Date of this Version
From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC
George Smith's painting, ‘The Rightful Heir’, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, serves as a melodramatic introduction to this paper. Sombre-suited gentlemen are depicted sitting around a table studying the disputed will. Two frightened ladies in crinolines and a small boy in a velvet suit confront the wicked usurper who is wearing a Chinese dragon robe. This angry Victorian was not unique in his choice of dressing gown.
The dragon robe, familiar from museum collections all over Europe and North America, was used in China in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an hierarchical garment. It was worn by bearers of rank in the Chinese bureaucracy. Its salient features are the hem design of stripes representing water with turbulent waves above, mountain peaks rising from the water and symmetrically-placed dragons among clouds covering the main body of the garment. It closes to one side with spherical buttons on shanks fastening through loops. The robe, when worn correctly, was part of an ensemble that included a plain dark overgarment with a rank badge sewn to back and front. This overgarment concealed all but the hem and the horse hoof-shaped cuffs of the dragon robe.
The furious relative in the genre painting by Smith is as far as he can be from the dignified mandarin of popular imagination. How was it that these meritorious administrators' uniforms, particularly the dragon robes, came to be transmitted to English drawing rooms even before the fall of the Chinese empire, and what made them especially attractive to Europeans?
To answer the first part of that question, how they came to Europe, we should note three points. First, a Chinese who had been given rank and office in the civil service did not have his dragon robe ensemble bestowed on him as part of his appointment. He, his family or a benefactor had to purchase the robes. They could be more or less grand according to his means. They could be especially ordered or bought off-the-peg. So, in a sense, they had always been commodities and although this was not how the foreigners who bought them as souvenirs wished to see them, it did make them available. Secondly, there were plenty of them. Twenty thousand civil and military officials helped govern the country during the Ming dynasty and the number was not much fewer during the succeeding Qing dynasty, from which most of the extant dragon robes come. Thirdly, their use was not confined solely to officials. Bridegrooms traditionally wore the dragon robe ensemble or an approximation of it on their wedding day even if normally they were not entitled to do so. With the decline of the empire rank could be purchased and it could also be bestowed on individuals for services rendered. The powerful Canton merchant Howqua was painted several times wearing a dragon robe in a pose of studied casualness alien to the conventions of accepted Chinese body language. In none of these cases did success in the civil service examinations apply but we can speculate that the outward mark of status, in this case the dragon robe, was eagerly appropriated.