The decorative design on this remarkable Imperial floor covering mixes formal imperial iconographic elements, such as the dragon roundels, with informal decorative motifs, the sprays of seasonal fruits and flowers. There is, however, little doubt this textile was created for the Qianlong Emperor's personal use. The nine dragon roundels are auspicious, the number nine-- three threes and the powerful yang symbol represented the Emperor's authority. Rather than providing a surface to walk on, the purpose of displaying such a textile on the floor either under, or in front of, a throne and foot rest, was to define the space of the Imperial presence.
In the West the most celebrated floor coverings have been knotted pile carpets. While precise details about the origins of knotted pile carpet weaving technique are unknown, it appears to have developed, possibly as early as the second millennium BCE, among the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Eurasian steppe and moved southward in both West and East Asia. In Central and West Asia, where seating and reclining on the floor were paradigms of social interaction, carpets became a celebrated art form. In China, the adoption of chairs and other seating furniture during the third century transformed perceptions of the floor. Floor coverings defined spaces around which furniture was arranged; the carpet became an accessory of interior design.
While knotted pile carpets appear in literature and in paintings as aristocratic floor coverings in China during the Tang dynasty (618-960) their patterns frequently imitate figural or geometric patterns identical to other prestige silk textiles, suggesting many upper class Chinese patrons preferred very opulent floor coverings at least as much as carpets. This trend continued into the imperial Ming and Qing periods. For example, the carpet under the bejewelled throne in the well-known portrait of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424) features a repeating pattern of offset rows of walking dragons in foliate medallions on a red flower strewn-field within blue border of running dragons (Taipei, National Palace Museum, 220 x 150 cm.). This pattern follows a standard drawloom design convention for elaborate lampas textiles.
Structurally kesi is identical to wool flat weave carpets known as kilim. In East Asia kilims have been recovered from several archaeological sites in Turfan dating to the Six Dynasties and Tang period. A fragment of a wool flat weave carpet, which has been scientific tested to date from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) has a one-way oriented pattern alternating birds and flowers within an interlocking cloud border (dealer's collection, Arts of Asia, May/June 1987, p.37, 85 x 251 cm.). No silk kesi floor coverings survive from periods prior to the eighteenth century. However it was frequently used for palace decorations during the Qianlong period as suggested by the large number of surviving throne seat and back cushion covers as well as elbow cushions. A throne seat cushion cover in yellow silk with a single dragon roundel on a field with scattered flowers with in a frame of foliate running dragons in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA, 42.8.164, 80 x 113.5 cm.; see Jacobsen, Imperial Silks, 2000, vol. 2, no. 419, pp.868-869) is both an example of such luxury goods and stylistically similar to this carpet. One of the few surviving monumental eighteenth century silk tapestry palace carpets now in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto features with a lotus pattern in coloured silks accented with gold wrapped threads on a yellow ground. (ROM 978.264, 353.5 x 393 cm.; see ROM, The T.T. Tsui Galleries of Chinese Art, 1996, no. 121 [where it is incorrectly dated to the mid-nineteenth century])
The scale and sumptuousness of this dragon roundel carpet suggested it was made for a more intimate setting than the monumental halls of the Forbidden City's outer court. Numerous rooms within the inner city, the official residence of the imperial family, were used for official business during the Qing dynasty. Similar spaces existed at the various summer palaces in Rehe (Chengdu) or Shenyang and at the imperial villas outside the capital, not the mention the various gur, or yurts, and tents which also served as audience halls while travelling or entertaining Inner Asian dignitaries. We can speculate that this carpet would have been part of suite of textiles, including cushion covers for seating furniture as well as screen panels or hangings; however no surviving objects have been located at this time top confirm this hypothesis.
Stylistically and technically the kesi carpet can be dated to the second half of the eighteenth century. The drawing of the dragons and waves with precious things and square fret with floral scrolls are all typical of late Qianlong design. The large-scale naturalistically-drawn flower and fruit sprays also find parallels in the innovations in decorative textile arts of this period, like those on the supplemental weft-patterned brown satin overcoat in the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA 200.77, l.127.5 cm; see J. Vollmer, Ruling from the Dragon Throne, 2002, fig. 4.48, p. 130) or the Qianlong consort outer robes in the Palace Museum, Beijing (Gugong Bowuyuan Cang Wenwu Zhenpin Quanji, 2005, vol. 51, no. 79, pp. 128-129; no. 123, p. 199).
Reference notes provided by John Vollmer