An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong

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Lot 224*
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu

Sold for £ 464,750 (US$ 618,993) inc. premium
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu
The blue silk ground robe superbly embroidered with varying tones of gold and silver-wrapped threads with nine Imperial five-clawed dragons clutching or courting flaming pearls of wisdom interspersed with small petalled flowers arising from a scrolling foliage above rolling waves on the lishui. The Twelve Symbols of Imperial authority are arranged in three groups of four: the sun, moon, constellation and rock around the neck; the fu symbol, axe, paired dragons and golden pheasant around the body; the pair of temple cups, aquatic grass grains of millet and flames nestle on the froth of the waves. Deep blue and gold striped sleeve extensions extend the arm length and dark aubergine-grey silk bands decorate the collar and cuffs, edged with original buttons and brocade edgings, lined with yellow silk damask.
144.5cm (56 7/8in) long.


  • 清乾隆 御製藍綢捻金銀繡金龍十二章吉服袍

    Provenance: Brigadier-General Offley Bohun Stovin Fairless Shore (1863-1922). Bohun S.F. Shore attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and entered the army in 1882. In 1884, he was transferred to join the Indian Army in Bengal and served in the 18th (Prince of Wales' Own) Tiwana Lancers Regiment during the Second World War.

    Acquired by him during his and Mrs Shore's visit to Beijing between 5th-19th March 1912, and thence by descent.

    Mrs Shore's letter of 24th September 1913 describes them attending a fancy dress ball in which "... Offley wore the beautiful Chinese coat of blue and gold and silver that we bought in Peking..."; see A.Jones, An Enchanted Journey: The Letters of the Philadelphia Wife of a British Officer of the Indian Army, Edinburgh, 1994, pp.167 and 196.

    Offley Bohun Stovin Fairless Shore准將(1863-1922)收藏,於1912年3月5至19日與夫人旅華期間購自北京,並由後人保存迄今。


    1913年9月24日夫人信中談及夫婦二人並肩出席晚會:「Offley穿上北京購得的藍綢捻金銀袍」,詳見A.Jones著,《The Letters of the Philadelphia Wife of a British Officer of the Indian Army(一位印度陸軍英籍軍官妻子的書信)》,愛丁堡,1994年,頁167及196。


    Linda Wrigglesworth

    Superbly embroidered in paralleled gold and silver couch threads with nine resplendent dragons swirling amidst a profusion of blossoming chrysanthemums, this magnificent robe embodies powerful symbolism associated with the figure of the emperor. Blue-ground robes decorated with the Twelve Symbols are exceptionally rare and were exclusively worn by the rulers on formal occasions. The superb quality of the embroidery and the painstaking attention to detail, noted in the overlapping scales of the dragons, the curling foamy tops of the turbulent waves and the animated faces of the mythical animals, suggest that this magnificent robe would have been tailored to be worn by the Qianlong emperor (1735-1795).

    Blue-ground Imperial robes were only worn by the emperor twice a year during the performance of ceremonies aimed at invoking rain and good harvest at the Altar of Heaven. The midnight-blue ground of the coat matched the colour of all paraphernalia which the Huangchao liqi tushi 皇朝禮器圖式 ('Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court'), edited in 1759, prescribed for use at this location (see note 1). If lined with yellow silk, such as the present example, the robes were worn during the summer, otherwise they would have been lined with fur for winter use. The robes were also individually tailored to fit the wearer and often the sleeves and the seams of the under arm were extended, leaving a plain area of silk, to help easy movement when wearing the garment.

    Although Imperial robes decorated with dragons appear to have been worn from at least the 10th century (see note 2), it was only at the turn of the eighteenth century that nine dragon designs were introduced and extended to cover the entire surface of the garment, symbolising infinity and emphasising a unified view of the universe over which the emperor held sway (see note 3). The size of the front-facing dragons was also reduced at this time to equal the dimension of their side-facing counterpart, so a greater space was obtained to accommodate further auspicious designs, such as the Eight Treasures, Babao 八寶, and the Eight Buddhist Emblems, Bajixiang 八吉祥, which this splendid robe so vividly represents.

