catalogue credits
The Metaphor City
Silk and Metal Carpets
from the Qing Dynasty
The Wings of the
A fantastic tale by Egidio Cossa

Rain had fallen all night. But now the clouds had vanished and the limpid sky was of that indigo which announced the coming of dawn. The smell of rain-soaked soil came in through the windows that were screened by silk curtains adorned with shee ideograms, mingling with the scent of sandalwood burning in large, golden colored bronze censers having the shape of dragons.

The emperor who was still in the midst of his agitated sleep emitted what was a feeble groan. He lay curled up under a golden yellow satin quilt whose embroidered constellations appeared among hundreds of tiny clouds. A huge ruby sewn onto the cloth indicated the pole star, the centre of the universe for Chinese cosmogony. His red sandalwood bed was decorated with dragons sculpted in high relief in alternation with shou ideograms and was protected by curtains of vivid yellow silk. It occupied the centre of a large high-celinged room which was almost empty of furniture: on the walls covered with gold colored silk appeared well-wishing ideograms from the Chin epoch, accompanied by an antique painting of Buddha in meditation. In a corner stood a chime clock in vermeil cloisonné, a gift from the sovereign of a distant country to an emperor of the previous dynasty. It chimed the hours with a sound similar to that produced by a thousand little bells. Huge red candles lit the room, giving off the sweet odor of incense.

The attention of hundreds of artists, who for generations had laboured to render more sumptuous and more precious the palaces of the Forbidden Purple City, seemed in this case to have concentrate itself in the ceilings and on the floorings. From above, thousands of dragons and phoenixes watched over the sleeping emperor. These creatures carved out of golden wood danced in circles intertwined in an inextricable design, because the union of the two mythical animals was the guarantee of succession without contrast. The dragons, which were symbolic of the emperor, were different one from the other; the phoenixes, emblems of the empress, held in their beaks large rose-tinted pearls, which were signs of purity and nobility and of the essence of life. The stone pavement below was covered with carpets whose silken tissue was interwoven with gold and silver threads and whose border through the use of these threads were decorated with clusters of the same dragons and phoenixes of the ceiling. These carpets at the centre were dominated by the presence of the five-clawed dragon.

The night had been a restless one. The emperor had dreamt of being a boy once again and of autumn hunting at the summer palace of Jehol, the imperial hunting reserve, north of Peking, beyond the Great Wall. He had fallen from his horse while stalking a stag along a rugged path. He had injured his knee and, unable to move, he had remained there lying in the mud. While he was still shaken from the fall, he had raised his gaze to the sky and had seen his grandfathers in the midst of roaring blue flames. They were fixing him with severe and hostile stares, with eyes that were red and swollen from crying. His cry for help seemed to fall upon deaf ears: his imperial forefathers seemed to be indifferent and detached. They repulsed him with long outstretched arms that were skeletal. Then suddenly they had vanished into a cloud of turquoise flames.

When the emperor had forced himself into wakefulness, the nightmare was still vivid in his mind. At first he had not recognized the surroundings of his bedroom which was situated in the Palace of Nutrition of the Spirit, of the Forbidden City: the humid dawn air coming in through the windows seemed to be exactly that of Jehol. Shivering he had pulled the quilt all the way up to his head, and breathing heavily, he had curled up into the fetal position. “Ten thousand years of health and prosperity to the Son of Heaven! Has Your Majesty slept well?”

The voice of the head eunuch pompously intoning the ritual salute filled the room with its shrillness. Slowly the emperor pulled the quilt form over his head and looked around with eyes that still had terror in them. A shaft of pearly light came in through the windows situated on the east, bringing to life the gold of the carpets and of the writings on the walls. Outside, the thousands of rare and precious birds that occupied the garden had already awakened to the rising sun and were filling the air with their melodious voices. Everything suggested peace and serenity, but the breathing of the emperor was still rattled with fear. His crimson night robe of thin muslin was soaked with sweat. “May Your Majesty live forever and may your descendants be as numerous as the blossoms of the peony.”

