Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
the rich yellow satin ground meticulously worked on the front and back with eight five-clawed dragons intricately and expertly embroidered with tens of thousands of minute seed pearls, the dragons in pursuit of embroidered flaming pearls, amidst the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority: the sun, the moon, the mountains, the dragon, the pheasant, two goblets, pondweed, fire, rice, and axe, the stars and character ya hidden by the collar, all among multicoloured cloud scrolls, and bats, some with sprigs of peonies in their mouths, above rolling and crashing waves above a lishui band, the lower arms left plain, the dark-blue satin horse-hoof cuffs and collar decorated with writhing dragons and bats above waves, with couched gold thread edgings, and patterned yellow silk lining
Collection of Edmond Fourier, Paris
M.H. d'Ardenne de Tizac, Les Etoffes de la Chine: Tissus & Broderies, Paris, 1924, pl.39.
John E. Vollmer, Silks for Thrones and Altars. Chinese Costume and Textile, Paris, pl. 25.
The present imperial ji fu (semi-formal court robe), richly embroidered with tens of thousands of small pearls, reflects the Qianlong Emperor's lavish taste for the finest silk textiles. According to John E. Vollmer, ibid., p. 60, 'less than half a dozen pearl-embroidered court robes survive and of these only four can be associated with a particular imperial personage.' The present robe appears to be the only Qianlong robe bearing the Twelve Symbols.
One of the four is the famous pearl-embroidered ji fu belonging to Rongxian, daughter of the Kangxi Emperor, discovered in the tomb of the Mongol prince Wuergun in 1976. This magnificent robe, made of yellow silk and decorated with the design of eight roundels with five-clawed dragons embroidered with 100,000 small pearls, was part of Rongxian's dowry when she married Prince Wuergun in 1691; see Mo Chuang, 'Pearl Robe of the Emperor K'ang Hsi's Daughter', in China Features, Beijing.
Another, much later, pearl-embroidered robe, similarly decorated with the Twelve Symbols and said to have been made for the Empress Dowager Cixi, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is illustrated in Rose Kerr (ed.), Chinese Art and Design, London, 1991, pl. 87. Two further pearl-embroidered robes are recorded by Vollmer, op. cit., p. 60; one of brown twill with couched peacock filament-wrapped threads and pearl-embroidered dragon design, associated with the Qianlong emperor and in the Capital Museum, Beijing; and another of the Jiaqing period in the Palace Museum collection.
Ji fu were worn at the Qing court for imperial birthday celebrations and on less formal occasions. They were worn together with the ji fu dai (festive dress belt), the ji guan (festive hat), the court necklace and a surcoat. According to Linda Wigglesworth and Gary Dickinson the tailoring of the ji fu is quite different from the chao pao (official court robe) and was based on the traditional Manchu garment rather than the Ming style formal court dress construction (Dickinson and Wigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Berkeley, 2000, p. 159).
Freshwater pearls used on the present robe and generally found on imperial chao guan (official court hats) or made into chao zu (court necklaces) were harvested from the Sungari, Yalu and Amur rivers in Manchuria. They were treasured by the Manchu for their association with their homeland and were only permitted to be worn by imperial family members (ibid., p. 100).
The Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority, displayed on the present ji fu were re-introduced as part of the imperial regalia by the Qianlong emperor and were recorded for the first time in the Huangchao liqi tushi (Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court) commissioned by the emperor in 1759. According to the Huangchao liqi tushi usage of these symbols was restricted to imperial robes made for the emperor although he could, as a favour, allow a family member to wear them as well. See the illustration of a Twelve Symbol court robe from the 1766 edition Huangchao liqi tushi, published ibid., p. 79.
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