Friday 11 December 2015

Dragon imagery in Chinese Imperial Textiles

The Oriental Museum, Durham University   

The Oriental Museum in Durham University opened in May 1950. Since then the collections have grown and it now has around 30,000 objects with collections covering Ancient Egypt, the Near and Middle East, China, Korea, Japan, India and the Himalayan region and stretching into South East Asia. The Ancient Egyptian and Chinese collections are of particular significance and hold 'Designated Status', recognising their importance on a national and international scale.
The unprepossessing outside of the museum gives no hint of the treasures inside. 

In addition to an exciting programme of temporary exhibitions, over the last 5 years the permanent galleries have been fully refurbished. The Museum attracts over 30,000 visitors a year.  You can visit the website at this address;

Here are two views inside the museum.
The Macdonald Gallery

The new South East Asian gallery opened in March 2015

The Friends of the Oriental Museum support the Museum in a number of ways. They help the Museum to acquire new objects into the collections and volunteer on museum projects such as cataloguing the departmental library. The Friends also arrange a series of talks each term which are open to members and non- members.  For information on forthcoming talks and how to join the Friends and support the museum, click here;

I am fortunate to live within walking distance of the museum so naturally I want to support it.  The museum’s Friends put on a series of talks each term. Recently I went to a fascinating talk by David Rosier about Dragon imagery in Chinese Imperial Textiles.  His talk was very well received and hopefully, he will be able to give another talk in the lecture series next year.  .

David lived for a many years in Hong Kong and worked extensively in China. During this time he and his wife became interested in the stunning imperial textiles that they saw and started to create an extensive collection of Court Costume predominately from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

His lecture was a tour of over 1000 years of colourful silk embroidery with the focus being on the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 to 1911). I contacted David to ask if I could use  some of the pictures that I had taken on my blog.  He gave his permission and also provided additional notes to explain some of the significance of the imagery.  (My note taking during lectures is rather rusty!)

The Chinese Dragon Symbol.

The Chinese dragon symbols are thought to originate from Neolithic times (6000-1600 BC) in the Yellow River Valley where jade carvings provide recognisable dragon images. One of the earliest examples of the dragon imagery that would be adopted by the Imperial Court as the personal emblem of the Emperor originates in the Song Dynasty in the Nine Dragons Scroll by Chen Rong dated 1244. This scroll is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA.

The scroll shows the nine different forms of dragons. Imperial Dragons are a combination of 9 animals and are represented in 9 different forms each with specific powers and attributes. Nine is regarded as the most auspicious number in Chinese culture.

The ‘benevolent’ Imperial Chinese Dragon is associated with control of the weather which will determine the success or otherwise of crops grown to produce food. The dragon is adopted as the personal emblem of the Emperor because of this association of providing adequate food for the population. All Emperors took this responsibility very seriously and performed numerous rituals and sacrifices during the year to ensure the success for all forms of agriculture.

It is thought that the adoption of the dragon on Court Costume as an indicator of Imperial status dates to the commencement of Imperial rule in China with the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC). Dragons were deployed on a variety of court costume and their structure (number of claws, position, nature of the body scales and the number of dragons incorporated) were used as indicators of the seniority of the wearer (Insignia of Rank).

Dragons were incorporated into formal state costume in the form of Roundels (4 on each robe) or Squares (2 on each robe) positioned on plain outer surcoats (Chao Fu) to indicate the status of the individual within the 12 ranks of the Imperial Clan, which included the Emperor and Empress, plus the 9 Ranks of Civil and Military Officials that formed the upper echelons of the Imperial Government.

A state robe known as a Chao Pao would have been worn beneath the surcoat and dragons were deployed in the design on a silk ground of a colour appropriate to the rank of the wearer.

Dragons were also used on semi-formal court costume (Dragon Robes known as a Jifu) which were worn by all members of the Imperial Clan plus the 9 Ranks of Civil Officials (Mandarins) and 9 Ranks of Military Officers. Individual Imperial edicts, determined all forms of costume and dress accessories for all ranks at the Chinese court.  In 1759 these regulations were reviewed, revised and extended by the Qianlong Emperor. The project resulted in the regulations being  codified in 18 volumes with 5000 pages of descriptive text and over 6000 illustrations which  indicates the complexity of this system. Despite the reference documents having been partly looted from The Summer Palace in 1860 the surviving folios are an invaluable source of information regarding the actual regulations and their visual form.

Robes worn by the Emperor and Empress. 

Robes incorporating dragon imagery which were worn by the Emperor and Empress were embroidered on an Imperial Yellow Silk ground. This colour was for their exclusive use and robes for other ranks utilised colours appropriate to their rank and status. In 1759 the Qianlong Emperor introduced the usage of the twelve ancient symbols of Imperial Authority which were embroidered in fixed positions according to the nature of the robe and for the exclusive use of the Emperor and Empress.

Dragons of the highest status, representing the Emperor and the first 4 ranks of the Imperial Clan had five claws and are known as Lung Dragons. There are dragons with 4 claws (Mang Dragon) as well as those with only 3 or 2 claws. The number of claws are the main indicator of the dragon’s status.
Semi-formal dragon robes (Jifu) were worn by all members of the Imperial Clan (men and women) plus the officials of the Court and Government. Dragons were an integral part of the design and those of high imperial status would have 9 dragons where those of lower rank would have 7 or 5 dragons. The colour of the silk ground would change according to the rank of the wearer and these robes varied in their structure according to the season of the year.