Kneeling at the entrance the head eunuch completed the ritual with traditional kowtows. With his forehead touching the pavement he awaited a gesture from the Son of Heaven. The emperor, still immobile under the quilt, tried to gain control over his limbs and to breathe more normally; it was not becoming for the dragon to reveal himself as being so fragile to the eyes of a slave. Slowly he got himself together and made a move as if to abandon his bed. At the moment with a signal from the head eunuch, other eunuchs filed into the room. Two of them held up a heavy chamber robe embroidered with clouds and waves. On its back the robe bore the image of a Chee-lin, the phantasmagoric creature, half lion half stag, symbol of the magical arts; other eunuchs brought in imperial yellow porcelain bowls which held the emperor’s breakfast, green tea and an otmeal soup with red beans and lotus seeds.

The emperor refused his breakfast, but he put on the chamber robe: the warmth of the heavy silken material helped to diminish his tension, which was still causing a stiffening of his limbs. On naked feet he directed himself towards one of the eastern windows. He pushed the curtains aside and looked out. The sky, by now free of the clouds of the previous night, had the color of peach blossoms, that pale pink which announced that the sun was about to climb above the horizon. The night storm had stripped blossoms from the large cotton trees and from the magnolias that surrounded the Palace of Nutrition of the Spirit. Now these blossoms lay scattered on the ground mixing with the peonies and with the rose petals of a thousand shades of red that covered the ground. These signs that the storm had left brought the nightmare back to the emperor’s memory. But for him it was not the new born sun that would brighten the day. He understood the meaning of the dream that had tormented him for months: his forefathers were angry with him, because, after two years of marriage, none of his consorts and none of his concubines, even though he had visited them every night, had blessed him with a son. It was his duty every night to deposit his essence in the laps of the imperial phoenixes in order to insure the continuity of the dynasty. This was the emperor’s main duty, and he knew it. But not withstanding his great efforts and his dedication, the dragon’s seed had not yet germinated.

At the age of twenty two the emperor had married eight of the most beautiful young girls of the empire, with ages ranging from thirteen to seventeen years, one from each of the eight Manchu clans of the flag bearers. They had been selected from among thousands of aspirants by a special committee presided over by the head eunuch, not only on the basis of their beauty but also in view of the purity of their blood and of their ascendancy, their zodiacal sign and their astral ascendancy.
Their hands, their feet, their height, their weight and their bearing had been attentively examined more times than one with an aim towards perfection, and, above all towards a harmony with the characteristics of the Son of Heaven. At the end of this extenuating selection the emperor and the dowager empress had indicated from among the chosen young girls the damsel who was to become the head wife and who was to be nominated as empress. They had also established in descending order the ranks and the titles of the other consorts.

The dowager empress had been awake from the crack of dawn and, was now completing the elaborate dressing ceremony in her bed room in the Palace of Compassionate Tranquility. That morning she had chosen from among the dozens of costumes her chambermaids had proposed to her a silk dress having nine layers of different shades of red, embroidered with butterflies, peonies and other spring flowers, her shiny hair was braided in the form of swallow tails and on the black laquered spool on the crown of her head were fixed bunches of pink tourmaline, pearls, corals, and a large bat with open wings. This symbol of happiness and prosperity was realized in gold, combined with the feather of a kingfisher. The shoes she had on were of crimson silk encrusted with rubies and rose colored pearls and mounted on high central heels made of ceramic with tiny flowers painted on them. Her neck and her wrists were adorned with dozens of necklaces and bracelets realized in gold and diamonds. She had dedicated great attention in choosing her dress and her accessories, because, that day, together with her imperial daughters-in-law she would make a visit to the Temple of Eternal Peace to implore the ancestors of the dynasty, beseeching them to grant numerous offspring to her son, the sovereign of the Middle Kingdom.

The dowager empress had been the third ranking and favourite wife of the defunct emperor. She was the daughter of a mongol prince, and her beauty had been legendary, still now, at the age of forty two, she was tall and thin and her oval face which was whitened with rice powder was lit up by deep black eyes, enhanced by double lids. She had given birth to five children, four females and one male, the only male begotten by the emperor, who, to show his gratitude, had promoted her to the rank of Empress of the West, a title which from that moment on she would share with the first ranked wife, the Empress of the East.

Now, however, anxiety was holding away over her daily existence. In her Palace of Compassionate Tranquility, situated to the west of that of Nutriment of the Spirit, residence of the emperor, groups of monks coming from every confession in China, every day were celebrating propitiatory rites in favour of the fertility of the Son of Heaven. Their invocations were directed towards Taoist and Buddhist Gods, towards Shaman, the Manchu god and towards all the popular divinities of the immense empire which spread from China to Tibet to Corea. But everything seemed to be in vain. The dynasty was still without an heir.

Five blasts of the trumpet announced that the procession was ready and that the palanquins of the imperial consorts were waiting in the courtyard. The dowager empress’ litter was spacious enough to allow her to lie down as though in a comfortable bed. Its wooden structure finished in gold was covered with red and imperial yellow silk brocade embroidered with the shou ideogram which was repeated nine times on each side to indicate the potency of the yang principle. On the roof six phoenixes made of fine gold, symbols of beauty and feminility, held in their beaks the sphere of harmony, emblem of unity and infinity. The procession of one hundred eunuchs, fifty women from the court and a thousand mounted guards who formed the escort of honor of the imperial phoenixes moved off slowly amidst the blasts of trumpets and dozens of flags, bearers of the dynastic emblems fluttering in the cool morning air. Heading southward, it had covered the wide avenue that flanked to the east the palaces of the external court, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, that of Perfect Harmony, and that of Supreme Harmony. After passing the Meridian Gate, the procession, moving like a long golden serpent, had left the Purple city and had reached the Temple of the Imperial Ancestors, that had been built many centuries previously, east of the median axis of the imperial city, because the east symbolizes the sky and the power of the yang principle.

The Temple of the Imperial Ancestors was the most important place of cult for the family. Here the emblems of all the sovereigns of the dynasty were conserved and honored, and here all the rites and sacrifices were celebrated in their memory. It stood just outside the southern entrance of the Forbidden City in the midst of a small shady woods populated by ancient and gigantic trees which partially hid it from sight. A double belt of plaster walls painted blood red enclosed a series of courts paved in stones that bore the signs of time and humidity, from huge censers made of gold colored bronze, that time had rendered tarnished and opaque, odorous clouds of smoke from burning cedar and sandalwood billowed up, only to dissolve themselves into the morning mist.

At the center of the last court, on a raised platform of white marble stood the Palace of the Ancestors with its façade of red and gold and its high roof of glazed porcelain tiles, surrounded by nine bronze deers, placed there as guardians of the imperial shadows. On the inside of the temple, an immense dark hall with walls tapestried with gold leaf and draped with crimson silk echoed with the sound coming from hundreds of small jade tiles that hung from the gold chains and tinkled together when disturbed by the wind. Along the outer walls, in deep niches done in golden plaster stood large armoirs and lacquered wooden trunks in which were held the emblems of the defunct emperors, their banners, their flags, their hundreds of precious golden seals, jade onyx which the various sovereigns had minted to commemorate the important circumstances of their lives and all the acts of their reigns. Portraits of the ancient emperors done in silk hung from the walls. By now the faces of these emperors had become pale, almost colorless, as though they were faces reflected in a fogged mirror, or as though they were the reflections of ghosts. Only the eyes maintained their intensity, they looked down from on high upon their descendants with impenetrable stares. Other paintings which portrayed them in important moments of their lives rolled around ebony and ivory sticks stood on large marble tables that acted as altars together with imperial yellow porcelain and vases of cloisonne gold containing the remnants of previous offers and sacrifices.

The eunuchs who were adepts of the cult of the imperial shadows had already predisposed prayer rugs on the pavements of the temple and had lit incense sticks. The dowager empress entered, followed by her imperial daughters-in-law who arranged themselves behind her in observance of a rigorous order based on rank; from their kneeling position they bowed, touching the ground with their foreheads.

The monk who looked after the temple opened a heavy manuscript where all the names of the ancestors appeared, and, intoning pompously, began to read the names, giving descriptions of their lives, accounting for their offspring: at the sound of each name the imperial phoenixes made deep bows, striking the pavement five time with their foreheads. At the end of this lengthy ritual, offering were placed on the altar: steamed doughnuts, which was to serve against the hunger of the ghosts of the house, bouquets of paper flowers and bowls filled with rice, symbol of abundance and of numerous offspring.

