Vegder's Blog

March 29, 2016

Not Quite the Zodiac – Part Seven, sub 3: the dragon in China – 龍

Filed under: Art,Buddhism,Chinese mythology,Chinese porcelains,Chineses art — vegder @ 10:25 am
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As I have said before, I will post several images first and add the text later. So, please come back often to see how this particular post is being developed. Also, there will be more images addes, meaning more text. Thanks! Also, unless otherwise noted the names and words shown on this name in parentheses are in Chinese.

Nelson_Sui_Tang_7thc_altar_front_&
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Sui (隋) -Tang (唐) period
Posted at Flickr by Jonathan Dresner.

Why the piece shown above is more than brilliantI am not sure I can do this piece or you the justice deserved in describing it, but I will try.

It isn’t very large, only 27 1/4 x 24 1/2 x 9 inches. It is carved from a hard, fine gray limestone. The curatorial files read:

“Front Wall of a Buddhist Shrine Chinese Sui Dynasty (581-618) to Tang Dynasty (618-906), first quarter of the 7th century, Hard fine gray limestone Purchase: Nelson Trust 37-17

Dragons, guardian warriors and lions protect the exterior “house” of a Buddhist deity, while musical angels and a dancer suggest the delights of a paradise. The exuberance of the design has been enlivened by the depth of the relief, which emphasizes a complicated play of profiles, and by the sharp cutting, which emphasizes form-defining linear ridges, adamantine surfaces and forcefully articulated muscles. Note that the large dragons, monster above the door, and lotus pedestal for the dancer are represented as though emerging from the stone.”

The bold type above is my touch, because that it what makes this piece so remarkable. The dragons appear to be coming organically right out of the stone. In places they go back into it, just to reappear at another spot. Another amazing touch which you can’t see it in this image shows that the lion which is guarding the entryway – shown immediately above it – has his long claws digging into the stone which indents ever so slightly around where the sharp points are making their contacts. This is a subtlety only a genius would think of employing. For those of you in the know a fair comparison would be Michelangelo’s slaves emerging from their stone encasements in Florence. Below is a picture of one of those ‘unfinished’ works posted at Flickr by Russell McNeil.

Michaelangeol_slave_emerging_Accademia_Russell_McNeil_Flickr_7
Michaelangelo’s emerging slave – Accademia, Florence

I remember the day I walked past this work of art. I was on my way to see the David at the end of the hallway. I was stopped in my tracks. I found that I was blown away by both sculptures, which brings me to this point: What really is art appreciation? Start with the Sui-Tang altar front shown at the top of this page. Do you have any idea how many works of art in museum collections go unnoticed or just under-appreciated? Their values are not their monetary values. Monetary values are often fickle and market driven. Popularity contests. I am talking about  aesthetic values. How many people pass through the room devoted to Chinese sculptures at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and never take a second glance? Most of them, I suppose. Of course, to be fair, not every is interested in 7th century Buddhist sculptures. But then again, without giving themselves over to the experience… without saying to oneself either consciously or subconsciously, “I bet this work has something to tell me, something I can learn from it, something which will raise me just a little bit out of my everyday routine or cars, computers and indoor plumbing, not to mention my current obsession with social media. Something that is telling me to slow down, smell the coffee or roses or whatever. Something that is telling me to pay attention to the smallest details no matter how disinterested I might be at first.”

That Sui-Tang altar piece is more than just another ‘stupid’ old Chinese Buddhist sculpture. It is a masterpiece – as are many of the other pieces posted on this page. Try to look below the surface effects of razzle-dazzle. It will stun and amaze you and if you are up to the task it will amaze your friends and family too.

My original plan was to only display Chinese works of art on this page, but then I thought of the Michaelangelo and then I thought of a wonderful piece by Paul de Lamerie, a French Hugenot expat.

Covered_cup_Paul_de_Lamerie_1737_Nelson_Atkins_7_detail2b
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art -detail of the handles which are made up of writhing snakes
Covered silver cup from 1737 by Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751)

The museum’s label reads: “Upon first glance, this covered cup appears to be a traditional work of 18th-century silver. Then the viewer realizes that the very part of the cup that must be grasped in order to hold it is the very thing that most loathe to touch. A pair of realistic snakes pierces the silver and writhes around the vessel to form scaly handles. This unexpected encounter is achieved with grotesque ornamentation: an unconventional combination of natural forms, earthly creatures and monstrous figures. Paul de Lamerie excelled at adapting myriad European designs and grotesque ornamentation into distinctive creations of exceptional style. Other unexpected creatures, such as lions’ faces and marine masks, emerge from the lid and punctuate the base of the cup.”

