I. The chao fu Ceremonial Robe
It is early morning on the 14th day of the 5th moon in the Forbidden City, sometime in the late 18th century. Tomorrow is the summer solstice. A haze has settled between the crimson buildings and hovers over the courtyards between the impressive profile of the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Meridian Gate. As dawn breaks, one sees through the humid air two dark lines against the light brick courtyard that sparkle with small square-shaped badges, their gold detail reflecting the early morning light. It soon becomes clear that these badges distinguish individual men in black surcoats, standing in a formation of two rows. An aisle is formed by the facing rows that leads from the base of the stairs at the Hall of Supreme Harmony through the Gate of Supreme Harmony and over the central bridge to the Wumen Gate.
Presently we see at the top of the aisle a sedan chair supported by several standard-bearers in medium blue robes that are covered with a pattern of gold embroidered shou characters, a symbol of longevity. On the sedan chair is the Emperor in a brilliant yellow robe, covered with elaborate designs of dragons, wearing a tassled hat with a pagoda-shaped jewel rising from its apex. As the sedan chair makes its way down the aisle between the rows of dark-costumed men, it is followed by an entourage which includes several men in robes of similar design as the Emperor, but not of the same brilliant yellow. Instead they wear shades of apricot or brown, covered with the black surcoat of the other attendants, but with circular badges instead of square.
Outside the gate to the Forbidden City the formation continues along a route marked by additional high ranks of civil and military officials in black surcoats over longer robes, flanked by a multitude of banners and fans. The route ends at the gate of the Altar to the Earth, just north of the Forbidden City. When the Emperor’s sedan chair reaches the Wumen gate, it stops and a ladder is placed against the side. The Emperor emerges from the sedan chair and climbs down to the ground, then mounts a ladder to another sedan chair waiting just outside the gate, and the procession continues to the courtyard surrounding the outdoor altar.
The Altar itself is a square platform, comprised of raised earth of five different colors. Several rows of men are assembled on the altar platform donned in blue or red robes covered with matching surcoats. At the center of the altar platform, a small rectangular area frames a set of tables under a tabernacle supporting several bronze sacrificial vessels containing a variety of cooked and raw foods, lanterns, scrolls with prayers written on them, and silk and jade offerings. Before these is a corral where several different livestock animals are being held in preparation for the sacrifice.
The Emperor again uses a ladder to dismount the sedan chair, then climbs the stairs of the altar with his entourage. When he reaches the center, he prostrates towards the sacrificial table several times as the attendees close ranks behind him and perform choreographed ritual movements. The Emperor inspects the offerings carefully, each inspection a part of the ritual. This preparation phase of the ceremony continues until evening. The Emperor installs himself in a Hall of Seclusion located within the altar compound for the night. The next day, the Emperor performs the extensive ritual of sacrificing to the Earth. With more choreographed movements by the participants, rites are read, and the animals, food, and objects are offered to the spirits for blessing. The food is eaten, first by the Emperor, then by successive members of his family and court in order of rank. The objects and animals are interred in the earth.
Any uneducated observer of this scene would note that the figure at the center of this ritual, the Emperor, is distinguished from the other participants by not only the color but also the design of his elaborately decorated costume. The complete suit, known as chao fu (court dress), is comprised of several pieces: the chao fu robe (sometimes called chao pao , court robe), the chao guan hat, the pi ling collar, the chao dai belt, the chao zhu beads, and the white-soled satin boots with upturned toes. Of these, the chao fu robe is the most distinctive garment item with a story to tell. The chao fu was traditionally worn by the Qing Emperor, but also by nobility and members of his court, and was donned for ceremonial occasions such as sacrifices, weddings, New Year’s celebrations, and palace examinations.
The robe is essentially comprised of a long-sleeved, fitted top and a full, pleated skirt, connected at the waist with a decorative waistband (Figure 1). The skirt set the garment apart from other styles of robe worn by the court and Emperor, as its fullness was seen as a more formal attribute. The sleeves of the robe were a composite of three sections. The wide upper arm extended from the body of the robe and had decoration that was incorporated into the shoulder design; a fitted lower arm that covered from the elbow to the wrist was decorated with a simple ribbed pattern. The horse hoof-shaped cuffs completed the sleeves and were also embroidered with a complex design. The upper portion of the robe closed along the right-hand side of the garment using toggles and loops made from metal and stitched fabric, while the edge was banded with either brocaded silk material or fur, depending on the season.
