AN EXCEPTIONALLY FINE AND VERY RARE EMBROIDERED SATIN AND PEARLWORK ‘TWELVE SYMBOL’ IMPERIAL COURT ROBE, JIFU QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD
- from neck to hem 145 cm, 57 in.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 10th April 2006, lot 1540.
John E. Vollmer, Silks for Thrones and Altars. Chinese Costume and Textile, Paris, 2003, pl. 25.
The decorative style of the present robe is sumptuous and stately, yet the composition is harmonious and well balanced; the colour scheme is evenly formulated. The embroidery technique is exquisite and smoothly executed. It is worth noting that the embroiderer has skilfully utilised the jixian technique, creating a rich texture on the fabric, which contrasts but also provides a harmonious balance with the translucent seed pearl beads on the dragons. The overall visual effect of the embroidered dragons is thus solid and lively.
Bright yellow dragon robes (longpao) fall under the category of ceremonial court dress (jifu) of the Qing dynasty, also known as coloured dress (caifu) and patterned clothes (huayi). They were worn primarily during festivities, such as Lunar New Year, the birthday of the Emperor and Empress, and the Winter Solstice. The present example is a straight long robe, featuring a round collar, curved front overlap closing to the right, horse hoof cuffs, five gilt-bronze buttons and a bright yellow damask-patterned gauze lining with floral motifs. It is a pearlwork embroidery tribute to the Emperor from court officials during the Qianlong period.
On this robe, colour yarns ranging from two to four shades have been used to create the effect of shading and gradation, combining colour interspersing techniques, jianyun and colour gradation technique, tuiyun. The bright yellow brocade ground is embroidered with dragons among clouds, bats, the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority, sea waves and cliffs (haishui jiangya) and other auspicious motifs, employing embroidery techniques such as plain stitch (ping zhen), slanting stitch (chanjin), interlocking stitch (taojin), jixian (a Beijing-style of embroidery in which two multi-strands of polychrome threads or horsehair are coiled together and anchored on the fabric with a third strand) and bead embroidery (jizhu). The two shoulders, front and back of the robe, four sides of the hem and the underflap of the robe are decorated with profile dragons; each of the two en face dragons is positioned on the cuffs. On the left and right shoulders the sun and moon are placed respectively; the constellation on the chest, the rock on the back; the left and right sides of the chest are embellished with the axe and fu, behind them the pheasant and dragons; ritual cups and waterweed are symmetrically placed on the front side of the hem, with grains of rice and flame on the back. The Twelve Symbols are placed amidst multi-coloured trailing clouds with soaring bats throughout and shou (longevity) characters in seal script, all supported by wave borders of standing water (lishui).
Seed bead embroidery works (jizhu) are also called pearlwork or beadwork embroidery. The production process was extremely complicated and time-consuming: pearls or coral beads as tiny as rice grains were pierced, then strung together with a silk cord, and finally anchored, string by string, on the designed pattern outlined in-advance until a complete pattern came into shape. This decorative technique creates a sumptuous visual effect; the glittering beads reflecting different lights and colours when viewed from different angles. The complexity of this beadwork embroidery was not limited to the production process; the selection of the seed beads was also laborious and time-consuming. One dragon robe would require the use of tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of seed beads of similar size, quality, translucency and roundness, making the production process unimaginably arduous for the unskilled. Therefore, pearlwork robes were deemed to be exceedingly rare and lavish.
Throughout the history of Qing dynasty, successive emperors introduced various measures to prevent and combat corruption and extravagant practices. According to Veritable Records of the Qing (Qing Shilu):
In the fifth lunar month of the fifth year of Yongzheng reign, the Emperor decreed: “The Imperial Textiles have paid their tribute, and have sent nine imperial yellow dragon robes, as well as heavily embroidered curtains and lamp shades. I am not pleased by the extravagance shown and immediately issued a general edict to inform them of my disapproval. Now the imperial tributes for the Dragon Boat Festival are also overly decorative and extravagant, these only lead to excessive lavishness and vanity, which I loathe. When the provincial governors pay tribute, I often bestow these gifts to officials an the Court and royal princes instead. Yellow silk embroidered with dragons are not to be used by anyone other than myself, therefore many of these gifts end up in the palace storage. I feel uncomfortable using such luxuries, and it is inappropriate if I bestow them on princes and officials at the Court. I am a practical person and I do not enjoy extravagance. I prefer functionality and practicality. I am naturally a man of frugal habits, and have been so for many years. When paying tribute, objects that are better and harder to find in the markets and shops are enough to show loyalty and sincerity, there is no need to find objects that are overly decorative. It is common to be drawn to objects of novelty, and desire of such objects has no limit. Upon seeing a beautiful object, it might spark off feelings of admiration at first, and then one may wish to imitate, but finally it will grow into habits of boasting and competing. This kind of wastefulness and vanity have always been condemned in the past - not only should it be discouraged, it should also be prevented. To rule a country, the respect of moral customs is of utmost importance. Honesty and frugality are to be encouraged. If all government officials follow the cult of luxury, how can we encourage the people to be frugal? Among the four classes, except the scholars, I have the highest regard for farmers. The reason being that all the other classes depend on farmers to feed them, therefore farming is the foundation of society. While workers and merchants are ranked lowest. If we emphasise on the decorative value of objects, it requires more workers to produce such objects - one more worker in the workshops and markets, one less farmer working in the fields. If the public sees that being a worker yields more than being a farmer, there will be too many workers and as a result an overflow of products to be made. When the supply exceeds the demand, the price will fall and as a final result it hurts both the agriculture development and the business. People often see short-term gain and forget long-term goal. It is understandable that one may give up smaller gains and chase the larger profits. If we nip this in the bud all of a sudden, since it contradicts with their wish, it will be difficult to reinforce the laws. Only when you guide them and teach them that farming is the kernel of society, then they will understand that the simplicity, honesty and frugality should be respected. In the long term, this will be deep rooted in our culture…."
