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WANLI PERIOD (1573-1619)

WANLI PERIOD (1573-1619)
the tan ground with two sinuous dragons, one blue and one yellow, chasing a flaming pearl surrounded by clouds, scrolling vines and chrysanthemums, missing original borders
Approximately 14 ft. 9 in. x 10 ft. 4 in. (450 cm. x 315 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's New York, 22 September 1993, lot 219
Acquired from Michael Franses, 1996
Z. Bing and L. Jing, The Culture of Chinese Antique Carpets, Beijing, 1993, p. 12 and cover
Beijing, First Exhibition of Antique Chinese Carpets, February 1992

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Lot Essay

Warp: Cotton, off-white, natural, Z2S, Z cable of 2 yarns, each with 4-6 strands of thin Z spun thread
Weft: Cotton, off-white, natural, Z4, 2 shoots alternating straight
Pile: Wool, Z2
Knots: Asymmetric knot open left, no alternate warp depression, 2 1/2-3 vertical x 5 horizontal per square inch
Sides: Overcast, not original
Colors: 13

This striking carpet of dynamic and animated double-dragons chasing a flaming pearl is firmly placed within a group of Chinese carpets from the Wanli Period of the so-called Beijing-type. Related to the group of fifty-one carpets in the Palace Museum, Beijing, this example has the same dense weave, balance of design, use of a wide range of hues as the Forbidden City carpets and most importantly, Imperial iconography. The homogeneity of these carpets, the so-called Beijing-type leads us to believe they were most likely all the product of a specific workshop that probably started in the 15th century and continued until the middle of the 17th century (M. Franses, ‘Forgotten Carpets of the Forbidden City’, Hali, Issue 173, pgs. 74-87).

Although better known for silk textiles, China has a long and rich history of woven wool carpets inextricably linked with the traditions of the pastoral nomads of the Asian steppe who survived on the breeding of sheep, goats and horses and their products, including wool. The Mongol (Yuan) court held carpets in great esteem and adapted their nomadic aesthetic into something unmistakably Chinese. Marco Polo (1254-1324) described the richness and luxury of the Yuan court and gives an idea of the importance of carpets at the court remarking, ‘most of the knights and barons sit and eat in the hall on carpets because they have not tables.’


During the Ming Period (1368-1644), the arts were highly developed in many areas, including the manufacture of knotted carpets, reaching its zenith under the emperor Wanli (1573-1619). Wanli undertook the re-decoration of the palace, although he almost bankrupted China with its extravagance. The Palace Museum in Beijing has the largest collection of carpets made during the Wanli reign and were recently re-discovered by Michael Franses; however, they are currently in storage with recently woven copies now on the throne platforms. In May 2000, Franses inventoried the collection in the Palace and among other designs, noting 9 complete and 15 fragmented carpets depicting dragons (see ibid. Hali, Issue 173, pp. 74-87). Two nearly complete carpets in the Palace collection have similar yellow and indigo double-dragons chasing flaming pearls and one can imagine what our carpet may have looked like with its borders (see L. Baojian and Y. Hongqi, Carpets in the Collection of the Palace Museum: Classics of the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2010, pgs. 36-41).

Carpets were integral to the architecture of the palace and were made in a variety of shapes and forms to accommodate the Kang (a heated platform), columns and other architectural elements so it is hard to know the original format of this carpet. Several of the existing carpets from this period, both in the Palace collection and in private hands, have either cut-out semi-circles along the edges or are of trapezoidal shape to accommodate columns or platforms. For two examples of shaped carpets, see H. König et al., Glanz der Himmelssöhne:Kaiserliche Teppiche aus China, Köln and London, 2005, plates 2 and 3.


Most of the Palace carpets have silk warps and wefts, but a few have cotton warps and wefts like our example. Although we do not know the reason for this, it is possible that they were woven for a different commission or by a different workshop. There are other
similar examples of the Imperial type woven with cotton warps and wefts, including one carpet exhibited in the 2005 Glanz der Himmelssöhne exhibition at the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst in Cologne and illustrated in the catalogue (ibid. pl. 4). Although depicting five dragons, it is of the same aesthetic as our example with the same coarseness of weave. A Ming dragon carpet fragment with cotton warps and wefts sold in the Estate of Vojtech Blau sale, Sotheby’s New York, 14 December 2006, lot 64 (see M. Tabibnia, Intrecci Cinesi: Antica Arte Tessile XV-XIX, Milan, 2011, plate 3).

Even after the Wanli Emperor’s death, these carpets held great importance for the court, attested by the great number of existing court paintings depicting Emperors with carpets, closely related to the present lot, on the floor. For example, in the collection of Palace Museum, Beijing, there is a portrait of The Young Kangxi Emperor at his Writing Desk, circa 1670, where on the floor sits a Ming red carpet of dragons and clouds, similar to our example (see M. Franses, Classical Chinese Carpets in Western Collections, London, 2002, plate 1).

From these surviving portraits of Emperors, almost all with red-ground carpets, we can assume that the background color of the Beijing-type has oxidized turning to tones of salmon, yellow and in our case, tan. This theory was further proved in 2011, when the Moshe Tabibnia gallery in Milan conducted intensive dye analyses on period Chinese carpets and fragments from the MATAM collection. The analysis showed that the brownish red, orange and pink dyes were obtained from the Sappanwood (Caesalpina Sappan), a flowering tree in the legume family native to Southeast Asia while the flowers of the Pagoda Tree (Sophora Japonica) provided the dye stuff for shades of yellow. These two sources could be used alone or together to create a range of colors. It was discovered that during the ageing process, unique to Sappanwood dyes, the color not only fades but can change in hue. For an in- depth article on the technique of this analysis and the results, see Hali, Issue 172, S. Bruni and E.De Luca, The Appliance of Science, pgs. 35-37.


Widely depicted in all mediums of Chinese art, dragons are legendary creatures generally portrayed as a long snake-like, scaly, wingless body with four legs terminating in claws and expressive, fanciful heads with long whiskers. The dragon became a symbol of the Chinese emperor and his divine power and strength during the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). Later during the Qing dynasty it was decreed that only the emperor could use or wear textiles with a five-clawed dragon. In Chinese mythology, the dragon has always been an auspicious and beneficent symbol. As in this carpet, double-dragons are usually depicted striving after the flaming pearl, a symbol of perfection, wealth, good luck and prosperity. It is not a coincidence that this carpet mimics the design of the Imperial Way, the stone pathway carved with double-dragons, clouds and waves that marks the route along the central axis of the Forbidden City, which only the Emperor could travel on.

Persian carpets from the same period have long been admired for their fineness and intricacy of design. What is remarkable about the Chinese weavers is that they were able to achieve the same level of curvilinear detail despite the coarser knotting and thick pile by employing a variety of techniques, including knot stacking, half knots, and single warp knots. For example, the dragons on our carpet have wildly expressive faces surrounded by manes of wavy, sinuous strands which would have been hard to achieve without these additional knot types. The combination of sophisticated technical features and powerful imagery found in this carpet typifies objects of all mediums created for the Ming imperial court and nobility. It is inspiring that hundreds of years after being taken off the loom, this carpet is not only in remarkable condition, but it is also captivating and powerful.

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