This month marks the New Chinese Year – and 2022 is the year of the tiger. To mark the event, we’re posting a Chinese Empress’s festive headdress (dianzi), Guangxu reign period (1875-1908) from the exhibition Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City, shown at the V&A in London in 2010.
The sumptuous robes worn by the emperors and empresses of the Qing dynasty, the last ruling dynasty of China, are on show, many for the first time in Europe, at the V&A Museum. The exhibition told the story of a vanished court life within the confines of the Forbidden City, through the impressive and intricate clothes made for grand state functions, as well as simple, beautiful garments that were worn daily.
It also includes sections on accessories – including a display of hats – plus ceremonial armour made for the Qing emperors. Another section explores the production processes for silk brocades and other textiles, with lengths of material on display, as well as the work of the three imperial textile manufactories.
At court, the Qing dynasty maintained the Confucian ideal of family and sense of order, therefore, court garments and accessories defined and sustained the hierarchy of the elite who were responsible for good government on earth and harmony in heaven. Ritual and ceremonial clothing were regarded as necessary to maintain the proper (and hierarchical) order of society and life at court.
The Qing emperors dressed in accordance with the wuxing (Five Phases system), which was associated with yin-yang philosophy and incorporated the five elements of the universe: earth, fire, water, metal and wood. These also had a direct correspondence to the seasons, compass directions, musical scales and colours. Imperial decrees at court set down the rules for when certain types of clothing should be worn, what symbols on clothing were allowed, as well as strict rules referring to the colour of garments.
The most important symbols on dragon robes were the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority, as worn by the emperor and other high-ranking members of the imperial family and clan. The symbols included the sun with the three-legged rooster; the constellation of stars; the moon disc with hare; the dragon; the mountain; the water-weed; grains of millet; the pheasant; the fire; the sacrificial axe; the sacrificial cups; and the fu symbol. A variety of other symbols also played an important role at court.
For more information on Asian Costume and Chinese robes, read this article
Empress’s festive headdress (dianzi), China, Guangxu reign period (1875-1908), from Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City, shown at the V&A in 2010. Courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing