Before we dive into more exquisite embroidery from China, just a little shout-out to the Fiber Talk podcasts. On Sunday, I had my second lovely conversation with Gary discussing my ongoing journey from craftsperson to textile artist, my trip to China, the reality of turning your skill into your business and so on. We laughed a lot and hope that you`ll enjoy the conversation too! You can listen via the player on the Fiber Talk website (were you'll find hundreds of other engaging podcasts with fellow embroidery people!) or you can watch the episode on FlossTube.
In previous blog posts I have shown you the oldest pieces of embroidery I saw in China as well as beautifully embroidered rank badges. Today we will examine the court robes worn by the Qing emperor (AD 1644-1911) and his closest relatives. These lavish robes are decorated with the symbol of the emperor: the dragon. Hence their name: dragon robes. But there is more than just gorgeously embroidered dragons on these robes. After all, we are in China :). These robes are packed with meaning. Luckily, there was a very helpful picture in the National Silk Museum, Hangzhou pointing out the different motives and their meaning:
The different symbols are arranged in three distinct circles. Around the neck you'll find the sun (life force) and the moon on the shoulders and constellation of three stars (the handle of the sign Ursa Major; illumination) and the rock (stability) on the front and the back. The next circle runs over the chest and features the axe (distinction between right and wrong) and double bow (dispensing of justice) on the front, as well as a pair of dragons and a pheasant (light and colour). The third circle at knee-level sports a pair of bronze sacrificial cups (courage and wisdom), waterweed (purity), grain (nourishment and sustenance) and fire (warmth and light).
When the emperor conducted certain important ceremonies he would sit facing south. The major symbols on his dragon robe would then allign with the wider architecture of the Forbidden City: the sun on his left shoulder with the Altar of the Sun in the East, the constillation of the three stars on his chest with the Altar of Heaven in the South, the moon on his right shoulder with the Altar of the Moon in the West and the Rock at the nape with the Altar of Earth in the North.
And this is the real thing: a dragon robe featuring nine dragons. This particular robe would have been worn by an imperial prince during the summer. The background cloth is imperial yellow silk only to be used by the emperor and very close relatives.
Above is a picture of one of the dragons featuring in the third circle just above the seam. The dragon mainly consists of couched gold threads (Japanese thread) and accents in silk embroidery. The small motives surrounding the dragon are stitched with silk in satin stitch. Among these small motives are bats (left of the right hind-leg of the dragon), pairs of peaches (at the top of the picture, right above the head of the dragon) and flaming pearls (the couched roundel with red silk embroidery, left of the head of the dragon) and many clouds. The hem is decorated with ocean waves, mountains, coral and rocks.
Here you'll see the tiny bats, peaches and clouds in more detail. I particularly love the bats. Aren't they geniusly stitched? They are tiny, but there is so much characteristic detail. Just look at the ears and the whiskers!
The Chinese word for bat and for happiness are the same. Red coloured bats are even better as the colour red and the word for majestic/subleme are also the same. Bats depicted together with peaches confer the wish `May you live long and happy`.
And here is a detail of the seam of the prince`s dragon robe. I particularly like the way the circular wave in the middle is embroidered. Very effective shaded split stitch for the spiral, surrounded by satin stitched `white heads`. The design lines of the `white heads` are further defined by couching down a single gold thread. The vertical stripes at the bottom represent deep water. Stylished multi-coloured rocks rise from the waters. The ancient Chinese preceived the world as being surrounded by four oceans.
This wasn`t the only dragon robe on display at the magnificent National Silk Museum in Hangzhou. However, as this blog post is already rather heavy with pictures, I`ve uploaded the other robes onto my Pinterest board: Embroideries from China.
You can find more information on dragon robes and embroidered symbols in: Bertin-Guest, J. 2003. Chinese Embroidery traditional techniques, Krause Publications, ISBN 087349718-X. This book also explains the embroidery techniques in detail and comes with 16 (increasingly difficult!) designs to work yourself.
Jessica M. Grimm
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