The reason this silver piece looks so red is because like all great silver pieces it reflects the colors around it. The room they have it in now, or, at least when it was photographed, was red. Just look at the image posted below. Also, it looks monumental but stands only 14 1/2″ tall.

Covered_cup_Paul_de_Lamerie_1737_Nelson_Atkins_7c

If one picture is worth a thousand words, then maybe two pictures are worth ten thousand words – What do you think? After spending hours and hours searching for dragon images I ran across a similar stone-carved altar at the Met. It dates form a period right before the image shown at the top of this page. By itself, it is amazing, but in my biased opinion it is not as impressive as the one at the Nelson-Atkins. But together they are jaw-droppingly incredible.

MMA_Northern_Qi_furerary_altar_7b
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Northern Qi dynasty – 550 to 577

The notes from the Met say it better than I can:

“The construction of small, square, pagoda-like shrines appears to have begun in China during the Northern Qi period, and flourished through the Tang dynasty (618–907). Comparisons with other examples suggest that this shrine once stood on a square, possibly stepped, base and was capped by either a domed or tiered roof. Its exterior walls, marked by prominent entryways, enclose a pillar with four Buddhas; although they can no longer be accurately identified, they likely represented the Buddhas most important to Chinese practice during the sixth century. Each wall is capped by a lintel that bears representations of multiple seated Buddhas. Paired dragons fill the upper registers and guardians and lions (many now missing) protect the entryways.

The shrine’s interior walls are carved with rows of multiple tiny Buddhas. Exhibiting variations in posture and clothing, they symbolize the immanence of many Buddhas in the cosmos. Numerous shrines of this type can be found in northeast China and are often associated with the remains of notable monks, indicating that they may have functioned as funerary monuments. However, the prominent central pillar in this example suggests that the shrine may have been used for visualization exercises, with a focus on these particular Buddhas.”

BM_Shang_hu_taotie_12thc_BC_7
British Museum
Shang dynasty (商: ca. 1600-1046 B.C.) – 12th century B.C. – ritual bronze hu or wine vessel

Another curiosity – a 14th century French Hebraic text where two dragons come together and form one head

BL_14thc_French_Hebrew_text_2_dragons_one_head_7b
British Library

I have inserted this image of a 14th century prayer text written in Hebrew to compare and contrast with the t’ao t’ieh creature – again two ‘animals’ coming together to form one unified form as shown in the Shang dynasty bronze above. The differences are considerable, but the similarities are astounding. And to think they are only separated by about 2,400 years. My bet is that the Jewish scholars in medieval Europe had no clue as to what the ancient Chinese had done. It was just another motif which was easily inventible in different locations and different ages. The Leibniz/Newton conundrum but with more distance between them. Vastly greater distances in time and space.

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British Museum
Western Zhou dynasty (11th century B.C.) – bronze frontlet for a horse

Myth or fact? At the time of Xuan, the 11th of the Zhou kings who ruled from 827-781 B.C., was heard a prophecy that scared him. It was about a couple selling goods in the marketplace. While he was punishing them – they eventually escaped – one of the maidens in his palace was impregnated miraculously by “…a terrifying flood of dragon-sperm…” that someone had inadvertently released from a chest. The result was the birth of a baby girl, Bao Si, who grew up to become a queen who hastened the fall of the Western Zhou empire.

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Hunan Provincial Museum
Western Han funerary banner – two dragons, symbols of the sun and moon, a snake, birds and horse-like
creatures with riders. There is a toad poised on the crescent moon in case you were wondering.
This was posted online in a pdf file by the Textile Museum, George Washington University.

Nelson_Tang_mirror_dragon_Dresner_Flickr_7
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Tang dynasty (618-907) mirror of a dragon chasing a flaming pearl which is actually the mirror’s knop

I’d like a black dragon
to offer us a pearl
as the spirit of the waters
governs the movement of sea beasts
let the water princess and mermaids
venture out to dance

Du Fu (杜甫: 712-770)

Another poem, this one by Li Bai (李白: 701-762), another Tang dynasty poet, has two wonderful lines in a poem about parting:

Tigers wail in valleys, they bring on the wind,
streams conceal dragons, exhaling clouds. 

