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Dragon Robe for an Empress of China


Dragon Robe for an Empress of China
Dragon Robe for an Empress of China
1821-50 (Ch'ing dynasty)
Embroidered silk, gold thread
The John R. Van Derlip Fund

Key Ideas

Ch'ing Dynasty
Dragon Robe

Discussion Questions

The Chinese dragon was a divine bringer of rain, necessary for the good of all. The dragon was also a symbol of the good emperor whose wisdom and divine power assured the well-being of his subjects. Many legends draw connections between the dragon and the emperor. Some emperors even claimed to have descended from the dragon.1 For others, dragons were special protectors.2

Chinese dragons could make themselves as large as the universe or as small as a silkworm. They could also change color and disappear in a flash. Dragons were rarely seen because they cleverly hid in caves burrowed into the lofty mountains, or coiled up on the bottom of the deepest seas. Any sighting of a dragon boded well - it meant that Heaven was letting the people know that their ruler was doing a good job. Obviously, rulers were eager to hear of any reports of dragons in their domain.

Ch'ing Dynasty
In 1644, the nomadic Manchu (man-CHEW) warriors from northern China overthrew China's Ming rulers and established the Ch'ing dynasty. The Manchu admired and quickly adopted the culture and government of the native Chinese they had conquered. Still, in their official clothing styles, the Manchu emphasized their own distinctive cultural heritage. Inspired by the riding garments of their nomadic days, Ch'ing robes had long tapered sleeves, tight cuffs, narrow neck openings, side closures, and slit skirts. Although the cut was new, Ch'ing robes were decorated with symbols from traditional Chinese mythology, most notably the dragon.

Everyone who attended and served at court during the Ch'ing dynasty wore symbolic robes. Rank and status within the court were indicated by the cut, color, and symbolic decoration of one's robe. The highest rank was that of emperor, empress, or empress dowager. Only these individuals were allowed to wear yellow robes bearing the five-toed dragon MOTIF (moe-TEEF).3

Dragon Robe
This type of semiformal court robe is called ch'i-fu (chee-foo), which translates as "festive dress." The color and cut indicate that this robe was worn by an empress.

Dragon Robe for an Empress of China

Rollover the image to locate details from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China

Stringy clouds that curl on top of the waves and float up in little ovals Ocean and mountains Dragon

The dragon on this robe (see detail) is a distinctive type associated with the imperial house. Its wide, flat head is topped by horns and flanked by wiry whiskers. Scales and sharp spines cover its curving body. Five short legs with powerful claws emerge from the dragon's snakelike torso. Flames spark outward from its joints. The dragon tosses a flaming pearl between its claws.

The dragon cavorts in a celestial landscape above a rainbow-hued diagonal ocean whose frothy waves crash against three rocky mountains that represent the earth.

The heavens are represented by a band of colorful STYLIZED, stringy clouds that curl on top of the waves and float up in little ovals through the robe.

The dragon is the centerpiece of an elaborate set of images that symbolize the emperor's authority as an intermediary in the universal order between heaven and earth. The great and beneficial power of the dragon could be brought to the people by the good governance of the emperor. The pearl within the dragon's grasp is a symbol of wisdom. Like a worthy emperor, the dragon always seeks wisdom.

Detail of pearl in dragon's grasp from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China   Detail of swastikas from the <EM>Dragon Robe for an Empress of China</EM>

Detail of pearl in dragon's grasp from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China


Detail of swastikas from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China

Many symbols of good luck and power surround the dragon. The whole BACKGROUND is embroidered with an intricate PATTERN of connected bright blue swastikas. In China the swastika symbolized good luck and the number 10,000. Thus any symbol of blessing laid against it is multiplied 10,000 times.

Several red bats fly through the heavens below the dragon. Bats were considered emblems of longevity and happiness because the words for happiness and bat sound similar. To either side of the dragon's head are red stylized shou (show) characters. They wish long life for the robe's wearer.

Detail of bats from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China   Detail of red shou characters from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China

Detail of one red bat from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China


Detail of one red shou character from the Dragon Robe for an Empress of China

1 The emperor Yao was said to be the son of a red dragon. The dragon had come to his mother bearing an inscription on his back indicating that she would receive Heaven's blessing. A great darkness and wind whipped around her on all sides. The dragon touched her and she became pregnant. Fourteen months later she gave birth to Yao. Return to Text
2 According to one myth, during the time of great rebellion, the T'ang emperor Ming Huang had to flee from the capital. The previous evening a small dragon arose from a pond ready to help the emporer escape by boat. The dragon carried the emperor's boat on its back to safety. Ming Huang was very grateful. He thanked it and gave wine. Return to Text
3 If these robes at first seem to us very ornate, we must remember that they are robes of state, worn in the imperial court and its temples and theatres. They can be compared to the robes worn for a royal coronation in Westminster Abbey. Return to Text

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