Glanz der Himmelssoehne

English translation of extracts from Chapter 1: Carpets in China before 1400

Detail of Cao Yijin, father of the Queen of Khotan and ruler of Dunhuang, at the head of a line of donors, each standing on a carpet. Painting on the south wall of the corridor of cave 98, Dunhuang, circa 920.



The Red Carpet

In clear boiling water, reel off the silk from chosen cocoons,
Select the filaments and twist the threads, dye them red and blue.
Dyeing those red threads redder than the dye itself,
Weave them into a carpet for the Bixiang Palace.
Bixiang Palace is over one hundred feet wide,
Red threads are woven to cover the whole hall.
Luxuriant the coloured silk, wafting fragrance,
There is nothing finer than these soft threads and ethereal patterns.
When beauties step on them to sing and dance,
Their gauzy stockings and embroidered slippers sink in at every step.
Taiyuan carpets are rough, with a harsh pile,
Those from the Shu capital are thin, their brocaded patterns are cold,
Not warm and soft like this carpet.
Every year, in the tenth month, the order comes to Xuanzhou,
The prefect of Xuancheng adds more designs to be woven.
He himself says that he does his utmost to serve.
One hundred men together the carpet to bring it into the palace,
So thick the pile, so many the threads, it cannot be rolled.
Prefect of Xuancheng, do you realize?
Ten feet of carpet require
A thousand ounces of silk.
The ground is unaware of the cold, but men need warmth,
Take less of human clothing for clothing the ground!


Carpet making is an ancient tradition. In some regions of the world carpets were not only the people's principal item of furnishing but also their sole medium of decoration, and thus it became their art. The earliest knotted pile carpet extant was reportedly found many years ago in the Iranian desert. It depicts ibexes and has been attributed by its style to the Achaemenid period, in the sixth century BC. Samples from this rug have been carbon-14 dated to 800-364 BC. The second oldest known carpet, which is much more famous, was found in a Scythian grave at Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, a few miles north of the Mongolian border, by the Russian archaeologist S.I. Rudenko in 1947.

Knotted pile carpets may have been made in China itself from as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), as there have been a number of examples and fragments excavated from tombs of this date in the western province of Xinjiang. However, the place where a carpet is found is often little help in finding out where and by whom it was made. Since earliest times carpets and textiles were transported over thousands of miles: Chinese Han dynasty silks found their way to ancient Rome, Chinese Tang period textiles to the Byzantine Empire, Yuan dynasty silks to western Europe, Turkish carpets to northern Tibet and European Renaissance tapestries to Japan.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Sir Aurel Stein found a number of small fragments of knotted pile carpets buried in the sands of the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang. These date from the third to the ninth century AD. More recently, three complete knotted pile rugs dating from the second to fifth centuries AD have been found in the Taklamakan, and these are now in museums in Urumqi, the main city of Xinjiang. A number of other complete carpets, of similar weave to those found in the Taklamakan and also with similar designs, have been found in caves in northern Afghanistan. Their patterns, which are Greco-Roman in style, suggest that they were woven further west in the old Bactrian Empire (centred around present-day northern Afghanistan).

The earliest surviving knotted pile carpet that may be Chinese is a small fragment with a design of what appears to be simulated tiger stripes. This has been carbon-14 dated to AD 82-326. A number of Chinese literary records from Han times onwards document the existence of carpets as trade items. The historian Ban Gu (AD 32-92), for example, mentions a certain Mr. Dou, who bought various kinds of luxuries from the Western Regions and once sent there 'a sum of 800,000 cash with which more than ten rugs were purchased'.

Much of our knowledge concerning the history of rug design in China is derived from their depictions in Chinese paintings over the past fifteen hundred years. A number of paintings from the Tang dynasty (618-907) include clear depictions of carpets. In Ladies Embroidering by Zhou Fang, for instance, three women are sitting on a pile or felt carpet. The monastery at Dunhuang comprises 492 caves that contain a wealth of superb wall paintings dating from the early fifth to the early thirteenth century AD. From around 920, for example, a painting on the south wall of the corridor of cave 98 depicts a line of donors headed by Cao Yijin, father of the Queen of Khotan and ruler of Dunhuang, standing on what must be one of the clearest depictions of a carpet from these times.

The well known Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi (772-846) makes a number of references to carpets in his poems, often bemoaning the amount of money they cost. His comments make it clear that both silk and wool rugs were in common usage, and made in a number of places. Perhaps his most famous poem is The Red Carpet (see left). By the thirteenth century, what must undoubtedly be knotted pile carpets can be seen depicted extensively in Chinese painting, often in minute detail.

Marco Polo, arriving in Beijing from Venice in 1275, wrote 'the greater part of knights and barons eat in the hall on carpets, because they have not tables'. The Chinese scholar Tao Zongyi wrote in 1366 of 'manufactories of rugs from the imperial court in the northern suburb of Beijing'. The invasion of China by the Mongols and the establishment of the Yuan dynasty in China (1271-1368) brought the cultures and arts of Central Asia inside the Great Wall. The geometric abstracted designs of Asian carpet decoration contain many ancient totemic symbols, which encapsulated the mythology and traditions of the peoples who created these works of art. From this time onwards the finely constructed naturalistic designs seen in textiles began to be transferred to carpet patterns. These apparently more sophisticated designs reflected the affluence of wealth and the court. The symbols were more clearly represented, and easier to read and understand, using homonyms to make the symbolism more obvious.


published to accompany the recent exhibition Glanz der Himmelssoehne,
held at the Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, October 2005 to January 2006
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