nunzio Crisawith a response to the eponymous catalogue by Michael Buddeberg.

Nunzio Crisa: ‘Glanz der Himmelssöhne. Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China 1400-1750’, was the first exhibition in a European museum dedicated exclusively to historic Chinese carpets for almost a century, following the 1911 exhibition in Paris to inaugurate the Musée Berneschi.

What are the features required of an exhibition organised by a museum? It should be innovative or anthological in character, capable of interesting both the novice and the fan, and, to some extent, the scholar. It should be educational. And it should be able to utilise the exhibition space well. 

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Let’s begin with the last aspect. The Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne can be defined as a small ‘provincial’ museum, but its setting in a landscaped Japanese-style garden on the banks of a small lake, planned and built thirty years ago by the Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa, a pupil of Le Corbusier, makes it perfect for its subject matter. With the enthusiastic co-operation of Director Dr Adele Schlombs, Michael Franses, a dealer with many years’ experience organising gallery shows and stands at antiques fairs, as well as public exhibitions in institutional settings, left his stamp on the excellent display and lighting for the carpets, which were interspersed with Chinese period or other appropriate furnishings (8). The result was an inviting and aesthetically pleasing exhibition.

The innovative aspect was that the museum was able for the first time anywhere to present historically and stylistically traceable objects permitting an anthological overview of the production and use of carpets in imperial China throughout the ‘golden age’ of this form of artistic expression, that is to say from the early 15th century until the death in 1722 of Emperor Kangxi, the most enlightened of its rulers. 

Recent excavations have proved that some use was made of carpets in China as early as the Western Han period (206 BC - 23 AD ). Where those carpets were made is another matter. What may well be the earliest Chinese evidence to date is in the Orient Stars Collection, a fragment of a carpet made between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD somewhere in Central Asia or northwestern China. Later, in various paintings of the Tang period (618-907), there are clear depictions of carpets.

But it was only with the expulsion of the Mongols from China by Zhu Yuanzhang, who took the name Hongwu, and the beginning of the Ming dynasty (13681644) that the restoration of the Chinese imperial tradition began. Palaces were built, first in Nanjing and then – following the relocation of the capital – in Beijing where, in 1421, construction started on the fortified complex known as the Forbidden City. For more than five hundred years, without interruption, it would house the emperors who occupied the throne of the Celestial Empire.

From the outset, the floors of the main halls in the palace were covered with specially made pile carpets, partly for showbut also for practical reasons, as northern Chinese winters can be very severe. And although the Forbidden City acquired new palaces and some of the emperors undertook renovations over time, most of the large palace carpets remained in situ without suffering any great damage.

Probably fewer than six hundred ‘classical’ Chinese carpets and fragments have survived to the present day. Of these, around a hundred are kept in the storerooms of the Palace Museum (the Forbidden City’s current designation), while another thirty or so are divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Textile Museum in Washington DC. But the majority are scattered in small numbers among museums and private collections. So the reunion of 68 of these pieces in one place provided a unique opportunity to cast an eye over this fascinating and expressive medium.

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The exhibition was arranged according to two guidelines, date and iconography, which developed in parallel. The first thing that one saw was the Orient Stars fragment mentioned above, which is of obvious historical value and whose design appears to represent a tiger-skin. However the first true visual contact with the carpets was overwhelming: three imposing carpets from the second half of the 16th century all of which were clearly made for court use as they show various renderings of the dragon, symbol of the emperor himself (1). The most intense of these fascinating pieces, a square nearly seven metres across, almost certainly once covered the throne platform in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important room in the Forbidden City, and is therefore of major historical significance.

Production of carpets for the imperial residences did not cease when the Manchus came to power. There was a flowering of pile weaving in China in the 17th century. In large part this was due to the second Qing emperor, Kangxi (r.1662-1722), who fostered the sciences and arts in general, and encouraged the production of pile carpets by weaving communities in and around Ningxia in northwestern China.

The main body of the exhibition mainly consisted of carpets made between 1650 and 1750, classified and subdivided in the various galleries according to their design typology. First came floral motifs (3), in which sundry representations of the peony and lotus triumphed, particularly a large fragment on which butterflies flutter in a tangle of lotus leaves and blossoms 4. Above: Gallery hung with carpets featuring bats on a ground of swastika meanders including (left), a Ningxia carpet, early 18th century. 1.74 x 2.82m (5'9" x 9'3"), Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne and (right), a Ningxia carpet, last quarter 17th century, 2.79 x 3.28m (9'2" x 10'9"). Private collection, Tessin against an ethereal ground that falls somewhere between pink and ivory.

