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: A Group of Chinese Imperial Robes


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute's recent purchase of thirteen imperial Chinese robes has secured for the permanent collect a small but representative group of costumes illustrating the variety and beauty of this branch of Chinese textile art. In view of the growing difficulty of obtaining fine examples of Chinese textiles, the Institute considers itself fortunate in having acquired this particular lot. It includes two imperial sacrificial robes, two Lamaist, one Buddhist, and one Taoist priest robes, three imperial audience robes, one prince's coat, an empress' robe, an imperial concubine's robes, and an actor's coat from the Palace Theatre in Peking. The robes were purchased from the Dunwoody Fund, and are now on exhibition in gallery C-18.During the time that they have already been on view, these robes have provoked an interest and admiration which suggest that an understanding of Chinese art and its symbolism may well be best approached through this particular medium. This is not surprising when one considers the important part that clothing has played in the life of man since the dawn of history. In the dim days of the first man, no doubt, the desirability of clothing oneself followed close on the necessity for feeding oneself. Everyone feels at home on the subject of clothing, and almost everyone is interested in it. So it is that the gateway to a sympathetic understanding of Chinese thought may well be that of Chinese costume.For Chinese costume exemplifies, in its rigid adherence to the systems of rank and its profuse expression of symbolism, the Chinese way of life. Perhaps in no other country in the world have the regulations of dress been more definitely laid down or more strictly enforced than in imperial China. Certain symbols and colors and fabrics were reserved for particular seasons and occasions. Everyone knew what these were and conformed to them. Specific costumes were prescribed for the emperor and his family, for princes, nobles, civic and military authorities, eunuchs, concubines, coolies, and merchants. Each man had his allotted place in life and felt secure in it. The same sort of classification is apparent today in the uniforms of the armed services and other groups.But contemporary uniforms appear drab and uninspired when compared with the brilliant costumes of China. Most of these that now exist date only from the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911). Yet it is certain, from discoveries of the past forty years, that Ch'ing textiles represent only the continuation of an art that has been superbly practiced in China from the time of the Han dynasty at least.Types of Chinese costume can be studied in paintings, tomb reliefs and figures of the Han and later periods, but the textiles themselves, with relatively few exceptions, must be studied from the examples of the Ch'ing dynasty. The existence of an advanced textile art at an early period in China was verified in 1907, when Sir Aurel Stein discovered two fragments of figured silk during an expedition to Tun Huang. These were proved, by means of dated records found with them, to have originated during the first century before Christ. Subsequent larger finds in Turkestan, as well as in Mongolia, clarified further the development of weaving and design in Chinese textiles, and show the Chinese to have equaled if not surpassed occidental textile workers in both woven and embroidered fabrics. Lack of space forbids even a summary of this development here, but those who are interested are advised to read the excellent small volume on Chinese Textiles by Alan Priest and Pauline Simmons, published in a revised edition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1934.Fortunately, the group of costumes now in the Institute's collection gives a fair idea of this art, illustrating some of the oldest and best known weaves and stitches employed in Chinese textiles, as well as important types of costumes.One of the most interesting of these, from the points of view both of weaving and design, is an imperial yellow k'o ssu robe worn by the emperor when making sacrifices to the Earth. The k'o ssu weave, most prized of Chinese weaves, is the same as that employed in making Gothic tapestries, but because it was carried out in silk resulted in an infinitely more delicate fabric. In color, and especially in design, the robe reflects the ancient Chinese conception of the universe, of which the basis is the Spirit of Heaven, deriving his power directly from Heaven, the emperor himself stood as the chief symbol of Chinese thought, and displayed on his sacrificial robes all the emblems which represent the Universe and the harmony of man in relation to the laws of nature.The yellow color of the robe is symbolic of the Earth, and the structural design represents the Universe: the broad, striped band at the bottom crested with curling waves symbolizes the sea; the group of mountains rising from the waves symbolized Earth, and the cloud pattern scattered through the upper part of the robe symbolized Heaven. Through the clouds roam nine five-clawed dragons, generally believed to be reserved for the emperor's use alone.The most important symbols of imperial sacrificial robes—and those which only the emperor might display—are the twelve symbols prescribed in the Book of Rites. These are the Sun, the Moon, and the Constellation, symbolizing the light of the good and the wise king shining upon the world; the Mountain, distributor of clouds and rain and symbolical of beneficence; the Dragon, infinite in its changes and symbolical of cultural accomplishment; the Cups, bearing a tiger and a long-tailed monkey, symbolical of the king as pacifier of rebellions; the Water Weed, which rises and falls with the tide and symbolizes the king's response to the needs of the time; the Millet, upon which human life depends, symbolical of the king as the mainstay of all things; the Fire, symbolical of the king's supreme virtue as daily renewed; the Axe, which can cut and sever and its symbolical of decisiveness when faced with problems; and the Symbol of Distinction, expressing the working together of the king and his ministers.In addition to these special imperial symbols, which are spaced over the front and back of the robe, various Buddhist and Taoist emblems appear, giving the fabric endless variety and interest. Some of the individual symbols are charming, and the discovery of each in turn on the richly patterned surface of the robe is an experience that carries with it a peculiar and intensely personal