A True Prince’s Coat


The original description of this coat in MCML’s database records reads: “Chinese Prince’s coat. Purple silk with all over gold and silver embroidered dragons, flowers and insignia. Long sleeves, full length”.  This description always seemed a bit unlikely…. could this really have belonged to Chinese royalty?

It turns out the answer is “YES”.

During the summer of 2012 MCML was fortunate to have Eric Napier Strong on staff to work with our museum collections.  With his knowledge of Asian craft and art he was able to improve our database records for this Chinese coat.

Eric’s research resulted in the following much more informative description:

This is a “dragon robe”, a formal robe worn by the emperor, nobles, and high ranking officials on important formal occasions. It likely did belong to a minor prince in the 19th Century. The lower part of the robe is a wide border of alternating silver/gold stripes with waves (called li shui, representing the ocean). Around the li shui borders are rounded mushroom-like spirals, called thunder-lines. The upper part of the robe has 3 dragons, with another 2 on the shoulders. The collar and cuffs have a similar motif with dragons surrounded by waves and clouds. A lone dragon is concealed under the flap on the front which closes the robe. Scattered around the dragons are a wide variety of auspicious symbols.

The number of claws on a dragon is significant. The Qing empire had strict sumptuary laws, and a dragon’s claws represented the wearers rank. 5 claws were reserved for the emperor and his immediate family. These are 4 clawed dragons (called Mang) which were worn by minor princes (3rd and 4th rank, outside the emperor’s immediate family).

The dragons are holding flaming pearls, a symbol of good luck and wishes. Emerging from the waves are several symbols: One is a Ruyi sceptre, which looks like the point of a sword and symbolizes prosperity. Another are musical stones (they look like triangles with ribbons) representing musical refinement. There are also coins (circles with a triangle inside) which mean prosperity. Finally there are swastikas, which mean long life and good luck.

Stylized bats (they look like ovals with wings) represent happiness. Above the dragons are circular characters called Shou, which means long life.

The many scattered clouds represent happiness and good luck.

There are scroll paintings/tubes and brush-pens with ribbons around them, these represent scholarly accomplishment, but can also symbolize one of the immortals.

On the back are two motifs which look like a gourd and crutch wrapped with ribbon. This represents one of the 8 Daoist immortals. Another symbol (looks like 2 long diamonds crossed over each other) is probably fans, symbolizing another immortal. The flower basket can represent a third.

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