A Chinese dragon robe and a complex court dress system

Most of the clothing in the Ulster Museum's fashion and dress collection originates from Europe. However, there are some objects in the collection that come from outside of Europe. One such clothing item in the collection is this Chinese dragon robe or longpao.

The robe was donated to the museum in 1976. It dates from the late Qing dynasty, around 1850-1899. It is said to have once belonged to the Dowager Empress of China. Dragon robes were worn on formal occasions by high-ranking members of the Chinese imperial family and court. The robes were a part of the Qing court dress system, which was complex and detail orientated. There was an intricate system behind the colours, designs and features on the robes.[1]

 

Image: Photograph of the front of the dragon robe BELUM.T158
Photograph of the front of the dragon robe BELUM.T158

Materials and Structure

The dragon robe is made from a silk satin weave and it is richly embroidered in silk and gold metallic threads from the neck to the cuffs. While the silhouette and construction of the robe were simple, the fabric and embroidered decorations were intricate and beautiful. The robe is full-length and would have reached to the ankle of the wearer. It has a large front panel on the wearer’s left side that would be wrapped and fastened at the right side of the robe. In addition to the side fastening, it has a circular opening at the neck, with long sleeves with horse-hoof cuffs. The horse-hoof cuff was a distinct feature of Qing imperial robes. They referenced the strong horse-riding tradition of the Manchu from northern China.[2] There are no slits at the back or front on this robe. Slits were usually found on male robes as they enabled horse-riding, which was another reference to the horse-riding tradition of the Manchu.  

Colour

The colour of the robes was particularly important. The colours of women’s robes were co-ordinated to the robe’s worn by their husbands. Yellow was considered the most important colour and it was reserved for royalty. The official colour of the Qing dynasty was blue, and minor princes or noblemen were permitted to wear the colour blue or the colour brown. The brown colour of the base of this robe was only allowed to be worn by first to fourth degree princes and imperial dukes. Thus, this longpao was likely worn by a high-ranking member of the royal family or court. There is yellow and red embroidery on the robe. Yellow is associated with the earth and yin element, whereas red was associated with the yang element and it was considered a lucky colour.[3] The use of the colours together was particularly favourable and auspicious. The use of gold threads on the dragon embroidery was representative of wealth and happiness.[4]

Symbols

The robe is full of important symbolism. Longpao silk robes are demonstrative of the way textiles were used to signal political power and social rank in imperial China. The robe is embroidered in silk and metallic gold thread with symbols that communicated to onlookers the status of the wearer. People could read the symbols and understood what they conveyed about the rank and position of the wearer.[5] The symbols were specified by official court regulations in the Da-Qing-Hui-Dien, to maintain the organization of the system of the Qing dynasty.[6] 

Image: Close-up of the “tenth” dragon that appears when the robe is folded. The embroidered red bats, flame and wave details can be seen in this photograph.
Close-up of the “tenth” dragon that appears when the robe is folded. The embroidered red bats, flame and wave details can be seen in this photograph.

The robes were also rich with symbols that connect to Chinese philosophy. Shu Hwa Lin and C. J. Duarte have researched design themes on Qing dynasty imperial dragon robes as carriers of Chinese yin-yang philosophy to replicate harmony and balance in nature and to ‘define the imperial relationship to the cosmos and the grand scheme of the universe.[7] There were twelve sacred symbols of sovereignty that were used on robes that indicated status. These included the sun, moon, mountains, three-star constellations, dragons, pheasants, fire, grain, rule, axe, seaweed, and bronze cups.[8] Most important of the symbols on the robe are the dragons. The dragon is significant in Chinese culture. They have long been associated with Chinese emperors and they were the chief symbol of sovereignty. The dragon embodied the emperor and the yang principle in Qing court dress.[9] The dragon insignia on the front and back of the robes were assigned to members of the imperial family according to their status. Five clawed dragons called long, were only worn by the emperor, his sons, his immediate family, and selected court members of high distinction.[10] Four-clawed dragons called mang, could be worn by lower nobles and certain princes, and then further lower ranking officials could wear robes with three-clawed dragons.[11]

This robe has nine five-clawed dragons embroidered in gold-wrapped threads. This includes a hidden dragon behind a front fold, that would be invisible to onlookers when the robe was being worn. A “tenth” dragon appears when the robe is folded in such a way that the sleeves meet. The five-clawed dragon was only worn by members of the imperial family. Therefore, the large number of dragons and the number of claws indicates that the robe belonged to a very high-ranking member of the Chinese imperial family. Most dragon robes, including this one, had a dragon at the centre front. The front-facing dragon motif is divided into halves by the centre front line of the robe and this designated yin and yang.[12] Smaller dragons are on the sleeves and lower down the length of the robe.

Image: Close-up of the sleeves showing the horse-hoof cuffs.
Close-up of the sleeves showing the horse-hoof cuffs.

Interspersed between the ten dragons are auspicious motifs, all above a stylised border of waves and floral blooms. At the bottom of the robe there is an embroidered border with wave motifs and ling shui, diagonal stripes known as ‘standing water’ rising into a rolling sea.[13] The sacred Mount Kunlun in western China is depicted at the centre front near the bottom of the robe. It was traditionally believed that Mount Kunlun was at the centre of the universe.[14] The robe also has embroidered red bats or fu. Red bats were considered ‘special omens of enormous fortune.’[15] In Buddhism they are symbolic of happiness and the power of the emperor.[16]

I hope you enjoyed reading about this Chinese dragon robe from the Ulster Museum’s fashion and textiles collection. I certainly loved researching and writing this post and learnt so much about the symbolism and significance of this longpao.  

[1] Sotheby’s, ‘Dragon robe decoded’, 23 May 2019, https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/dragon-robe-decoded

[2] V&A, ‘Influence and longevity: a festive dragon robe for winter’,  https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/influence-and-longevity-victoria-and-albert-museum/jQISV8UjaQfyKg?hl=en

[3] Shu Hwa Lin and C. J. Duarte, ‘Uncovering the messages behind four Imperial dragon robes from exhibitions with Yin and Yang message’ in Journalism and Mass Communication, vii, no. 1 (2017), pp 58-59.

[4] Ibid., p. 59.

[5] Christie’s, ‘Collecting guide: Chinese robes’, https://www.christies.com/features/Chinese-robes-collecting-guide-7813-1.aspx

[6] Ibid., pp 61-62.

[7] Lin and Duarte, ‘Uncovering the messages’, p. 61.

[8] Ibid., p. 54.

[9] Ibid., p. 55.

[10] ‘Dragon robes’,  http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/Early-Cultures-Asia/Dragon-Robes.html

[11] Lin and Duarte, ‘Uncovering the messages’, p. 55.

[12] Ibid., p. 56.

[13] Ibid.

[14] ‘Dragon robes’,  http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/Early-Cultures-Asia/Dragon-Robes.html

[15] Lin and Duarte, ‘Uncovering the messages’, pp 60-61.

[16] ‘Reading a dragon robe’, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/reading-a-dragon-robe/EwIywfDtcg-mKg; ‘Dragon robes’, http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/Early-Cultures-Asia/Dragon-Robes.html