Artist not known, China
1736-1795, with later alterations; Qing dynasty
L: 56 in, W: 84 in
Neusteter Textile Collection: Gift of James P. Grant & Betty Grant Austin, 1977.191
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
When the emperor and his court required new robes, they sent a request to the Office of the Imperial Household, which supplied most of the goods used in ritual life for the imperial family and its officials. This office then worked with the Imperial Weaving and Dyeing Office, which provided patterns and dyes. Some weaving was done on site in the Forbidden City (where the emperor lived), but the majority was carried out at factories in the three cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Nanjing, where tens of thousands of women were employed in embroidering robes, dresses, and stage costumes. Once the imperial workshops had fulfilled their annual quota for the court, they were then free to take on orders for robes from wealthy families.
The designs on this robe were embroidered on top of a woven gauze fabric. The Things to Look For section shows a close-up of how the embroidery was done, in a process much like what we would call needlepoint.
What Inspired It
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. Only the upper echelons were allowed to wear dragons with five claws; the lower orders wore four-clawed dragons.
Dragon robes could be either for summer or winter. This gauze version is a summer robe. The eight colorful dragons on the main body of the robe (five on the front, three on the back) are shown in different positions, such as front-facing and rising. The ninth dragon is hidden inside the flap. Among the clouds that surround the dragons, there are red bats carrying various objects tied with long ribbons.
Each of these objects stands for one of the Eight Daoist Immortals. In China, they worshipped the Eight Daoist Immortals as gods of longevity. Each Immortal had a character and story of his/her own, and often an Immortal had magic powers.
This robe is made of gauze fabric that is like a very fine net, which allows air to circulate and keeps its wearer cool in warm weather. Most of the embroidery stitches are vertical and cover about two rows of the gauze weave.
The gold areas of the dragon are made of silk threads covered with gold foil. These threads can’t be sewn through the fabric, so they are instead tacked down (a technique called couching). In this detail, you can see the difference between the couched gold thread and the stitching of the eye.
Designs dictated by the government could be drawn on the fabric and then filled in by the needle workers. Note that one claw on each dragon foot is drawn in but none of the fifth claws on this robe are stitched. We are not sure what this means. Was the stitching removed because the robe was given to someone who could not wear a robe with five-clawed dragons, or, was the owner demoted?
The crutch and gourd detail stands for Li Tieguai , a lame beggar supported by an iron crutch who carries a gourd from which he dispenses pills for the sick. Here is the story of how he came to have the body of a beggar:
One day he decided to travel to the heavens to talk to the gods. When he left, he told his disciple to guard his body, saying that if he did not return in seven days, he should burn it. On the sixth day, the disciple got word that his mother was sick and, needing to leave, he cremated his master’s body. Li returned and found his body reduced to ashes. Casting around for another body, he saw the body of a dead beggar and his spirit entered that instead.
The detail of a sword stand for Lu Dongbin who dresses like a scholar in a long robe, but holds a fly whisk and carries a sword behind his back. He lived in the Tang dynasty and failed his civil service exams many times, not because of incompetence, but because his immortal literary talent was not recognized by the mortal examiners.