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To digress for a moment on the subject of the colouring of such pieces, many classical Chinese carpets, whether of the Ming or the early Qing periods, originally had a deep red ground. This can be seen in ‘ancestor’ paintings of emperors and courtiers, some on display in this exhibition, including one (2) showing a noblewoman of the Qianlong period (1736-1795) seated on a 17th century chair set placed, in its turn, on a redground carpet with a stylised floral design, possibly dating from the 15th century. The fact is that the red used by Chinese dyers was highly unstable, oxidising rapidly and taking on a whole range of shades between ochre and pale yellow. The result is a type of ton-surton that certain contemporary interior designers find so pleasing, but that has very little to do with the original intent. This type of fading is almost absent in silk carpets and two of the latter, both from the Thyssen Bornemisza Collection, were in Cologne: a Ningxia carpet with peonies and a fantastic small rug featuring yellow lilies that was very probably made in Xinjiang (7).

There followed a series of carpets in a wide variety of formats, from small rugs for seating to large covers for raised platforms (kang), as well as round formats, organised according to pattern type. Dragons, not rendered naturalistically as in Ming carpets but in a more graphic manner, are typical of the Kangxi era, sometimes achieving a highly abstract appearance (5, 6,13). Other mythical beasts are so-called ‘Fo dogs’, half dog and half lion, represented by two examples still in the taste of the 16th century, and by a carpet knotted in silk on a cotton foundation. 

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The bat is a Chinese symbol of good omen, and an entire room (4) was dedicated to carpets featuring bats superimposed on an endless network of swastika fret patterns. In China the swastika (wan zi) also symbolises the number 10,000 and thus represents a wish for a long life (12). One example, owned by the Cologne museum itself and in excellent condition, stood out: its blue ground has great visual power (4).

The visitor finally reached a zone dedicated to carpets with fields with arrangements of basic motifs (rosettes, stars, swastikas, stylised clouds and so on) organised in grids, often with very harmonious results (8). One of the most impressive was a Ming imperial carpet of elongated format with rosettes placed on medallions in rows (9) – a subject that, in simplified form, would be produced until the beginning of the 20th century.

The educational value of this exhibition was also of a high order. Carpets and their iconography were placed in a more general context, with a display of Chinese bronzes, ceramics and some fantastic textiles that provided clear indications as to the origin of the designs encountered in decorative repertoire of pile weaving. One section (organised by Elena Tsareva) looked at technical aspects and structural characteristics of classical Chinese carpets. Whereas, from the mid-17th century onwards, practically all pile weavings show characteristics of the Ningxia type (even when made in the far west of Xinjiang), with asymmetric knots and limited variations in knotting, basically following traditions of nomadic origin in Central Asia since time immemorial, the groupof Ming imperial carpets displays different technical characteristics. Probably associated with workshops in the Beijing area that worked exclusively for the palace, these carpets present peculiarities that indicate a system of production employing archaic models of possible Bactrian origin.

In Ningxia carpets, the designs tended towards a greater degree of stylisation over the centuries and, to obtain curvilinear effects, the knot density was increased. In ‘Beijing’ carpets, despite the thick pile and low knot density, the tendency was for a naturalistic network of more mythical subjects (11). In order to achieve this, mixed techniques were utilised, with the occasional insertion of additional wefts or silk warps, localised variations in knot density, or insertion of so-called ‘fat knots’, which permitted very precise detailing in the design. The visitor was helped to understand these complex technical aspects simply and directly via exceptionally clear models of the different knot types and views of the backs of some carpets. 

Of course, everything is capable of improvement, and this exhibition was no exception. Despite the great efforts of the curators, it proved impossible to include some works from private and public collections that would have complemented those exhibited admirably, and for many people it will be a pity that the excellent catalogue is only available in German. But I am told that there is hope for a revised version of the exhibition to be repeated at some future date in the USA, so all these aspects will eventually be resolved to the satisfaction of all.

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Michael Buddeburg:It was just five years ago that some forty imperial palace carpets from the Ming period were discovered in the upper storey of a pavilion in the eastern part of the Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace in Beijing. They had lain there for a century, forgotten and unnoticed. This historical find led to raised hopes of answers to some long unanswered questions on the origins of Chinese pile-weaving. It was also a find that gave a considerable boost to the idea of an exhibition of classical Chinese carpets and its associated catalogue, a project dear to the heart of Hans König and Michael Franses, both great authorities on Chinese carpets.

