An important Imperial silk 'Twelve-Symbol' yellow-ground robe, jifu 19th century
Lot 345
An important Imperial silk 'Twelve-Symbol' yellow-ground robe, jifu
19th century
£ 140,000 - 160,000
US$ 200,000 - 220,000

Lot Details
An important Imperial silk 'Twelve-Symbol' yellow-ground robe, jifu 19th century
An important Imperial silk 'Twelve-Symbol' yellow-ground robe, jifu
19th century
Superbly embroidered on the front and back in gold-wrapped silk thread with nine five-clawed dragons variously coiling and full faced below the collar, the ground densely and finely embroidered over the front, back and inside the front fold with the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority amidst a multitude of coral-red flying bats amongst blue cloud constellations, each dragon grasping a flaming pearl trailing coral-red flames, a dragon-decorated dark-blue-ground band at the top of the front folded section, a band of breaking waves at the top of the radiating multi-coloured stripe border at the shoulders and forming the lower part of the main robe, the ribbed plain yellow sections of the sleeves further woven with five-clawed dragon damask roundels.
137cm (54in) from top of collar to bottom of robe; 218cm (86in) wide across the sleeves when fully extended


  • 十九世紀 御製明黃地「十二章紋」龍袍

    Provenance: the widow of an Ambassador to Beijing, who served in the French Embassy there between circa 1950-60, before becoming Ambassador in the Embassy in Rome circa 1975 (by repute)


    Court dress during the Qing dynasty was highly prescribed and ritualised according to the occasion and the status of the wear; such systematisation gave a sense of harmony and propriety to court proceedings, unifying the numerous family members and court officials to focus on the figure of the emperor himself.

    Different levels of formality were expected for different occasions, the most basic distinction being official court dress, chaofu, for solemn ceremonial occasions such as seasonal sacrifices. Festive robes, jifu, such as the present lot, were less formal and were worn on happy occasions such as birthday celebrations or other banquets. Regular dress, changfu, would be worn in the course of official public duties for which court or festive robes would have been inappropriate, such as marking the anniversaries of deaths of past emperors; this is in contrast to informal dress which would not have been worn for any official duty.

    The status of the wearer was most conspicuously indicated by colour, with bright yellow reserved for the emperor, apricot yellow for the heir apparent and blue, dark blue or golden yellow for princes of the first or second ranks. The dress of the female members of the Imperial court mostly reflected the rank of the husband.

    Decoration was the next most significant marker, and the most sacred was the 'Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority'. These small motifs were embroidered on the robe in concentric rings at shoulder, waist and knee height, and can be divided into various groups.

    The first group of symbols is:
    1. 日 (ri) the sun (containing a three-legged bird)
    2. 月 (yue) the moon (containing a rabbit pounding the elixir)
    3. 星晨 (xingchen) the constellation
    4. 山 (shan) the mountain
    Together these symbols represent the four most solemn ceremonies over which the Emperor presided throughout the year, at the Altars of the Temples of Heaven, Earth, the Sun and the Moon.

    The next group of symbols is:
    5. 龍 (long) the dragon
    6. 花蟲 (huachong) the flowery bird (or pheasant)
    These represent things on earth, and can sometimes be grouped with the mountain (no.4. above) to contrast with nos 1, 2 and 3 which relate to heavenly bodies.

    The next group is:
    7. 黼 (fu) the axe head
    8. 黻 (fu) the confronted ji character
    9. 宗彞 (zongyi) the sacrificial vessels
    which were used for ancestor worship; the first two can also represent the Emperor's ability to to make decisions, including judgment and punishment, and the sacrificial vessels can represent the element metal.

    The final group of objects is:
    10. 藻 (zao) the waterweed
    11. 火 (huo) the flame
    12. 粉米 (fenmi) the bowl of grain.
    which together represent three of the Five Elements. The sacrificial vessels (no.9 above) could also be included in this group.

    These symbols had ancient roots, with the number twelve being described by the Book of Rites (Liji) as 'the number of Heaven'. The Book of History (Shujing) suggests that the Twelve Symbols may even have existed as early as the Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC). However, S.Camman, in China's Dragon Robes, Chicago, 2001, p.85 states that 'we can be sure that they appeared on the Imperial sacrificial robes in the Han Dynasty, and they were used by all the native Chinese dynasties thereafter'. Significantly, the ethnically distinct Manchu Qing dynasty also chose to preserve such Ming and earlier customs to reinforce a sense of continuity within the empire. The dress code was constantly being refined, and it was during the Qianlong period that the use of the Twelve Symbols was restricted to the emperor, under the Huangchao liqi tushi, 'Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court', enforced in 1766. This close control over the use of the Twelve Symbols makes the survival of such a robe of rare and important significance.

    Compare a related yellow-ground court robe with the Twelve Symbols included in the exhibition Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City, and illustrated by M.Wilson, Catalogue, London, 2010, p.18-19, and another festive robe illustrated ibid., no.19. Another example of a 'Twelve-Symbol' robe is illustrated by G.Dickinson and L.Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, London, 1990, pl.23.

    See also an Imperial 'Twelve-Symbol' robe, dated to the Daoguang period and embroidered with seed pearls but with dark blue forearms rather than the yellow ribbed sleeves on the present lot, which was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 4 April 2012, lot 3198.
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