Glanz der Himmelssoehne

English translation of extracts from Chapter 2: The Imperial Palace carpets

Aerial view of the Forbidden City

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

Ceremony in the Forbidden City, showing the 'stone carpets' of the Imperial Way

Portrait of the Hongwu emperor, with an Imperial carpet on the floor


The interior of the Hall of Preserving Harmony, photographed in the early 1900s, with carpets covering the floor


The Forbidden City

From the 15th century, many rulers across the globe were replacing their castles with palaces. They built the most splendid courts and filled them with treasures, employing the finest craftsmen and sparing no expense. Few of these palaces survive today, many having been destroyed by fire, war or revolution. The Imperial Palace in Beijing - the 'Forbidden City' and the centre of the Celestial Empire - is a proud exception. Now the Palace Museum, it is one of the oldest surviving royal palaces in the world.

Construction began in 1421, when the capital was moved from Nanjing, under the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle (r. 1403-1425). The Forbidden City is moated and arranged on a north-south axis, surrounded by huge walls that form a rectangular area 985 metres long and 775 metres wide. This is sub-divided into a series of courtyards and pavilions. An important visitor would pass through the Noon Gate and into the first courtyard. The river flows through the centre of this courtyard from west to east and is crossed by five parallel bridges. To the north of this courtyard, up a short flight of steps along the Imperial Way, is the Gate of Supreme Harmony. On the other side of this gate is another huge courtyard, 200 metres by 200 metres, at the north end of which is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which measures some 65 metres wide and 38 metres deep, and was the principal reception hall. To the north of this great pavilion are the Hall of Central Harmony and The Hall of Preserving Harmony. Together these three halls, each set on a high dais, form the central focus of the Imperial City. To the north of them lies the Gate of Heavenly Purity, leading to the private quarters of the complex. The Forbidden City was to remain the principal home of the Imperial family until 5 November 1924, when the last Emperor Puyi was expelled.


The Great Palace Carpets of China

Carpets were made specifically for Chinese palaces from at least as early as the 8th century AD, although the first depiction of a palace carpet appears in a portrait of the Ming dynasty Hongwu emperor (r. 1368-1398). When the Imperial Palace in Beijing was built at the beginning of the 15th century, all the floors of the principal halls were covered with knotted pile carpets. It is very likely that their patterns matched the 'stone carpets' on the Imperial Way leading up to each of the principal halls. Only three fragments from this period are known to survive.

During the second half of the 16th century, the Palace was entirely refurbished in the original 15th century style. Sixty-five surviving carpets, some complete but many fragmentary, can be attributed to the 16th century: forty-one in the Palace Museum in Beijing and twenty-four in western collections. These carpets mostly have a remarkably thick pile made of hairy sheep's wool, which resembles camel hair and is surprisingly light in weight; the warps are mostly silk and the wefts cotton.

The Great Palace carpets of Beijing did not become known in the west until the early 20th century - and even then not widely. During this period, when the Imperial Palace was occupied by the foreign powers, the entire Palace was photographed by command of the Japanese royal family. The photographs show that the main floors of the principal halls, as well as the throne platforms, were covered with carpets. These same carpets had remained in place for three hundred years. They were walked upon only with silk slippers, so they never showed signs of wear. Their only enemies were the air, as the colours changed over the years with oxidisation, and vermin. In the first half of the 20th century, several of the throne platform carpets were sold, and most of the much larger carpets that covered the floors were put away. Today the Palace Museum in Beijing is one of the most important museums in the world.


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.