Reading a Dragon Robe

Explore power and status in an imperial robe.

Fur-lined yellow silk dragon robe (1820-1850) by UnknownOriginal Source: Chester Beatty

This long pau or ‘dragon robe’ was made in China during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Created using a tapestry-weave silk known as kesi, its motifs were carefully woven into the fabric. The heavy fur lining would have offered warmth in Beijing’s cold winters, but the dragon robe’s function went far beyond practicality. Reading through its form and decoration in light of imperial court regulations, this robe was made to be worn by an emperor.

In 1759, the Qianlong Emperor formalised a set of regulations concerning court clothing and rank. Robes in bright yellow like this were reserved for the emperor, dowager empress, empress and concubines of the first rank. In Chinese philosophy, yellow stands for the centre and the earth. It also refers to Huangdi: the legendary Yellow Emperor.

The use of dragons on Chinese imperial clothing is known from the Tang dynasty (618–960). Under the Qing, the five-clawed dragon or long was to be used only by the emperor and his immediate family. Chasing flaming pearls, these dragons soar amongst rain-bringing clouds over peaks and waves that represent the land under heaven.

Qianlong also reintroduced the use of the Twelve Symbols of Ancient Imperial Authority. Proudly worn by emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Qianlong’s own ancestors had rejected them when they seized control of China. This robe features all twelve symbols, and so was designated for an emperor. Five can be seen here:

Positioned at the neck, the constellation is one of three symbols referring to the heavens. The others—the sun disc with rooster and moon disc with hare—sit on the shoulders of the robe.

At the waist, the fu symbol is connected to the winter solstice.

While the axe, emblematic of imperial power over life and death, relates to the autumn equinox.

At knee level, temple cups represent the element metal.

And aquatic plants represent water.

In wearing dragon robes and using these symbols, Qing emperors adopted the practices of earlier Chinese dynasties. However, the robes they wore were also adjusted in ways that reflected their Manchu heritage, particularly their prowess in horseriding. These hoof-shaped cuffs, for example, would originally have protected a rider’s hands.

And the slit in the centre of the front and back hems of men’s robes allowed them to sit comfortably on a horse.

Other motifs ornamenting this robe include Buddhist symbols and auspicious sayings rendered in pictures. For example, the Chinese word for bats, ‘fu’, sounds the same as happiness, while peaches are associated with the Daoist immortal Shou Lao. Combined together, they read as a wish for happiness and long life: an appropriate desire for an esteemed emperor.

CBL C 1050
Chinese fur-lined yellow silk tapestry (kesi) dragon robe made between 1820-1850.

Credits: Story

All text and images © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Exhibit presented by Mary Redfern
Chester Beatty, Dublin, Ireland

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