by Mary Lee, Assistant Registrar
I love Chinese Dragon Robes. Combining the inherent coolness of dragons with rich color, exquisite detail and an excess of symbolism, they present a visual overload that always attracts my attention. Working at the Oklahoma History Center I never expected to find a dragon robe in our textile collection. I was so excited by the chance to physically examine this robe that I lost control and my obsessive tendencies overwhelmed me, resulting in more information and photographs than needed for a normal blog entry. Acknowledging that everyone does not share my fascination with dragon robes, I have omitted the section where I counted all of the stitches in the dragon’s scales and told the origin of every symbol on the robe. I hope you appreciate this concession and are not afraid to continue reading.
The museum’s dragon robe is from the late 19th century Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and was donated by the family of Oklahoma Senator Robert L. Owen. 70-year-old museum records are often incomplete or even non-existent. The original accession information for the robe states that it was presented to Senator Owen, but when, where, and by whom was left unrecorded. It was, and remains, a Chinese custom for visitors and hosts to exchange gifts. As a robe designed for a high ranking official, this would have been an appropriate gift for a foreign dignitary and our assumption is that he received the robe from a Chinese official. While Senator Owen undoubtedly appreciated the gift, he unfortunately adapted the garment to suit his own western purposes, cutting off the sleeves to wear it more comfortably as a dressing gown. The lower sections of the sleeves were donated with the robe and are in excellent condition but its value and integrity as an artifact are still irreparably damaged. Defying common sense, the sleeves were originally listed in the old files as being partial pant legs.
Unlike the evil, fire-breathing, flying dragons of the west, perpetually slain by princes and saints, Chinese dragons were revered as symbols of wisdom, power, vitality, and good fortune. Dragons became synonymous with Imperial authority, and the dragon robe functioned as a physical representation of the Emperor as ruler of the universe. This blue silk hand-embroidered robe features nine five-clawed dragons, or long pao: one on the chest, back, each of the shoulders, and two each above the front hem and back hem. There is a hidden ninth dragon placed inside the front flap. Diagonal five color bands at the bottom represent the ocean and are topped by embroidered waves. Above the waves, on the four axes of the coat, are rising mountains symbolizing the four cardinal points of the earth. The dragon above the earth surrounded by clouds represents the Emperor as ruler of the heavens.
Numerous auspicious symbols also decorate the robe. Red bats holding swastikas (wan) symbolize longevity and happiness for ten thousand years. Gold Chinese Ji characters are symbols of good luck, and cranes represent immortality. Pairs of emblems of the eight Daoist Immortals assure good fortune for the wearer. Black and gold brocade edging indentifies this as a summer robe, and its blue color indicates the wearer to have been a first to fourth degree prince or Imperial duke. It’s hard to believe that this incredibly sumptuous garment was considered semi-formal festive dress (Ji Fu). People were generally buried in their more formal court clothing which is rarely seen today. As semi-formal dress Ji Fu survives as the most common style of dragon robe seen today.
For the first several hundred years of the Qing dynasty five-clawed dragons could only be worn by the Emperor, heir apparent, and high ranking princes. All aspects of court clothing design were controlled by strict rules dictated by the Emperor. A massive tome published in 1766 regulated everything from rank badges to hat finials and when to change from summer to winter clothing. In the late 19th century as the empire declined, things got out of hand, restrictions were disregarded, and suddenly everyone was wearing five-clawed dragons and no noble or high ranking official would be seen wearing only a four-clawed dragon robe. Style changes in robe design occurred over the centuries resulting in the late nineteenth century style of the Museum’s Dragon Robe with its five-clawed, upper and lower dragons of the same size, extremely elongated water lines, smaller mountains, and profusion of good luck symbols covering the entire garment. It has been suggested that the proliferation of symbols seen in the late 19th century robes represent pleas for good luck during the turmoil of the empire’s decline. These symbols became very stylized and often difficult to identify. There is one that I still find puzzling. Rising out of the waves is a small dragon head with smoke coming out of its mouth which appears to be topped by a birthday cake with candles. I am fairly sure it is not a birthday cake, but have no other suggestions.
Toward the end of the Qing dynasty many nobles were forced to sell their robes for cash and many westerners and Chinese were able to obtain court attire. Though China was a republic by the time Robert L. Owen became an Oklahoma senator, dragon robes remained an important remnant of China’s cultural heritage and would have been considered a significant gift. The dragon continues to be revered as a symbol of the Chinese people and nation.