Forming a four-lobed yoke encircling the neck of the garment was a complex embroidered design, which on the Emperor’s robe included four dragons: one on each of the shoulders, and one on the chest and back. Surrounding these dragons were motifs representing water, rocks, and clouds; interspersed among the clouds were red bats, which are commonly known to symbolize happiness. The water was depicted as splashing foam against the dark blue rocks by curling designs embroidered in shades of blue and white, and also as “deep water” by diagonal stripes stitched in the five colors of the universe. The clouds are represented by the curled, sometimes drawn-out formations floating in the open ground between the dragons and the seas, and also were typically embroidered using the five colors. On the waistband and cuffs were additional dragons surrounded again by water, rock, and cloud motifs, and these appear a third time in a panoramic band around the hem of the skirt. Just above this band were included nine small dragon medallions on the front and back. The right-hand edge of the skirt was finished with the same banding as the upper portion of the robe. A small, square flap, called a ren, hung from the waistband to the right of the skirt closing. Inconclusive evidence is available on the purpose of the ren, but speculation is that it is a vestige of what may have once been a scabbard used to hold a sword across the body. It often covers a button closure for the skirt on earlier robes.
Beginning sometime during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) (Plate 1), the decoration also included the motifs of the Twelve Symbols of imperial authority. These symbols were typically so small that they would hardly seem to have been a prominent feature amongst the water, clouds, and bats that surrounded them, except that they only appeared on the Emperor’s formal robe. They consisted of the Sun, Moon, Constellation, and Rock, the fu symbol, Axe-head, Dragons, Flowery Creature, Water Plant, Sacrificial Urns, Fire, and Grain, and were arranged symmetrically on the front and back of the robe. These will be discussed at length below.
The chao fu emerged as a synthesis of known court robe designs from previous dynasties and the formal attire developed by the Manchu nobility during the last decades leading up to their takeover of China. Schuyler Cammann suggests that the robe was originally two separate pieces: a cut down Ming-style robe paired with a separate pleated skirt. Verity Wilson questions this theory by citing the discovery of both 14th century and 15th century court robes in separate tombs of Ming princes, whose tailoring are both one-piece robes of yellow silk comprised of a full skirt and fitted robe top. Her example suggests that the Manchu nobility, familiar with this garment and its use, would have adopted it for themselves at some point during the early 17th century. While this may be part of the influence on the chao fu, there is also some support for Cammann’s logic when John Vollmer expands on it in Decoding Dragons. Vollmer writes that “male…costumes were composite garments based on auxiliary clothes worn over basic occupation garb—a hip-length riding coat and trousers. [Waist-length] auxiliary surcoats and paired aprons [were] worn over the basic riding garb on festive occasions…these increased the visual impression of the costume by displaying fine fabrics or insignia of rank; at the same time [they] added bulk, associated with formality, without sacrificing mobility .” Vollmer sees the uniting of the paired-apron skirt and coat top into one piece as the natural result of a change in utility, suggesting that “as the occupational necessity for the costume waned and its ceremonial significance increased, the auxiliary garments were combined into a single garment with lower sleeves of contrasting fabric added as reminders of the coat that was once worn under them.” Perhaps both the change in utility and the awareness of early Ming court robes combined their influence to result in the chao fu garment used by the Qing court.
The origin of the Twelve Symbols of imperial authority is more vague. It has been shown that they were re-introduced into the Emperor’s wardrobe during the Qianlong reign, apparently around the same time as he commissioned a text to be written prescribing the rules for court attire for all occasions and all levels of personnel. This text, the Huangchao liqi tushi (Illustrated Precedents for Ritual Paraphernalia in the Imperial Court), began in 1759 and published in 1766, documents for each ceremonial occasion the appropriate color, tailoring, and decorative elements for the garments to be worn by the Emperor and all the members of the court. It is in this text that the Twelve Symbols are first documented and prescribed solely for the Emperor’s use. However, this text documents traditions that had likely been in practice for some time, so it is difficult to pin down a date for the initial adoption of this imperial decorative enhancement. The source of these images as imperial garment decoration has been traced to Ming imperial garments through the study of Ming Emperor’s portraits, but the symbols have ancient origins.
