The dragon is one of the most ancient and powerful symbols in Chinese culture. A composite of many animals, including a snake, an eagle, a tiger, and a devil, the dragon symbolized the natural world and transformation. It was associated with Chinese emperors from at least the first century B.C.E. Beginning late in the Song dynasty (960–1279 C.E. ), emperors began to wear luxurious robes decorated with figures of dragons. By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the dragon robe, in its many varieties, was an important garment worn by the emperor and his ruling circle. Many Qing dynasty dragon robes have survived, and they give us a rare glimpse of the richness of early Chinese garments.
The basic form of the dragon robe was simple. It was a long robe, reaching to the ankles, with long sleeves and a circular opening for the neck. A large front panel on the wearer's left side of the garment was wrapped and fastened at the right side, in the traditional Chinese style. But the simplicity in construction was more than made up for in the intricacy and richness of the fabric and decoration. The key element on a dragon robe was, of course, the dragon. Most dragon robes had one large dragon in the center of the garment, with smaller dragons on the sleeves and lower down the hem. The dragons swam on a sea of intricately patterned material, with geometric designs, natural scenes, waves, or other brightly colored figures adorning the lower half of the garment and the sleeves. The robes were made of rich silk, sometimes in several layers or with silk padding to add warmth. Occasionally the robes would include embroidery at the neck fastening or the cuffs.
The various dragon robes worn in the Qing court sent signals about the rank and distinction of the wearer. Robes featuring the five-clawed dragon, called a long, could be worn by the emperor and his sons and selected court members of high distinction. Certain princes and lower nobles could wear a robe featuring the mang, or four-clawed dragon. And even lower ranking officials could wear a robe with three-clawed dragons. The presence of additional ornamentation—such as an embroidered border picturing the sacred Mount Kunlun, in western China, which was believed to be the center of the universe, or images of the "twelve sacred symbols" (the sun, moon, stars, dragon, pheasant, mountains, sacrificial cups, waterweed, grains of millet, flames, sacrificial axe, and the fu symbol, an emblem associated with the power of the emperor)—was also used to signify the wearer's place in society.
The end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 meant the end of the dragon robe, since the revolution that brought more representative government to China forever ended the customs of the imperial court. While the dragon continues to be an important symbol in China, the dragon robe is an emblem of the past.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
"Dragon Robes of China's Last Dynasty." San Diego Museum of Art. http://www.sandiegomuseum.org/dragonrobes/contents.html (accessed on July 29, 2003).
Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
Wilson, Verity. Chinese Dress. London, England: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986.