The ceremony was over. The imperial phoenixes had slowly risen and were heading towards the bronze door that had been closed after their entrance, when suddenly a woman of frightful aspect burst into the hall. She began a dance which she accompanied with the imitation of animal sounds. She was dressed in rags the color of ash interlaced with strips of leather. On her head she wore a tall cylinder hat covered with metal plates the shape of fish scales. Tied to her wrists and ankles were hundreds of iron bells, which rang at every movement she made, producing a deafening sound. Her dance was disjointed, without harmony, and her convulsed movements gave the impression that she was dancing under the effects of some drug or other. In her hands she tightly held the head of a pig that had just been slaughtered. And the blood flowed out, soiling her impoverished dress as well as the prayer rugs. Amazement and repulsion were written on the faces of the imperial ladies, who, petrified with horror, were unable to make a move. The dowager empress turned towards the monk as if to ask for an explanation.
“She is the most powerful shaman of the kingdom, Imperial Mother”, whispered the eunuch monk, “Her powers are as immense as the vastness of the heavens and her magic knows no limits. Ask her to cast a spell in order that the dynasty may have an heir.”

The barbarous dance seemed never to come to an end. Now the woman was dancing in circles, rattling a large drum trimmed with strips of leather and encrusted with sacrificial blood; on both skins of the drum, a scene had been depicted showing spiders and scorpions battling together. Finally, after one last vortex, the shaman fell exhausted to the ground, her eyes in a fixed stare, her mouth frothing and her limbs caught in a convulsed tremor. Crawling on her knees, she approached the dowager empress.
“Imperial mother”, her voice was full of excitement and seemed to issue from the bowels of the earth, “your son’s essence is too potent, and his interior fire burns the soil that he should be fecundating. His roots are not sick but too strong and they must be separated in order for them to regenerate”.
Then she let out a long, shrill cry and lay immobile as though dead.

The dowager empress, shaken by the crudeness of the spectacle and by the obscure prediction, left the temple, ignoring the indignant comments of her daughters-in-law, who were more offended than frightened by the woman’s words. On her way back to the Forbidden City, shut inside her palanquin, she entertained lengthy thoughts on what the shaman had said in the attempt to fathom the meaning of the message. She had been struck and frightened by the force transmitted by the woman, and her thoughts had wandered back to the past to when, as a child, she had witnessed rituals of this kind in her native land, Mongolia, and she had remembered how many times those magician-priests had predicted the truth, inspired by their own spirit.

Having returned to her Palace of Compassionate Tranquility, she called for the minister of the imperial house and ordered him to summon for the following morning all the court astrologists for a consultation and to impose a fast upon them, for only a purified body was able to read the signs of the stars. At dawn, when the dowager empress entered the audience hall of her palace all the astrologists were present, they were kneeling, dressed in long black silk robes on which the constellations were embroidered. “Ten thousand years of living to your majesty” they recited in chorus, executing the nine ritual kowtows, may your fortune be as wide as the sea and your health as solid as the mountains”.

The empress had put on for the occasion, in sign of humility, a simple tunic of gray silk. In her hand she clenched a black onyx rosary, as would any normal Buddhist monk. She sat rigidly on her kang which was covered with vivid yellow silk and large enough to be a bed placed on a platform which was reached by seven steps at the center of the hall. Behind her stood a large windscreen of carved gold-painted wood, whose center was occupied by a large phoenix along with the shou ideogram which was realized in kingfisher feathers. Four eunuchs, two on each side, held up large peacock feather fans. At the foot of the throne lay a large carpet of silk interwoven with silver threads and decorated with images of phoenixes flying in the midst of multicoloured butterflies.
“I want to know the future of the Son of Heaven and why he hasn’t yet generated an heir to the dynasty” she said in a strong voice.
“I wait upon you for a solution to the problem”.