The symbols appear in precise locations on the Qing chao fu, wheras on the Ming robes they were generally dispersed (Figure 2). The Sun, Moon, and Constellation appear around the neck of the garment on the each of the shoulders and front, respectively. While these celestial bodies explicitly relate to the cosmos, Dickinson and Wrigglesworth pose convincingly that the four symbols that appear in the middle of the garment (the fu symbol, axe-head, dragons, and flowery creature) also relate to cosmological events, those of the solstices and equinoxes. The four symbols which appear in the bottom section of the robe (the Water Plant, Sacrificial Urns, Fire, and Grain) seem to represent four of the five elements of the universe, or wu xing—these being water, metal, fire and wood–while the fifth element, earth, is represented by the rock that appears at the back of the neck as part of the upper group. The hierarchy of the symbols is demonstrated by having the most enduring universal elements, those of the daily-appearing celestial bodies and the ever-present duality of Heaven and Earth, appear near the head of the Emperor. These also represent the four major sacrifices performed during the year. The solstices and equinoxes, each appearing only twice a year, are represented as secondary elements in the Chinese understanding of the universe by their position in the second tier of the chao fu robe. The tertiary elements are those everyday elements that all humans touch–the wu xing–that with the exception of the rock (which as earth plays a dual role as both an element of the everyday and one of universal endurance) are represented in the bottom tier of the robe.
In their chapter on the Twelve Symbols, Dickinson and Wrigglesworth recount the legend of the symbols as having originated with the Yellow Emperor, and that they were worn by “the Emperors of every imperial dynasty from the great Han (206 BC-AD 220) to the Ming.” This is strongly supported by the extensive research of Schuyler Cammann. An analysis of these symbols is undertaken in Imperial Wardrobe, where Dickinson and Wrigglesworth suggest meaning through the positioning of the symbols on the robe, and how it relates their cosmological significance. The authors write that the symbols’ origins are believed to have developed from the significance of astrological events witnessed by the ancient Chinese, who encompassed these events into the early religious system.. Cammann notes that the symbols “developed during a period where nature and natural forces were important to Chinese religion. As the ritual of sacrifice was performed to encourage the re-balancing, or “centering,” of the elements of the universe, the Twelve Symbols thus became integral to the annual sacrifices. The robe worn for the performance of sacrificial ceremonies and by extension, the person who performed them, would gradually have become linked to the symbols’ appearance. By Qianlong’s time, the symbols had been associated with the soveriegn explicitly for several centuries, so had gained a second set of meanings, as signifiers of the desired qualities in an Emperor. These qualities included enlightenment (associated with the Sun, Moon, and Constellation trio), guardianship (the Rock as Mountain), adaptability (Dragons), literary refinement (Flowery Creature, as pheasant), filiality (Urns), purity (Water Plant), nurturer (Grain), brilliance (Fire), discrimination (fu), and ability to punish (Axe). It is primarily the symbols’ original meanings that concern us here, however, as they relate more closely to sacrifice.
II. Costume as a Part of Grand Sacrifice
The meaning of the symbols is made more impressive when one considers the Emperor’s role as the central figure in the performance of Grand Sacrifice. By distinguishing his robe from all others, they provided the Emperor with two key qualities: power and worthiness.
First one should understand better the purpose of the cycle of sacrifices. Sacrifice is a kind of maintenance that the Emperor performed at regular intervals to maintain the equilibrium of the various polarities of the universe. During the sacrifice of the winter solstice, for instance, the balance of yang, which had built up precedence over the fall, is brought back into alignment with yin at this solstice by this ceremony. All the sacrifices performed by the Emperor were “linked with the four major astronomical events in the year, the solstices and equinoxes.” The sacrifices included not only those to the celestial bodies of the Sun, Moon, and Earth, and Heaven, but also included those for harvests and rain. While these sacrifices had astrological significance, the anticipated effects were agriculturally focused—the climactic changes brought about by the solstice and equinox phenomena were depended upon by the largely agricultural society whose farms sustained the population. The Emperor’s role in performing sacrifice was to be the “centerer” or mediator between the forces of yang and yin, but also between Heaven and Earth, for which he was uniquely qualified by being Heaven’s Son. His success at performing the sacrifices would be judged by the significant natural events of the subsequent period. This performance was essential to ensuring that astronomical events brought only benefits to the people of his kingdom over which Heaven ultimately presided. Just as the appearance of good omens (such as the cranes that alighted on the palace of Huizong) reaffirmed the Emperor’s position as soveriegn, so would the success of his sacrificial performance.