pleasure.The same series of symbols appears on a beautiful embroidered robe of faded red silk which was worn by the emperor in his sacrifices to the Sun. These two robes probably date from the Ch'ien Lung court, but the superb blue k'o ssu Buddhist priest robe in the group comes from the period of K'ang Hsi. It is an extremely fine example of a type which is now seldom procurable in this quality. The Buddhist priest robe is a long, scarf-like strip worn in the manner of the Roman toga. Its appearance, as if made of patches, is symbolical of Buddha's rags and characteristic of Buddhist priest robes. This example, so finely woven as to leave no trace of the joining of design areas, is decorated with five-clawed dragons—a circumstance that indicated it was worn in an imperial temple.The brocade weave, possibly used in Han times but not known to have existed before the Sung dynasty, as represented in two brilliant court robes of the Ch'ien Lung period. One, in which both gold thread and flat gold strips area introduced into the design of five-clawed dragons, clouds, Buddhist and Taoist emblems, is of gold satin, lightly padded for wear in cold weather. The other, of green and gold brocade, is unusual because of the design appearing on the breast and sleeves: a crowing cock backed by the rising sun. This symbol, together with the fact that only eight instead of the imperial nine dragons are used, suggests that the robe belonged not only to a prince of the court, but possibly to the heir apparent, whose power had not yet reached its zenith.Satin, introduced into Europe at the time of Genghis Khan but known in China long before, is the fabric of a lavishly embroidered orange robe dating from the eighteenth century. On this robe, as on the red sacrificial robe mentioned above, the design is carried out chiefly in the fine satin stitch so universally used by the Chinese since the Han dynasty. The body of the robe is decorated with an all-over pattern of bats and the double peach, symbols respectively of happiness and immortality, through which nine five-clawed dragons prowl in pursuit of the flaming jewel. These dragons, worked in couched gold thread, are most realistically scaly.Another fine example in which the satin stitch is used to create a surface of great richness is an imperial court robe of the Ch'ing dynasty. The background of finely ribbed orange silk is almost completely covered with a meandering swastika pattern in dark blue. On this fretwork ground appear bats and clusters of clouds in shades of rose and blue. The five-clawed dragons in the field are worked in couched gold thread, and it will be observed that in this instance they are grasping the flaming jewel; a circumstance that indicates, according to unsubstantiated legend, that the coat was worn on the occasion of an eclipse. This phenomenon of nature was explained by the ancient Chinese as the swallowing of the sun—or the moon—by the dragon.The couched-twist stitch, known from Han times and counted the most perfect of Chinese stitches, is beautifully illustrated in two Lamaist priest robes of the K'ang Hsi period. These robes, so richly embroidered as to present an almost unbroken field of gold and couched-twist work in delicate shades, are the most lavish costumes in the group, and, together with the Buddhist priest robe and the imperial yellow k'o ssu sacrificial robe, constitute the most brilliant and valuable examples. The designs of the Lamaist robes include a bewildering combination of Buddhist, Taoist, and independent symbols, identification of which becomes an exciting pastime when pursued over trials of gold thread, flat gold strips, and the minute and exquisite path of the areas worked in the couched-twist.Despite their lavish character the Lamaist priest robes, like the Buddhist, retain an echo of humility. In the former it is the simple cotton or linen linings that convey to wearer and beholder the thought of poverty. That there should be, in such beautiful robes, the slightest association with poverty seems almost too paradoxical. Nevertheless, it exists in even the most elaborate examples.Facing competition with the spectacle presented by robes such as these, one might think that the theatre, region of illusion, would have had no other course but to retire in defeat. The costume designers of the imperial Chinese theatre were not so easily vanquished, however. By exaggerating line, color, and design, they produced costumes that held their own in the colorful pageantry of the Chinese court.Their manner of doing so is illustrated in a warrior's coat from the Palace Theatre in Peking. With magnificent disregard for all rules except those imposed by their art, they combined velvet, imported brocade, and traditional embroidery to produce masterly creations for the heroes of that world represented by the theatre. The Institute's example is made of crimson velvet with panels of imported, European brocade edged with tiger's claws of colored appliqué. Strips of gold galloon edge of waste band, and floral designs of know stitched and appliqué adorn the sleeves and shoulders. The result is a triumph of incongruity which becomes wholly congruous on the stage for which it was designed.Such were the costumes that made the Chinese court the most harmoniously beautiful that ever existed. The court itself has vanished—and the men who contributed so uniquely to its brilliance. But memory of them, and knowledge of their way of life, is passed on by the works of art they caused to be created. With this handful of costumes alone one can reconstruct in his mind a picture of the vast white courts of Peking's Forbidden City as they must have looked on some ceremonial occasion, when the emperor and his retinue moved in an unbroken wave of color under the piercing blue of the Peking sky.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Emperor's gold satin brocade audience robe with a broad design representing the Universe. The nine five-clawed dragons on the robe are symbolical of the Emperor's person. Chinese, Ch'ien Lung Dynasty. Dunwoody Fund.
  2. Emperor's sacrificial robe of yellow k'o ssu worn during sacrifices to the Earth. Chinese, Ch'ien Lung Dynasty.
  3. Lamaist priest robe with Buddhist and Taoist symbols embroidered in gold and colors. K'ang Hsi Period. Dunwoody Fund.
  4. Imperial theatrical robe for a warrior. Crimson velvet with panels of imported European brocade. XVIII century.
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Source: "A Group of Chinese Imperial Robes," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 31, no. 18 (May, 1942): 60-65.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009