by Tegan Kehoe
In vibrant blues, greens, reds, and yellows, intricately embroidered motifs rich with symbolism cover this Chinese silk jifu from around 1900. It reflects a style introduced by the Manchu in the 1600s when they arrived in China, a style which continued to be influential throughout the Quing dynasty. The garment would have expressed the wearer’s Manchu ethnic background. The Manchu style includes elements that suggest the garment could be worn while riding a horse, such as the split front and the crescent shape at the ends of the sleeves, which protect the back of the hands.
Of course, a fine robe such as this one would not actually have been worn for riding. A jifu is a semi-formal garment made to be worn at important government functions. The robe is made of a deep blue silk satin, and lined with a pale blue lightweight silk. The decoration is hand-embroidered silk and some metallic thread used for the bodies of the dragons. The choice of embroidery rather than woven designs is one of the clues that it is from around the turn of the 20th century. Another elegant detail is the several metal buttons that close the front of the robe.
This jifu is decorated with a number of Buddhist symbols and others from Chinese culture. For example, the peonies symbolize prosperity, and the small red creatures are stylized depictions of bats, symbolizing happiness. The association between bats and happiness has its origins in a pun, as the words for “bat” and “happiness” are pronounced identically in Mandarin Chinese.
The main symbols on the robe are dragons, appearing on the chest, torso, shoulders, and collar. In the Chinese tradition, dragons represent imperial authority, which is appropriate for a robe designed to be worn for government occasions.
The dragons take the center on a background that represents the visible universe, including rocks, clouds and water that cover most of the robe. The prism-like design at the corners represents the earth, surrounded by the universal ocean, represented in the robe’s border. The wearer of the robe completes the cosmology symbolized in the designs. The wearer’s body represents the axis aligning earth and heaven, while the neck opening in the garment represents the gate of heaven, and the wearer’s head represents the realm of the spiritual.
This jifu was given to the family of the current owner by the man who originally wore it. At Museum Textile Services, we are surface cleaning the robe and will be performing needed repairs, then creating a system for displaying the robe safely for years to come.
For more about the Conservation of Asian Art at Museum Textile Services, visit our website.