In 1901, after the subjugation of the Boxer Rebellion, a group of Japanese academics from the Imperial University of Tokyo travelled to Beijing to make a study of the secret royal complex known as the Forbidden City.
Accompanying the scholars was Kazumasa Ogawa, a pioneering photographer tasked with documenting the Imperial Palace and its grounds, which had been ‘jealously kept from public sight’.
Over the next few weeks, Ogawa took 170 stills of the magnificent, 180-acre palace complex — a citadel so beautiful that, in the words of the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, ‘no man on Earth could design anything superior to it’.
The photographs revealed the clandestine world of China’s autocratic elite — one that was not without its comforts. ‘What surprised many was that the entire palace, including the walls, floors and columns, was wrapped in carpets,’ says Louise Broadhurst, international head of Oriental Rugs and Carpets at Christie’s.
Made from very thick pile to retain the heat in the bitter winter months, the carpets were a key feature of the Forbidden City. Most dated from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and had been cut to fit the architectural details of each room after being created in one of the Imperial Palace workshops.
By the mid-20th century, many of these carpets had disappeared. Some had been bought by wealthy Western collectors, among them the banker JP Morgan and the designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Others were thought to have perished during years of political turmoil.
In 2000, however, museum officials discovered 46 imperial carpets in various states of preservation carefully hidden in one of the great halls of the Forbidden City. It was an extraordinary find, and one that confirmed the accuracy of Ogawa’s photographs. Today they are held in the Imperial Palace collection.
Only 16 complete imperial dragon carpets are known to exist, nine of which remain in the Beijing Palace Museum. Just seven are in Western collections, among them the magnificent example being offered by Christie’s in the Exceptional Sale in Paris.
Broadhurst explains that this particular carpet is one of the most complete in existence: ‘It is in amazing condition — it’s rare to find one that hasn’t been cut in some way. There is also very little wear, due to courtiers only having walked on the carpet while wearing silk slippers.’
Bought by an American couple on their honeymoon in 1920, the carpet was made specifically for a raised, heated platform known as a kang, where the emperor would sit — as illustrated in a painting of the 15th-century Ming ruler Hongzhi, below.
The pattern on the carpet has a compelling narrative: it depicts two five-clawed dragons chasing a flaming pearl, with scrolling clouds above and rolling waves beneath.
Dragons have been linked with Chinese emperors since as far back as 2597 BC, when the Yellow Emperor Huangdi was said to have transformed into a dragon as he ascended into paradise.
The flaming pearl symbolises perfection and prosperity, while clouds and waves represent the celestial heavens and the Earth respectively. The emperor’s throne was placed in the centre of the carpet, asserting his position as heaven’s representative on Earth.
Like all Ming carpets, this was once a dark imperial red which has now faded to a golden yellow. ‘The wool would first have been dyed yellow using safflowers,’ says Broadhurst, ‘then made red with brazilwood dye, which has oxidised and disappeared over the centuries.’
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Broadhurst considers the carpet to be a real treasure. ‘It reflects the exquisite opulence of one of the most extraordinarily successful dynasties in history,’ she says. ‘It is not every day you get to walk in the footsteps of emperors.’