During the ritual of Grand Sacrifice, the Emperor engaged in an elaborate preparation prior to actually appearing and performing the ceremomial rites. He fasted for two days and was secluded in a private chamber where he meditated to empty his mind while he physically emptied his body. Angela Zito describes this resulting emptiness to the idea of a man becoming a worthy “vessel .” Such a vessel holds appropriately the spiritual elements of “reverence and integrity” needed for the sacrificial ceremony. Interestingly, the chao fu robe’s overall decoration has been compared to that which appears on sacrificial vessels. When the “empty” Emperor dons the chao fu on the day before a major ceremony, he completes the process of becoming a worthy vessel that will carry the spiritual contents necessary to successfully perform the sacrifice. The symbols on the robe import qualities and characteristics by virtue of their mere presence that make the Emperor worthy to perform.
One may see the symbols as marks of his qualifications, a kind of “birthmark” of thread tattooed on a silken skin by Heaven, the authority that sponsors his status. The emblems’ symbolic relationship to the cosmos provides visual evidence that connects the Emperor to the universe in which his role as sacrificial performer is so essential. Zito says that the symbols on the robe “provide a double reference to the larger cosmos and inner man.” On the one hand, they are symbols of the exterior elements in Heaven and Earth, the bodies with which sacrifice is expected to mediate, but on the other, they have also become representations of the inner abilities of the man on whom they appear. Authority is certified for the Emperor by the credentials offered by the symbols’ appearance. Sacrifice by the Qing Emperors also served to mediate opposing views of Manchu authority, for “one [contradiction] within the Qing domain…was the problem of inherited authority [as opposed to authority established] through merit, or wen (text/pattern, or here, scholarly activity). Grand Sacrifice sought to resolve [this] contradiction in the Emperor’s favor.”
We can further understand the significance of the hierarchical pattern of symbols on the chao fu when seen in light of the function of the Emperor’s presence in the performance as having an organizing effect on the Heaven and earth. Zito describes this phenomenon as the “successful intervention in the cosmic process…[that] depended on the particularly human ability to provide the site for the emergence of ordered pattern from chaos.” The pattern of the symbols on the robe can be seen as providing a site of organization by emulating the very order of the universe on which they, through the Emperor, are acting, as each tier of emblems is organized hierarchically by spiritual power and season. The Emperor’s performance in ceremony was not only able to bring the invisible forces of yang and yin into alignment. It also served the function of providing organized spectacle that had a stabilizing force on the society. At the solstice, the clock was reset both literally and figuratively, as all the elements of the universe, human and celestial–those that live by (set calendars by) celestial events, and those that create them–were brought into prescribed alignment and organized around the activities of the day. Zito succinctly illuminates this effect by comparing it to that of ceremonial form in the West, remarking that “instead of rituals that solve cognitive or emotional angst by providing meaning, [sacrifice is a ritual] that solves social conflicts by organizing…bodies in performance.” So the symbols both represent and emit organizing power over social elements and heavenly ones. Thus, the visible organization of the symbols, combined with the design and color of the robes, create reliable order out of the unreliable chaos of life.
III. The Transfer of Symbols from One Culture to Another
The Qianlong Emperor was the first of the Manchu rulers to adopt the twelve-symbol robe. This indicates he must have had some awareness of the power embodied in the symbols to put them on the chao fu. The change was significant, for Cammann (and other writers) suggest that the earlier Qing Emperors did not wear the symbols precisely because they were worn by the defeated dynasty of the Ming. It was also for this reason that the color red was rarely worn by the Qing imperial family. One sees that the reinstatement involves both the removal of a barrier of tradition and the personality of the Qianlong Emperor to permit the transfer of the symbols from one culture to another.