The exhibition in Cologne, unique and certainly impossible to repeat in this form, was accompanied by a prestigious and elegant catalogue – an exemplary documentation of the 68 carpets exhibited, which also represents an important step forward in scientific research into the Chinese carpet. However, to cut to the chase, the questions as to the origin and age of Chinese pile-weaving remain unanswered here too.

The authors’ rather brave theory that, “with respect to all known documents, it can be assumed that the making of wool carpets (in China) already had a firm tradition in the Yuan period (1271–1368)”, is not borne out by those documents – original Chinese pictorial and literary sources – nor by surviving examples. No link can be established between the not inconsiderable number of early carpet fragments found in East Turkestan or the Himalayan region, and the classical Chinese carpet. Nor is it possible to bridge this huge gap of around a millennium by means of pictures or reports.

Thus the wall-paintings at Dunhuang, or the various Song period (960–1280) sequences illustrating the story of the Princess Wen Chi (10), show that Central Asian ‘barbarians’ (in its Chinese sense of ‘non-Chinese’) knew and used carpets, but it is difficult to establish any definite link to carpets from China, as have existed since the 15th century. It is however certain, and there is plenty of evidence, that the Han Chinese knew and valued carpets in their own heartland, the fertile territories north of the Yangtse, and that, for example, under the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (618-907) there was a flourishing trade in carpets. But when and why the Chinese themselves began to produce pile-weavings remains a mystery.

These doubts about an early Chinese carpet tradition are by no means intended to diminish the authors’ contribution to understanding of and knowledgeabout Chinese carpets. Franses, for instance, must know every single one of the estimated corpus of six hundred known classical Chinese carpets, whether in the West, or in the holdings of the Palace Museum in Beijing, and there is nobody better able to provide an introduction to the specifically Chinese design world.

Although brief, it becomes evident in this section that the aesthetics and formal idiom of Chinese carpets down to the present day, but especially in the classical era, can only be understood from the symbolism based on language and script that underlines all Chinese artistic creativity. As examples of this one can cite the ubiquitous dragon and the swastika, a motif that arrived in China with Buddhism. The dragon, which is also the major motif on imperial palace carpets, symbolises the generating male natural energy and is a symbol of the emperor and son of heaven. As the so-called ‘10,000 character sign’, on the other hand, the swastika (12), as a continuous border or endlessly repeating field pattern, stands for happiness and longevity.

In carpets from the reign of the Manchu emperor Kangxi (1664–1722) – most surviving classical Chinese carpets date from this period – dragon and swastika enter into a formal association that stamps the simple, archaic style of the carpets of the time. The powerful, naturalistic dragon of the Ming period evolved into the elegant, delicate ‘leaf dragon’ (13), which disappears, sometimes more, sometimes less, into the ornamentation formed by meandering swastikas and thus also remains present in purely geometric carpets as a wish for a long and happy life for the emperor.

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Tsareva’s comments about classic Chinese carpets’ structure, and complete analyses of about half the carpets exhibited, finally refute the preconception, encountered time after time in the literature on Chinese carpets, that Chinese pile weavers had only moderate skills, despite all the beauty they created. It is true that Chinese carpets of the classical era were often coarsely woven – and this is particularly true of imperial palace carpets. But the weavers were masters at rendering precisely every detail, complicated curved lines and every possible pattern, by employing different knot forms, by using several colours within a single knot and by incorporating additional or particularly voluminous knots (11).


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Finally, the story of the classical Chinese carpet in the West – a story dating back to the last quarter of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th – is well researched and makes an interesting read. It tells of the turmoil of the declining Qing dynasty, its last emperor, Puyi, and of famous American collectors and designers such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frank Lloyd Wright and Joseph Pierpont Morgan who were actors in this game that took imperial palace carpets into the country houses of the American rich.

There will also undoubtedly one day be an exhibition and publication devoted to the palace carpets in Beijing. It remains to be hoped that the authors’ frequent pleas for specific research into Chinese painting and archival sources will fall on fertile ground. In this way answers may be found to the questions that remain open. 

Glanz der Himmelssöhne. Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China, 1400-750 Hans König & Michael Franses, with structural notes by Elena Tsareva Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Salomon Oppenheim Stiftung, and Textile & Art Publications, Cologne & London 2005. German text (with structural notes in English), 228pp., 68 colour plates, 76 colour figures and many additional colour details, technical glossary, notes, bibliography, time-line. Hardbound (€70) & softbound (€45) editions ISBN 1898406456 (hardbound), 1898406502 (softbound) 


by Doris Leslie Blau