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Liao dynasty (10th to 11th century) – headdress

MMA_Zhang_Yucai_Yuan_dragons_7b
Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Beneficent Rain” – 元 張羽材 霖雨圖 卷
Zhang Yucai (d. 1316) – Yuan dynasty (元: 1279-1368) – hand scroll, detail

The Met tells us:

“Zhang Yucai, the thirty-eighth pope of the Zhengyi (“Orthodox Unity”) Daoist church, lived at Mount Longhu (Dragon Tiger Mountain) in Jiangxi Province. A favorite of the Yuan emperors, he received commendation from the Mongol court for inducing needed rain and for subduing a “tide monster” that had plagued the eastern seacoast.

Dragons, as symbols of nature’s elemental forces, have been depicted in Chinese art from time immemorial. A special genre, dragon paintings were given powerful treatment by such Southern Song masters as Chen Rong (act. ca. 1235-62) and the Chan Buddhist painter Muqi (act. ca. 1240-75). In a fourteenth-century account, Chen’s working methods are described as follows: He “makes clouds by splashing ink, creates vapor by spraying water, and, while drunk, shouting loudly, takes off his cap, soaks it in ink, and smears and rubs with it, before finishing the painting with a brush.”

On Chen Rong’s celebrated Nine Dragons handscroll dated 1244, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, there is a colophon dated 1331 by Zhang Yucai’s son Zhang Sicheng, the thirty-ninth Daoist pope (r. 1317–44). Beneficent Rain is closely related to Chen Rong’s Nine Dragons both in content and in style, and may have been directly inspired by the Boston scroll or others like it.” [A painting attributed to Chen Rong at the Nelson-Atkins Museum appears on our first dragon post page.]

The David vases and why they should matter to you – Okay, I know I live in my own little world and share it with but just a few, but I am telling you that the blue and white vases in the Sir Percival David collection are more important than you can ever imagine. Only one of them is seen below. Important? Why? Well, to start with you could spend your whole life – really only your whole intellectual life – studying their creation, their significance to the history of ceramics, their mind-blowing significance to aesthetics and never be finished. As pi is to the measurement of a circle, where you can only get infinitesimally close to an final answer, you can never completely know the David vases. Of course, you can know them enough to be expert in them, but… To be succinct, something I am always short on is succinctness – their place in the universe, the whole cosmos, the whole shebang will always be a bit unknowable.

Some of what we do know – The vases were made for a temple about 110 km southeast of Jingdezhen in modern-day Guangxin. They were not made for the imperial court. Note the long inscription on the neck of the vase. Margaret Medley, another one of the great experts on Chinese ceramics, points out that such refined pieces as these vases cannot have been created without a long period of effort and experimentation, although she is not sure she would take it all the way back to the Song dynasty. However, there are Song blue and white pieces, but nothing compares to these vases in their refinement, even if the Song are known for their refinement and elegance.

First, they are blue and white – You can’t imagine now how astonishing that is, how gob-smacking, how revolutionary. Close your eyes and imagine yourself before you had an iPhone, a computer, before there was Uber, before their were refrigerators, before there were televisions, radios, cars, electricity. Before anesthesiology. Before man landed on the moon. Before everything that cumulatively makes up the world which surrounds you and which you probably take for granted. Now, keeping your eyes closed, imagine the first time you experienced any of those things and how earthshaking it was. How it rocked your world. Well, believe it or not, the introduction of blue and white porcelain into our universe was as cataclysmic an event as any or all of those things listed above. Now imagine the eons of time when there was no blue and white porcelain and, I am telling you, that the people who lived in those times could never, ever have even conceived of such a thing. Amazing. That is how great the invention of blue and white porcelains was.

R. L. Hobson (1872-1941), the Keeper of Ceramics and Ethnography and later and Keeper of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum did  not believe that the David vases could be as early as the Yuan dynasty. Despite his brilliance and greatness, he was wrong. “In 1931, Robert Hobson noted that the Percival David vases offer merely “circumstantial evidence for the manufacture of blue and white porcelain in the Yuan period.” Adam Kessler notes that words like “…linchpin, landmark, cornerstone, keystone [and] benchmark…” are used when referring to the David vases.