The Emperor might have taken advantage of the earlier Manchu adoption of traditions from the Han in order to enable the transfer of the symbols. The robe itself was already a transfer from Han Chinese tradition through the diplomatic exchanges between the Manchu leadership and the Ming. While the Qing rulers, including Qianlong, expressed a desire to differentiate themselves from the Han Chinese through clothing design, in particular the design of the most formal court attire, they also were accustomed to using the dragon-covered silks worn by the Emperors of China’s past. The Manchus were close neighbors of the Chinese, so they were familiar with the materials of Han imperial wealth such as calligraphy, painting, and especially silks, as these items were traded between the two cultures and given as gifts by the Ming Emperors to Manchu leaders over the centuries . In taking control of China, the Qing Emperors adopted some of the existing government infrastructure as a necessary means of rule. This infrastructure consisted of physical and theoretical elements—the theoretical including the examination system and divisions of civil and military responsibilities, and the physical consisting mainly of the capital of Beijing and the buildings of the Forbidden City. They also adopted the infrastructure provided by the annual cycle of sacrifices, as well as forms of practicing wen, such as calligraphy and connoisseurship. Zito remarks that this “incorporation of the social forms of others [were] attempts to…organize…those societies.” The question is whether they adopted court dress as being a part of the infrastructure provided by Grand Sacrifice, or if it was adopted for its own intrinsic symbolic value, that of monarchical rule. It was for most likely the latter reason, since formal attire had been necessary to their society prior to taking over China. Either way, a transfer occurred.
Schuyler Cammann describes the outraged reaction of the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1644-1661, Qianlong’s Great-grandfather), to an aide’s suggestion that he don the Twelve Symbols for the performance of sacrifices, yet by the time of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) and his son, Yongzheng (r. 1723-1735), additions such as the skirt’s nine dragon medallions were being made. The Yongzheng Emperor even tried to introduce a new costume to be used just for the sacrifices, called the “sacrificial robe” or chi fu, but this more drastic change never became custom. The Qianlong Emperor’s decision to re-instate the Twelve Symbols was seemingly insulated by the significant time that had passed since his ancestors had taken over China, and it seems likely that the gradual introduction of changes to the decorative schemes on the robe that had occurred over the prior two generations helped influence his apparent boldness.
Furthermore, we also know that this Emperor in particular sought to possess and enact perfection from the evidence of his rigorous collection and embellishment of revered paintings and calligraphy, and his numerous and thorough encyclopedic projects. He probably saw the reinstatement of the symbols as a form of perfection of the practice of sacrifice, particularly as he went to lengths to not only incorporate the Twelve Symbol tradition in his robes, but to document it in the Huangchao liqi tushi. This possession of perfection is especially impressive when considered through Zito’s viewpoint, where “any ruling formation…becomes invested in perfecting the formal means for producing naturalizing discourses (my emphasis).” A “naturalizing discourse” is a discourse which makes natural (or normal) the ideas associated with one’s actions, in this case the actions of the imperium. The naturalizing discourse here is li, the Chinese idea of how man’s ideal way of being in the universe will help maintain the proper balance between yang and yin, Heaven and earth. The “formal means” in this case are the performances of sacrificial ceremonies, which produced the naturalizing discourse of li through the restoration of these balances, making “order out of chaos.” This would seem to also support the idea of the symbols providing the wearer with both authority and power.
In trying to organize the multiple meanings of the emblems that comprise the Twelve Symbols, one realizes that by distinguishing from one-another the webs of meaning attached to the symbols, one loses the sense of the symbols’ overall power. In viewing the complicated rules for existence that Chinese sacred life is endowed with—crisscrossed by Confucian and Daoist principles, omens, luck charms, and filiality–I am struck by the insignificance of any one of the symbols’ multiple meanings. It is known that Chinese society and government is organized around the principle of China being a whole of equally necessary but unequally valued parts arranged in a hierarchy, which are then emulated by every facet of the societies’ life. This whole is thought to be greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, the meaning of individual symbols is valuable, but in the end it is the whole that they comprise which yields the greatest power.
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