Chinese Imperial Court Robes of the Qing Dynasty
Specialist, Douglas Girton, writes about the mid-Qing period Imperial festive summer robe offered in our Fine Asian Works of Art sale on June 4th 2014. From the collection of Leonard Gow, the noted Glaswegian shipping magnate whose collection of Chinese porcelain was one of the most important in Britain in the first part of the 20th century.
The robe is worked in gold and silver embroidery on a gold gauze ground, with standing waves at the hem and nine five-clawed dragons on the front, back and shoulder panels. Placed throughout the field of the robe are the twelve symbols of Imperial authority
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the ruling Manchu elite formalised a strict standard of court dress. While adopting some of the Han dynasty customs, the Qing emperors were keen to establish their own cultural identity, and by imposing strict guidelines on a code of dress, they were able to institute control over society while imposing a sense of order and harmony. In 1759 the imperial dress regulations were codified under the direction of the emperor Qianlong, outlining in strict detail who could wear what and when. A person's place in the hierarchy of the court or civic life could be established by the colour, quality of workmanship, materials and embellishments to standardised garments. There were five categories of accepted formal dress, each meant for specific occasions or functions: official, festive, regular, travelling and military, and each category was separated further into winter and summer wardrobes. Silk was used for most all garments, while winter garments were padded and lined with fur, and summer garments were made from light silk gauze, often embroidered with multi-coloured silk or gold and silver threads.
In Chinese court dress, as in all aspects of Chinese life, special meanings were given to colours and symbols, with many things having multiple associations. Bright yellow was reserved for robes for the emperor, dowager empress, empress, and first concubine. Other colours were worn for specific ceremonial occasions, but bright yellow was reserved for these highest level court figures. Less important members of the court and civil officials were assigned colours depending on rank and position.
The use of dragon imagery was also significant. Their number, form and placement on the robe was strictly detailed in the court dress statutes. Only the emperor, dowager empress, empress, first concubine and heir apparent could wear a dragon robe or longpao. Lower status officials and court figures could wear robes depicting an animal similar in appearance to a dragon called a mang, some with five claws, some with four depending on a person’s rank and status.
There were certain other symbols traditionally reserved for use on Imperial robes, among them the twelve symbols of imperial authority that were rooted in ancient customs. They are the sun, moon, stars, mountain, dragon, pheasant, axe head, ji character, ceremonial goblets, waterweed, flame and grain. Each symbol has a specific meaning and represented the emperor’s authority and unquestionable sovereignty. Traditionally reserved for use on Imperial robes, among them the twelve symbols of imperial authority that were rooted in ancient customs. They are the sun, moon, stars, mountain, dragon, pheasant, axe head, ji character, ceremonial goblets, waterweed, flame and grain. Each symbol has a specific meaning and represented the emperor’s authority and unquestionable sovereignty.
Richly detailed and in near immaculate condition, the robe was a definite highlight for buyers at our sale on June 4th 2014, providing a rare glimpse of the exquisite workmanship of Qing dynasty imperial textiles. It sold for £73,250 (premium inclusive)