Imperial dragons were worn by women of the Imperial Clan as well as wives of officials. Their rank was derived from their father or husband and robes were of a similar construction to their male counterparts. Whilst men of the highest rank would wear 9 dragons on their semi-formal robes the women would have no more than 8 dragons (8 being the luckiest number in Chinese culture).

Finally the characteristics of a dragon were incorporated into mythical creatures that formed insignia of rank of certain officials. A First Rank Military Official was represented by a creature known as a Qilin which had a head of a dragon, body of a deer and tail of a bear. In addition a creature with the head of a 1 horned dragon and body of a bear, known as a Xie Chai, represented the group of 50 exceptional Civil Officials that were known as Censors and acted as the Emperor’s Auditors.

Examples of Imperial Insignia.

David brought along many examples of the imperial insignia for us to see.  It was a stunning collection of shimmering embroideries. He has given his permission for me to use some of my images.

Imperial dragon insignia roundel with a five-clawed dragon. © David Rosier
This shows an imperial dragon insignia roundel with a five-clawed Lung dragon.  It dates from the late 19th century and has as an additional, and optional, design feature. These are the eight precious items for the Buddhist religion. Similar symbols exist for the Daoist/Taoist and Confucian religions.
The flaming pearl in the centre of the roundel indicates knowledge and enlightenment. In the majority of examples the dragon is chasing the pearl but occasionally the Emperor would allow the dragon to be portrayed having caught the pearl. This would normally be a reward for exceptional intellectual services to the court.

Finally the design above the head of the dragon is known as the Shou symbol and relates to a wish for longevity. This particular form means 10,000 times 10,000 years-a wish for immortality. This iconography was reserved for the Emperor and his designated heir, the Crown Prince,

Close up of Eternal/everlasting knot  © David Rosier
Here is a close up of the eternal/everlasting knot which is one of the 8 precious items of the Buddhist religion. It is very similar to the Celtic Knot.  I have used this symbol in my weaving. Go to my first post in June 2014 to see the silk handfasting bands that I wove with this symbol.

Imperial princess roundel © David Rosier

This is an imperial princess roundel showing the Lung dragon on a green background. Green was the next highest ranking colour for women after Imperial and then Apricot Yellow. The flaming pearl has been replaced by the Shou symbol which is a wish for a long life. 

This roundel, along with 7 identical ones, would have been deployed on a semi-formal ‘celebration’ robe, identical in structure to the Jifu Dragon Robe, which would have been used for a special birthday celebration such as the ‘coming of age’ at 15 years. This example dates from the mid 18th century.

Imperial dragon collar trim © David Rosier

This is part of an imperial dragon collar trim for a robe and dates from the 19th century. Dragons in a running or flying design, chasing the flaming pearl, would decorate robe trim which normally extended around the neck of the collar and could encircle the body of the robe. An identical design would have been used to form ‘horseshoe’ cuffs.

It was wonderful to have the symbolism of the robes explained.  I shall look at Chinese textiles in a new way in future.

Embroidery with peacock feathers  © David Rosier 

Finally, but certainly not least is this beautiful embroidery.  Peacock feathers have been used to make a shimmering surface.  David did not bring this example with him as it is so fragile but he described it. His description of it fired my imagination. I contacted David and he kindly sent me an image of this highly unusual and delicate piece.

Contact details for David Rosier.

David can be contacted at to discuss a possible lecture or special interest day topic and the logistics associated with staging an event.

Here is a list of lectures:

Lectures of approximately 60 minutes cover a range of topics linked with Chinese Imperial Court Costume of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The most popular lectures include:
Chinese Imperial Court Insignia of Rank-‘Ultimate Power Dressing’
Chinese Imperial Court Costume-‘A Journey through the Emperor’s Wardrobe’
Dragon Imagery in Chinese Imperial Costume-‘Ruling from the Dragon Throne’
Emperor Qianlong-Ultimate Renaissance Ruler and Fine Art Collector.
In addition David gives full and half day Special Interest/Study Days ( ‘Dressing the Emperor’s Court’) plus a double lecture session. All talks are illustrated with digital images plus a display of relevant textiles.

He lectures regularly to textile and costume organisations, historical societies, museums, universities, Chinese Cultural groups, The National Trust and Art Fund around UK and is an accredited lecturer for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS). which has 300 societies around UK and approaching 100,000 members.

There is a link to a lecture David gave for the Oriental Rug and Textiles Society.   You can view his talk here.

A Source of Inspiration.

As you can see from the selection here, the textiles that he brought along for us to see were stunning. I was taken by the idea of peacock feathers being used in embroidery to give iridescence to the background.  I wondered whether I could produce such an effect in weaving by using several colours in silk to make up the warp threads.

Here is a close up of a peacock feather.  The number of colours is astonishing when magnified.

I decided to try if I could achieve the effect of iridescence.  I took silk in three colours: emerald green, bright blue and dark blue to use as the warp.  Three strands of 60/2 silk were used together to make the warp.

I have a weave pattern which gives the effect of feathers so I thought that I would try to weave a scarf with iridescence inspired by the Chinese embroidery.

The details of this scarf will be given next month as this is already a long post to end the year and the scarf is taking a long time to design and weave.

I hope you have enjoyed my posts for 2015.  Do tell your friends about my blog.

With best wishes

Susan J Foulkes


  1. I was researching some silk fabric I was given that I am using for an art object on which dragons are shown around a Shou Symbol. It is such an elegant fabric (red silk) and after reading online - - - I now believe ther are 5 dragons in the scene??

    I enjoyed reading your post and it was most helpful to me - - - but alas, now I yearn for more study - - - it is fascinating!!


  2. It is a fascinating subject. i am pleased you enjoyed my blog.


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