The history of the Chinese dress over the years of Chinese existence has been a major symbol of identity, pride, and distinguished presentation of ‘civilization’. The Chinese dress in the textile and clothing industry has been developed from the Bronze Age to the twentieth century. The Chinese dress along with other cultural contexts such as language and cuisine serve a significant aspect of Chinese growth and development history. With different dynasties coming into place, the Chinese Emperors clothing and textile industry was considered a fundamental aspect of their rule, identity, and meanings in the social contexts. The paper delves into the development of the Dragon Robes – technology, designs, and motifs that influenced its development through different Dynasties in Chinese history. Moreover, following the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the adoption of new styles to conform with the modernity of the twentieth century and abandoning of the traditional clothing is a significant aspect that informs the development of the Chinese clothing and textiles. Furthermore, the paper analyzes the twelve patterns of the Dragon Robes to explain their value and significance to society.
Development of the Dress Through Different Dynasties
The Chinese history dating backing to the Qin (221-206 B.C.E) and the Hand (206 B.C.E. – 7 C.E.) dynasties saw the Chinese territory come into the imperial rule as one unified unit. The former era exhibits the aspect of the use of long gowns by the elites and short jackets for the commoners. The Han Dynasty through the tomb of the Lady of Dai at Mawangdui illustrates the use of silk dress items and textiles. This marks the early stages of the Chinese textile industry which included weaving, dye coloring, and decoration techniques used to produce the robes for government authorities, merchants, and artisans. As well, the Han Dynasty is associated with the promotion of the Buddhist Monk’s robes.
The reunification of China under the Sui (589-618) and the Tang (618-907) dynasties marks the onset of the era of “unprecedented wealth and cultural brilliance”. The fashion industry saw a profound development and advancement facilitated by the expansion of the Silk trade between China and the Mediterranean world via Central Asia. As an Aristocratic society distinctiveness of rank and power was fundamental among the soldiers, horsemen, and government authorities. Thus, it impacts the development of the textile industry to produce garments and clothes distinctive to the rank and profession.
The Song Dynasty (960-1279) saw the transformation of the aristocratic society into conservative Confucian social changes. The society saw the domination of the class of scholars which promoted the adoption of clothing aspects that distinguish men and women. The Song Dynasty became the first to adopt a plain, round-necked robe among the elite. Also, the dragon robes became a popular development used as emblems of the ruling authority of the imperial setting.
The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) adopted the round, helmet-like hats that replaced the black horsehair used as the official attire. In this era, women wore two gowns at once as a way of harmonizing two layers of clothes and colors.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) characterized by enormous prosperity and expansion of the production of goods of all varieties and trade indicated a significant transformation of the clothing and textile industry. The expansion of trade reduced the prices of cotton that substituted silk floss used in the production of winter garments. The standard court wear of the Ming Dynasty emperors adopted the dragon as the official robe. This impacted in the transformation of the textile industry in China to develop and produce high standard robes used by emperors and the ruling elites. The expansion of trade and prosperity in society resulted in an increase in demand for better designs and standards that conform to contemporary society.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) introduced a new rule of the Manchus from the northeast following the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty. The Manchus were highly concerned with the preservation of their dress and customs. This was in the wake of the fears of being submerged by the majority Chinese population. This led the Manchus to introduce a new set and style of official clothing distinctive from the Ming Dynasty. The horseshoe sleeves became the distinctive feature of the Manchu robe. The changes marked a major development of the textile industry in China due to the need to meet the emperor’s demands.
Following the Nationalist Revolution of 1911, the need to maintain a competitive approach and modernization of the Chinese customs was paramount. The capacity to meet contemporary dressing and fashion needs is a profound characteristic of the development of the textile industry in China.
The Dragon Robes
In Chinese culture, the dragon is one of the most ancient, regarded, and powerful symbols used throughout history. The dragon in Chinese culture is used to symbolize the natural world and its transformation over time. The dragon is a symbol of the emperors since the first century B.C.E. The Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) in the era the emperor wore luxurious robes that were decorated with the figures of dragons becoming an official attire for the emperor and the power ruling circle. Along with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Dragon Robes had gone through different transformations to illustrate a context of power and richness of the Chinese garments and textiles. The clothing designed for both men and women in the ruling positions is a significant feature of identifying and associating the social status in the status. With the power and ruling possessing the robe, it became popular attire for organizational dressing style. The dragon robes were used to distinguish rank and the distinction of the wearer along with different dynasties.
