Glanz der Himmelssoehne

English translation of extracts from Chapter 3: The designs of classical Chinese carpets


The animal most readily associated with China is the dragon, a mythical creature with a long scaled body, popping eyes, a wispy beard, a long tail, short legs and clawed feet. The form of this mythical beast was derived from legend and has been depicted on artefacts for some four thousand years, together with the Chinese character for dragon, long. Until quite recently the 16th century Imperial dragon carpets were unknown. Anyone with some knowledge of Chinese carpets associated dragon designs with late 18th and 19th century pillar rugs, chair backs and seats.

As each flower carries different symbolism in China, it is likely that the weavers of floral carpets must have known which ones they were portraying. Unfortunately, it is difficult for us today to differentiate between the various species depicted on classical Chinese carpets. Some appear to be clearly a lotus, peony, chrysanthemum or prunus, but many others may be any one of these or something quite different. By the first half of the 17th century, more flowers seem to have been added to the carpet repertoire, and most of the different types are presented here.

Foliated dragon
Almost half the surviving Imperial carpets from the 16th century depict dragons, which are curvilinear and quite 'naturalistic' in appearance. By the middle of the 17th century, an archaic style of dragon was used in a number of versions: one where the body of the dragon was adorned with leaves and only the head was 'realistic'; another where the body of the dragon was represented by geometric fretwork and the head was curvilinear and 'naturalistic'; and a third in which the head was excluded and just the fretwork 'body' was used to symbolise the dragon.

Swastika lattice
The swastika lattice (with bats) is an endlessly repeating design that appears to continue beneath the borders, the latter acting as a frame created to present part of the pattern. The design survives on less than twenty classical Chinese carpets, none of which were made before the last quarter of the 17th century. The design is a symbol of good health, the swastika itself being styled the 'ten thousand character sign' (wan zi).

Stepped diamond, square and rosette lattice
To date, four carpets with the stepped diamond, square and rosette design can be identified as having been made before 1650, three of which are 'Beijing' weave and one Ningxia weave. A further twenty-one examples are attributable to Ningxia before 1750. They come in a number of formats - rectangular and square dais covers, daybed covers, bench mats and seating mats. The beauty of the design lies in its apparent randomness and the extensive colour range used for the diamonds.

Octagon and square lattice
This lattice design is composed of rows of small octagons separated by smaller squares. In each octagon there is usually an eight-petalled rosette and often in each square there is a swastika or cross motif. Carpets with this pattern are depicted in Chinese paintings, the majority of them erotic paintings. As this is in fact the only pattern ever used for carpets in Chinese erotic paintings, it may well have symbolised fertility or fidelity. Thirteen Ningxia carpets attributed to the Kangxi period have the more angular octagon and square design without a central medallion. A further ten examples include a central medallion.

Longevity lattice
The 'longevity' pattern is formed by a lattice composed of rows of 'four-cloud' motifs, each creating a small compartment. Generally the motif inside the compartment alternates from row to row: in one row usually a single bat; in the next row usually a single peach. In the spaces between the compartments is an eight-pointed star. Twenty-six carpets are known with the longevity field design with no medallion. A further nine examples have the longevity lattice and a central medallion.

Dogs, lions and mythological lion-dogs permeate Chinese art. The Buddhist lion is a defender of the law and a protector of sacred buildings: the stone lions in front of buildings are placed there to act as demon-scarers and often have a half-dog, half-lion appearance. The Manchus derived their name from Manjusri Buddha, who is traditionally depicted as riding on a lion. The connection between Pekinese dogs, lions and Manjusri Buddha was strongly promoted by the Manchu Qing emperors. The oldest Chinese lion-dog carpets survive in Kyoto, Japan, and probably date from the 15th or 16th century. Five further carpets are attributed to the late 16th and early 17th century, and three of these are presented here.

Hundred Antiques
The 'hundred antiques' design is an important development in Chinese art, marking the transition of the Ming to Qing periods in the mid-17th century. The design consists of a collection of culturally significant objects: books, writing implements together with related objects such as brush and water containers, archaic bronze vessels, porcelain, musical instruments and pastimes such as the game of weiqi. Rarely totalling one hundred items, this figure probably simply represents a large number, as in the 'hundred names', a term used to describe the Chinese nation. Twenty-five classical Chinese carpets with a field primarily composed of the 'hundred antiques' design are known.

Some of the Palace carpets from the imperial workshops in Beijing use a number of different cloud forms, either as background motifs or simply by themselves. A few runner-shaped imperial carpets survive that depict just clouds, including a number in the Palace Museum, which were made for the spaces around the base of the stairs leading to the throne platform of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Clouds are also found on classical Ningxia carpets, both on their own and with crane and/or bat motifs, usually arranged in rows. The clouds can be sorted into five different types based on their shape.


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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all text and illustrations © textile-art 2006: not to be reproduced without permission.