Unlike Europe where a dragon is a representation of evil, dragons are a sacred symbol in Chinese culture as bringers of strength and good fortune. Dragons, although a mythical creature, are composites of real animals with “the trunk of a snake, scales of a carp, tail of a whale, antlers of a stag, face of a camel, talons of eagles, ears of bull, feet of a tiger, and the eyes of a lobster” (note 1). Strategically placed dragons have been intricately woven into this traditional men’s robe (FRC2016.01.001 shown in the photo below) housed in Ryerson’s Fashion Research Collection. It was the dragons on this robe as well as my Chinese heritage that led me to study this artifact.
Using the object-based research approach from The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim (note 2), I will write a series of four blog posts about this robe. In part I, I introduce the garment and the original owner. In Part II, I take a closer look at the construction of the garment and in Part III consider the symbolism. To conclude the series of posts in Part IV, I examine similar robes from the collection of the Textile Museum of Canada.
A robe, also known as a jifu, is a full-length garment worn to semi-formal occasions such as in court or serving the Manchu imperial government. A jifu was the official costume of the Chi’ing period (note 3).
This robe was dated to 1892 and 1903 based on extensive family history provided by the donor. The original owner of the robe, Philip Brunelleschi Cousland, was born on July 12, 1861 in Glasgow, Scotland. At the age of 21, he earned his Bachelor of Medicine and Doctor of Medicine from Edinburgh University (note 4).
As a member of the Barclay Church and the Medical Missionary Society, Philip travelled to the South of China where he lived in Swatow, now known as Shantou, for three years and worked in the local hospital to treat patients. Philip then travelled 30 miles up the river to Chao-Chow-Fu, a walled city with no doctors or hospitals intending to provide medical care. Philip received a very hostile reception as “foreign devils” had not been seen there before and although he was not allowed to preach, he earned the community’s trust and treated up to 100 patients a day.
In 1892, Philip travelled home to Scotland. On his way back to China via Victoria, British Columbia, he met a missionary teacher named Susan Harrington. The two were married in Hong Kong in March 1893 and had three children.
The family lived in Chao-Chow-Fu, and land was purchased there to build a hospital in 1894. At first, many local people opposed this idea, but after rebuilding the walls which had been broken down three times, the Burns Memorial Hospital opened in March of 1896. It was sometime thereafter, but before 1905, when he left China, that Philip received the robe and a number of related textiles as a gift in honour of his work in the community.
In the subsequent years, Philip returned to China periodically to write medical textbooks. He also served for three years as the president of the Council on Publication of the China Medical Missionary Association and helped in the formation of the Nurses Association of China. His work was acknowledged by the Chinese government with the Order of the Golden Sheaf. Philip died on July 7, 1930 in Victoria, British Columbia.
Passed down through the family as a keepsake, this robe was donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection in 2016 so that it may be examined and studied by students and visiting scholars. After a long journey of 12,378 km from Shantou to Toronto, this robe is now in its final resting place in FRC storage.
Note 1: Chinese dragon. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Chinese_dragon
Note 2: Mida, I., & Kim, A. (2015). The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca
Note 3: Collections. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://collections.textilemuseum.ca/index.cfm?page=collection.detail&catId=10013&row=123
Note 4: Written family history provided by the donor.
This post was edited by Ingrid Mida.