Heroldova (51) notes that the “dress regulations became an important part of the political, social, and cultural decisions made by the emperors of the Qing Dynasty. The adoption of the dress regulations in Chinese history has been used to distinguish the ruling class and the state bureaucracy with distinct clothing traditions. This impacts the creation of the political, social, and cultural identity of the Chinese people in a unique way different from the people of the frontier territories. The dress designs and technology are found to transform over time to meet the emperors’ expectations over the years of different dynasties.
The Qing Dynasty marked the epitome of the development of the dragon robes used by the ruling class, scholars, and emperors. For example, the dress worn by the scholar-officials was used to represent a mixture of culture and aesthetic of the Manchu and Chinese peoples. This simple, narrow, and austere piece of clothing trace its origins to the Manchuria which was embellished with a taste of colorful embroilments that wove the Chinese cultural origins of the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist philosophies. The robes designed to illustrate the context of social status and the rank and distinction of the individuals who wore them were largely preferred. The male robes were designed to have a slit on the bottom – front, sides, and at the back. The female robes had no slits to distinguish the wearer on the basis of their gender.
Weaving Technology. The Chinese had a long, rich, and developed traditions of weaving technology. The most applied weaving technology comprises of the multi-wrap and multi-weft weaves that inculcated colorful and intricate designs to ooze power and influence. Fused with expertise in embellishing fabrics with printing, wax, painting, mud-resist dying, gold-work, and embroidery became profound textile industry practices. This metamorphosed in the capacity to design and produce enticing robes that employed distinguished technologies to stand out in society.
Embroidery. This is the most prominent technology throughout the Chinese textile industry. The technology utilizes gold-work and tough fabric. The application of embroidery requires the durable and resilient fabric to ensure it sustains the heavy metallic threads weaved to the material. The use of Satin weave was a major technology to ensure that the production gave a lustrous shine and a surface that was smooth and pleasing to the skin. The loom technology applied with the weaving effects was used to fuse twill and satin together was widely practiced to ensure the garments was soothing and pleasant.
‘Cut-Silk’ or ‘Carved-Silk’. This became the finest technology that came from Central Asia into China in the Tang Dynasty era (618-907). The technology applied weft threads that combined various colors running along with specific patterns. The technology was advanced in the Song Dynasty era (960-1279) enabling the production of “subtle, multicolored, and life-like images of flowers, animals, and human figures” (54).
The embroidery of the dragon robes marks the epitome of the Chinese dress designs. The embellishment of the garment with such features was a distinguishing aspect that outlines a variety of symbolic meanings to the people and society of the Chinese. For example, the inclusion of the human figures, mythical animals, plants, flowers, and objects embroidery is used to present the religious, philosophical, and wishes of the people. Such as good health, fulfilling life, blessings of the family, power, and distinctiveness in the society. The dragons’ symbolization is that of the strong emperor and society that can withstand any enemy. With the ordinary robe design with two dragons at the back and the front – the typical robe design comprised of eight dragons. Also, designs such as the five claws robes were specifically designed for members of the highest grades in the scholar-officials class and those closest to the imperial family. Thus, the designs and motifs serve differentiation capacity among the wearer and the symbols of the features included in the garment.
The Twelve Patterns of the Dragon Robes
The use of the dragon symbol was prominent in the production of the imperial attire. Also, the Emperor’s attire comprised of skilled weaving and embroidery of artful features that oozed hidden symbolism of the emperor’s power and authority. The emperor’s robe contained nine dragons distributed such as one covering the chest areas of the top and bottom garments, one on each shoulder, one on the back, and the other four covered the bottom of the robes. The dragon was used to symbolize the intent of bringing good luck to the Chinese people. The Dragon robes comprise of eleven other features with each symbolizing a unique aspect key to the society and its culture. For instance, sun, moon, and the stars’ symbols used to represent the three brilliant sources of light to the world. The insect illustrates the emperor’s wisdom in directing and ruling over his people. The mountain which represent the aspect of protection of the emperor’s territory from all directions that pose a threat to the Chinese Empire. The symbol of rice to illustrate the essence and context of wealth. The cup of wine used to outline the virtues of loyalty, honesty, and piety. The symbol of fire to stand for honesty in the Empire. The aquatic grass that is used to illustrate the virtue of purity. And black and white embroidery that represents the emperor’s boldness and decisiveness. Furthermore, the undergarments of the won with the robes comprise features of the oceans and mountain ranges that are used to the emperor’s divinity power and mandate to rule over the whole world.