    Dragons were empowered with extraordinary powers that compared with those of the emperors, embodying royalty and dominion, and when clutching the flaming pearl, expressed the visual metaphor of the good ruler who behaved wisely for the wellbeing of his subjects.

    The Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority further reinforced the emperor's essence over all eloquence, articulation, forcefulness and vigour. According to the 'Book of History', Shujing 書經, the legendary Emperor Shun, believed to have ruled during the third millennium BC, referred to these symbols as suitable decoration for Imperial formal attire (see note 4) and in 1766, the Qianlong emperor restricted the use of these motifs to Imperial robes (see note 5). A rigid scheme defined the position of the Twelve Symbols on the robes, so the sun, moon, stars, and mountain, symbolising the four main ceremonies which the emperor presided throughout the year at the Altars of Heaven, Earth, Sun and Moon, were placed in pairs at the shoulders, chest and mid-back area; the paired dragons, the golden pheasant, the confronted ji character and the hatchet, representing all things on earth and the ruler's ability to make decisions, decorated the chest level, while the sacrificial vessels, the aquatic grass, the grains of millet and the flames, representing the ancestor worship and four of the Five Elements, were placed at the mid-calf level of the coat.

    The dense leafy meander enclosing blossoming chrysanthemum is a popular stylistic convention which was developed during the Yongle period (1403-1424), which is often encountered on Ming-style porcelain wares of the Qianlong period. Furthermore, the symbolic connotation conveyed by these flowers indicates that the present robe was probably worn by the Qianlong emperor during the later phases of his reign. Symbolic of longevity in China, chrysanthemums were also associated with a joyful retirement. They were the favourite flowers of Tao Qian, or Tao Yuanming (365-427), a poet living during a turbulent period in China who retired in midlife to a small estate to live out his days in rustic obscurity, drinking wine and writing poetry (see note 6). Private and quiet as his life was, his reputation grew steadily after his death, particularly for his associations with chrysanthemums, which he grew in a small patch by the eastern fence of his retirement estate.

    Compare with a blue-ground, gold and silver embroidered Twelve-Symbol robe, Qianlong, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated in Textiles in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, vol.53, no.3, 1995-1996, p.77. Another blue-ground robe, Qianlong, decorated in gold embroidery but lacking the Twelve Symbols, is illustrated in Heavens' Embroidered Cloths: One Thousand Years of Chinese Textiles, Hong Kong, 1995, p.218, no.63.

    A related Imperial gold and silver embroidered blue-ground Twelve-Symbol robe, Qianlong, was sold at Christie's New York, 24 March 2004, lot 36.


    1. M.Medley, The Illustrated Regulations for Ceremonial Parphernalia of the Ch'ing Dynasty, London, 1982; see also G.Dickinson and L.Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Berkeley, 2002, pp.14-30.

    2. J.C.Y.Watt and A.E.Wardwell, When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, New York, 1997, pp.116-117.

    3. J.E.Vollmer, 'Power in the Inner Court of the Qing Dynasty: The Emperor's Clothes,' Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Natural History, series 3, no.15, November 1998, pp.52-53.

    4. Su Yu, Evidence on The Meaning of The Luxuriant Dews from the Spring and Autumn Annuals, Beijing, 1910, vols. 6, 7, 8. See also Qing Gaozong, Veritable Records of the Qing Emperor Qianlong and Empress Chun, Lunar Tenth Month 1748, Beijing, 1986, vol.327.

    5. G.Dickinson and L.Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Berkeley, 1990, pp.75-95.

    6. S.Nelson, 'Revisiting the Eastern Fence: Tao Qian's Chrysanthemums', The Art Bulletin, 2001, vol.83, no.3, pp.437-460.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that Import Duty Low Rate and thus subject to an additional 5% charge.
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
An extremely rare Imperial 'Twelve Symbol' Dragon Robe, jifu Qianlong
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