Sticks of wood, gold and other metals were thrown on the pavement; water and colored sand were thrown against the walls in the effort to obtain fantastic signs, which, once they were interpreted, would reveal what the planets had in store. Everywhere the blood of sacrificed animals was sprayed, and long rolls of rice paper on which were traced all the emperor’s astral conjunctions. The astrologists danced in circles for the entire day, intoning psalms in antique mandarin and rolling their eyes. In the end they announced that yes, the essence of the emperor was too potent, that his interior fullness was excessive and was overflowing beyond measure, destroying the gardens of the phoenixes as floods destroy harvests.

“His majesty was born on the tenth day of the tenth moon in the year of the dragon: “there is the explanation for his fullness”, said the representative of the court astrologists, “in him the balance of metal, wood, water, fire and earth is compromised by the double ten and by the strong zodiacal sign, excessive even for the Son of Heaven. It is necessary that the potency of his essence be diluted in order for his seed to sprout.”

The diagnosis was clear but not otherwise clear did the cure promise itself to be.The following day the shaman of the imperial ancestors was sent for. “You were the first to understand what the problem of my son was”, said the dowager empress, “but no one is capable of telling me how to resolve it. Go to your spirits and ask them to indicate to us how to give an heir to the dynasty”.

Upon a signal from the witch, there entered apprentice witches dressed only in skirts made of strips of rat skin. Their bodies were smeared with ashes and their faces were covered with red and black designs. They held large drums in their hands and rattles made of fruit seeds encrusted with the blood from hundreds of sacrifices. They arranged themselves in circles around the shaman and began to beat on their instruments, producing a deafening sound, producing a music that was monotonous, without any change in tonality.
The shaman at the center of the circle whirled on an axis of her own with vertiginous speed that grew to the ever quickening rhythm of the drums, her arms raised above her head and her eyes shut. Suddenly she became immobile, and then began to tremble as though in the throes of an infernal fever. She was frothing at the mouth, and her eyes rolled backwards were opaque, as milky as if she were sightless. She began uttering wild rantlings, and words that were indistinct come from her lips, mixed with a greenish slime that smeared her body as well as the marble pavement. At the apex of this paroxysm she fell backwards and began to rotate as though possessed by a thousand deamons.
The dowager empress was frightened. Her fingernail covered with lacquered gold had by then torn into the silk of throne cushions, but this notwithstanding, she fought off her disgust for the barbarous ritual in the hopes that it would indicate a remedy that would put an end to her anguish. The shaman went through contortions on the pavement like a wounded serpent while her assistants kneeling around her covered her with a liquid the color of blood and with kaolin powder. Then from her lips there came a frightful sound, like that of far away thunder that announced the arrival of a summer storm, even before the sky has darkened. The invoked spirit was making itself heard.
“Take parts of other women and sewe them together and put them under the bed so that his seed may be distributed among them; thus the force of his essence will be divided and will not burn the field that has been sowed”.

The dowager empress half closed her eyes and a sigh passed through her lips that were the color of vermilian red. She felt a slow letting go of the tension that had stiffened her limbs, and the anguish that for months had clawed at her heart was now receding like waves withdrawing from the shore. At last she had come to grasp the meaning of the prophecy. And now she knew what she had to do if the dynasty was to have an heir.
At dawn the following day she summoned the master weavers of the imperial workshop and commanded them to realize a great carpet for the emperor’s bedroom. This carpet was to be of vivid yellow silk with its borders decorated with thousands of children intent on playing among pumpkins and rice grains; at its center, in a field of pomegranates the image of the five-clawed dragon, done in gold, surrounded by dancing phoenixes, realized in silver, caressing him with their wings. However, the wings of the phoenixes were to be realized with the hair of the most beautiful damsels of empire. In this way the Son of Heaven would ideally fecundate all of them dispersing the potency of his essence that was too strong for a single woman.
This was done.

Thirty master weavers took turns at the loom, night and day. And when the magnificent carpet was finished, it was placed beneath the nuptial bed in the emperor’s bedroom in the Palace of Nutrition of the Spirit. Nine months later, on the fifth day of the seventh moon, Hui the beautiful third ranking consort brought a male child to light, the first of the emperor’s fifteen children.
The dynasty was saved.