Artist not known, China
Mid-1800s, Qing dynasty
H: 58 in, W: 78 in
Denver Art Museum, Neusteter Textile Collection: Gift of Caroline Bancroft, 1942.1
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Exquisitely woven dragon robes are the best-known garments from the lengthy Qing (CHING) dynasty (1644–1911). They were handmade in factories following design specifications established by the Office of the Imperial Household. Some weaving was done in the Forbidden City in Beijing (home of the emperor and the highest-ranking officials), but the majority was carried out at factories in the cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Nanjing.
Government officials and members of the imperial court were entitled to wear dragon robes. Designs and colors were regulated by rank; for example, only the emperor, the heir apparent, empress, and empress dowager could wear yellow robes. Only the imperial family and high-ranking princes were allowed to wear robes with nine dragons (see the "Details" section to locate the dragons on this robe). Likewise, only the upper echelons were allowed to wear dragons with five claws; the lower orders wore four-clawed dragons. However, by the end of the 1800s, these conventions were often ignored.
This robe is completely lined with leopard fur - an unusually luxurious and expensive choice. Most winter robes were padded with cotton or silk wadding.
What Inspired It
Imperial rules dictated what a dragon robe could look like. Some of the symbols on the robe signaled what rank the wearer held. Other symbols were designed to bring good fortune to the wearer.
Dragons were believed to bring rain. Since China was mostly an agricultural economy, rain was incredibly important. Dragons were thus symbols of fertility and masculine vitality. The dragon also represented the emperor and, therefore, China. A dragon was believed to appear in the sky at the birth of the emperor.
The decorations on the dragon robe depict the universe: the sky, mountains, and the sea. The neckhole represents the “Sky Door” or gate of heaven. Wearing the dragon robe made the symbolism complete.The neckhole separates the material world of the coat from the spiritual world, embodied by the wearer’s head.
Nine five-clawed golden dragons with flaming pearls appear on this festive dress. Among the clouds surrounding the dragons are symbols related to Buddhism.
This robe has nine dragons: one center front, one center back, two bottom front, two bottom back, and two on the shoulders. The ninth dragon is on the inner flap and can only be seen when the robe is opened as in this detail. The number “nine” represents eternity.
The sky or heavens section of this dragon robe is filled with dragons chasing flaming pearls, bats (a sign of good fortune), and many clouds (symbols of heaven, fertility, and long life).
The four mountains represent the four outermost peaks of a great central mountain, which was believed to form the earth’s axis. The mountains symbolized longevity, the earth, and resoluteness. This detail of a mountain peak is located at the center front of the robe. The other three peaks appear at the center back and at the left and right side of the bottom of the robe.
Even the small dragons on the sleeve cuffs have five claws. Traditionally, dragons with five claws were permitted on the garments of only the highest-ranking officials.
Another sign of the high quality of this robe is that the buttons are made of colored glass in imitation of jade.
Conch shells could be blown like a horn to call people to worship. The conch shell stands for the far-reaching nature of Buddhist teaching.
The vase holds the elixir of life and stands for the fulfillment of all wishes.