Everywhere we look, symbols abound. In historic dress originating from the Chinese culture, symbols on a robe can be read like words on a page. In this post, I will continue my analysis of the robe that has been the focus on the last two blog posts (FRC2016.01.001).  In this part, I will dive deeper in uncovering the meaning behind the symbols strategically placed on this robe.

In Chinese language, words are single syllables that can share pronunciations that are the same or similar to others. Thus, they can share the same meaning depending on the context of the phrase. This also applies to the symbols that decorate the robe. For example, the word fu, which is a bat, has the same pronunciation as “abundance” and “happiness”. Therefore, a bat represents happiness and long life. Numerous bats have been woven onto this robe (note 1).

FRC2016.01.001 Detail of bat. Photo by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Multiple floral elements are visible on this man’s robe including peonies which symbolize prosperity and chrysanthemums which represent longevity due to its health-giving properties (note 2). The cranes also symbolize longevity but in the way that it lives a long life (note 3).

FRC2016.01.001. Peony, chrysanthemum and crane. Photographs by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Of the Eight Auspicious Signs, which are Buddhist symbols, the parasol, vase of great treasure, banner and lotus appear on the robe. The parasol protects from the obstacles of life; the vase represents the bringing of desired things and the fortune of a glorious life; the banner symbolizes victory, while the lotus frees one from the stains of mistakes (note 4).

FRC2016.01.001. Parasol, vase, banner and lotus. Photographs by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Four of the Eight Precious Things can be found of this robe including the pearl, coin, rhino horn and leaf. The pearl is associated with wish granting and the coin represents wealth. The horn embodies happiness and the leaf wishes good luck and prevents disease (note 5).

FRC2016.01.001. Pearl (top left), coin (top right), rhino horn (bottom left) and leaf (bottom right). Photos by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

The Eight Auspicious Signs and the Eight Precious Things are commonly mixed together. However, they always appear in groups of eight as it is a lucky number in Chinese culture. This is because the pronunciation of eight sounds similar to the pronunciation of the word for fortune (note 6).

As with many old things, the symbols have changed or been reimagined over time. Some sources call the symbol of two rectangles, books whiles others consider it bolts of silk or scrolls. One source considers a medicinal mushroom with a handle a symbol while the other considers a leaf instead. Since the motifs are so old, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which ones are the original ones and which have been added subsequently.

This robe is decorated with nine five-clawed dragons that have been strategically placed on the garment. Beginning in the 18th century, robes were designed with nine dragons. Four are placed on the back, chest and shoulders around the neck. And when “aligned with the axial organization of the Forbidden City”, each dragon points to a cardinal direction. The other two dragons on the front and two on the back point to each intermediate direction. The single dragon located on the inner flap is the ninth. This specific organization represents Confucius’ ancient ideal of land division called qingtien or “well-field system”. The idea of qingtien is derived from the wellhead character which is the intersection of two vertical lines and two horizontal lines – like a tic-tac-toe board. The outer eight fields protect the ninth and the fields that share a border with the center one implies the cardinal directions. This establishes “the harmonious balance implied by the wu xing system”. In Chinese culture, the number nine symbolizes heaven and infinity and therefore the nine fields are represented here (note 7).

FRC2016.01.001. Detail of dragon on inner flap. Photo by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

During the Yuan dynasty, the five-clawed dragon became an emblem of the emperor. It was placed on all works the emperor used or represented. Robes of dragon patterns eventually became the official garment of the Chinese court and was the highest diplomatic gift. The robe may have been presented to Philip for his efforts and dedication to developing Chinese medicine (note 8).

FRC2016.01.001 Detail of 5-clawed dragon. Photo by Victoria Hopgood, 2018

The structure of the dragon robe represents the universe and is only complete when worn. The diagonal stripes on the hem and the semi-circular motifs embody the “universal ocean surrounding the earth”. At the centre-front, centre-back and side seams the cardinal directions, there are geometric shapes which represents the mountains. The main body filled with clouds and fire, is also decorated with dragons representing authority. When the robe is worn, the wearer supports the universe by becoming the earth’s axis. The neck opening is the gate of heaven while the head is heaven itself (note 9).

Every element on this robe has been created with thought and intent. Everything from the placement of the dragons to the structure of the robe holds some form of symbolism behind it. While I have uncovered a significant amount of meaning behind the robe, there is always more that might be revealed, since it is possible that the motifs have been reimagined or changed since the robe was created. In addition, depending on the artists who created the garment, the symbols may have been more abstract or different than the ones that I consulted. These two possibilities can make it difficult to determine each motif and its meaning in isolation.

With all the time, patience and thought that it would take to create such a detailed and exquisite garment it is no wonder why it required up to thirty months of work to make one robe. Although I could spend an infinite amount of time uncovering the symbolism behind this robe, the rest will have to remain a mystery.


Note 1: Vollmer, J. E. (2004). Silks for thrones and altars: Chinese costumes and textiles. Paris, France: Myrna Meyers.

Note 2: Kehoe, T. (2012, September 24). Symbols in silk. Retrieved from http://www.museumtextiles.com/blog/symbols-in-silk

Note 3: The British Museum. (n.d.). Chinese symbols. Retrieved from https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Chinese_symbols_1109.pdf

Note 4: Rinpoche, L. Z. (2014, February 4). The eight auspicious signs. Retrieved from https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-for-2014/july/eight-auspicious-signs/

Note 5: Eight precious things. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://gotheborg.com/glossary/eightpreciousthings.shtml

Note 6: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/social_customs/lucky_number.htm

Note 7: See note 1.

Note 8. Ibid.

Note 9: Ibid.

This post was edited by Ingrid Mida.

Posted by:vhopgood

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