While the Yongzheng Emperor’s condemnation of the extravagant practices of some court officials was aimed at setting forth his policy of “supporting the core (agricultural) industry and restrain the minor business”, ”regulate the industrial structure in a reasonable manner”, the Qianlong Emperor’s following remark pinpointed the contemporaneous situation. According to Veritable Records of the Qing (Qing Shilu):
In the tenth month of the forty-first year of the Qianlong reign, the Emperor decreed: ”all provinces were to pay tribute by imperial decree. Yunnan, for example, yielded jade; and Fujian citrus and lychee. It was no different than paying land tax according to fertility and barrenness. Governors followed up with greater honors by bringing antiques to celebrate the Empress Dowager’s seventieth and eightieth birthday, as well as my own sixtieth birthday. The royal family was accustomed to the governors’ good faith within reason. Therefore such gifts passed without notice for every royal birthday celebration. For the sake of friendship between the emperor and his subjects, I received them with consideration, although in fact all kinds of antiques and curios can be found in the imperial treasure house. There are already a considerable amount of tributes and they should accumulate no more. I appointed provincial governors based on their competence and performances, not what they paid as tribute… it’s quite pointless if they do not understand my intentions and boast their extravagance. Furthermore, antiques are in no comparison to daily necessities as beans and grain, food and clothing, therefore no use to hungry or cold people. Originally they were neither precious nor expensive, however reprobates hoarded and manipulated the price once they sensed the need. Some governors made their own purchases, while others appointed their subordinates, who took the chance to fawn on their superiors. This could corrupt the administrative system and should be nipped in the bud. With regard to officers in the capital as the nobilities and first rank court officials, who were allowed to pay tributes previously due to birthdays of the Empress Dowager and myself, continued to do so, one following another, which is undesirable. Especially during festivities, it becomes burdensome and pointless. The Provincial Treasurer of all should not send these kinds of gifts. Recently for those who wish to be granted an audience with me but cannot, I have allowed that they could pay tribute instead. It is of no etiquette after all. In another case of the Inner-Court Hanlin, their task is to write poems on booklets, fans and spring festival scroll, so why should they bother searching for antiques? Recently people have tended to be extravagant in their gifts and have lost sincerity of intention. Yesterday I happened to see some items that entered our offices from the house of Xiong Xuepeng. Among them were such items as an embroidered python robe with seed pearl beads, which certainly comes from his tenure as imperial inspector, either he prepared yet did not present, either he presented and I turned him down. These items cost considerable labor and expense and yet are unfit for use. I strongly condemned such gifts and gave it out forthwith. Remembering my late father, who had admonished Prince Yi (thirteenth son of the Kangxi Emperor) because he paid an extravagant tribute of yellow bedding with seed pearl beads. I (the Qianlong Emperor) abide by the family doctrine and therefore never use material with seed pearl beads. Another example would be the bamboo mats made with ivory silk, which is far less comfortable than the normal mat, therefore also abandoned. It has been a long time since I forbade such gifts so that my intentions are clear. From now on, none of the provincial governors shall present gifts again to the palace other than local tribute. Imperial princes, high-ranking officials, and Inner-Court Hanlin academicians at the capital should also follow this precept. I hereby use this general edict to inform them."
Although the Beijing Palace Museum has a wide collection of Qing imperial textiles, accessories and garments which showcase a great variety of styles and techniques, extant bead embroidery works (jizhuxiu) are still exceptionally unique and rare. Most of the examples preserved today were produced during the Kangxi and Qianlong periods. In the reign periods that followed, the production of pearlwork robes declined drastically, and there is not even any record of such during certain reign periods. This in return proved the truth of the Qianlong Emperor’s effort to clampdown corruption by banning bead embroidery works and denouncing the malpractices of court officials who abused the tradition of tribute gifts to pave their ways for promotion.