BM_1351_David_Vase_7

British Museum
Yuan dynasty – ‘David Vase’ – 1351

The curatorial files say: “Large porcelain altar-vase of ancient bronze form. Two applied elephant head handles. Underglaze blue with scrolling four-clawed dragon, facing right with mouth closed, in clouds around the main part. Band of scrolling peonies, overlapping plantain leaves and long inscription on upper part of neck, and phoenixes in clouds on lower part. Scrolling peonies on foot.” Although some sources say that the Yuan imperial dragon had two horns and five claws, this may not be right. Other sources tell us that the imperial Yuan dragon only had four claws, like the one on the vase shown above.

“Indeed, the Yuan governors exerted themselves to ban the two-horned, five-clawed dragon because it had been the imperial insignia of the Song. By 1336 AD the Yuan dynasty banned embroidering the two-horned five-clawed dragon (as well as a number of other related designs) since it suggested sedition: Those who wore such designs were considered conspirators intending to reestablish the lost Song hegemony…” Quoted from: Song Blue and White Porcelain on the Silk Road by Adam T. Kessler, p. 376.

So, what is the blue? It is cobalt or cobaltite (CoAsS), and while there had been experiments with cobalt as early as the Tang era, it was Yuan cobalt blue, i.e., ‘Mohammedan blue’, that shook the world. A purer, richer form was imported from Persia – they had used it for centuries on low-fired ceramics – but it wasn’t until it was used on high-fired porcelains in China that it really began to sing. “The understated elegance cultivated by the Song court [actually my favorite] and its scholar officials went out of fashion. The style that conquered the world was blue and white.”

The cobalt mines in China were generally a mixture of manganese with cobalt – generally known as Asbolite – with manganese being the more predominant element. The Persian cobalt was found with arsenic mixed in. For those of you who are interested and understand these things, cobalt arsenate is CO3(AsO4)2.

Cobaltite_Canadian_James_St._John_commons_7b
A piece of Canadian cobaltite posted at commons.wikimedia by James St. John
(I looked for an example from Iran, but couldn’t find one easily. So…)

What amazes me – and should amaze you – is the fact that the development of Chinese porcelains was done empirically and not through the scientific method. It was learning by trial and error and sometimes even by accident. Why does this matter? Porcelain differs from other ceramics in their chemical composition, the process of production and their durability. As for glazes, a word closely related to ‘glass’: its first occurrence was completely by happenstance. Supposedly burnt ash rose up during the firing of pots, some of it floated back down onto the vessels, melted and, surprise of surprise, it made those pots impermeable. That is, they would now hold water without it leeching out through the walls of the vessel. Amazing – all of it.

Jingdezhen – This vase and many of the other pieces shown on this page were made at Jingdezhen (景德镇 – aka Ching-te-Chen), the imperial porcelain factory site. Ellen Huang in her doctoral thesis notes that porcelains were made at this site since the 13th century. Others push this chronology back a few more centuries. Originally the town located where Jingdezhen is today was called by another name, Changnanzhen, until the first year of the Sung ruler Jingde in 1004.* While it has been commonly known as the Imperial factory works since Ming times, that may not be exactly correct, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. They note that Jingdezhen was never officially the imperial works prior to the Qing period, but that it did supply the best and the bulk of porcelains and ceramics supplied to the government – with a couple of exceptions. 1506-21 were years of turmoil in the region around Jingdezhen, thus restricting the flow of goods and 1567-72 were also down years, but this time for economic reasons. Buying power by the court had slackened.

In 1675 there was a rebellion that did a ton of damage to Jingdezhen and its kilns. Right after order was restored the Qing government built a huge site for their own productions and finally this was the official porcelain works. “Under three great directors—Zang Yingxuan (1682–1700), Nian Xiyao (1726–36), and Tang Ying (1736–56)—ceramics production reached a peak of perfection, although in subsequent years the quality of the work declined. During the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), fighting in the surrounding area wrecked most of the kilns.”

[*Those of you who know me know that I come from Kansas City, Missouri. Like Jingdezhen Kansas City had other names before it settled on that appellation. Whether it is an urban myth or not, Kansas City barely survived being called Possum Trot… or so they say, whoever ‘they’ are.]

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about ‘King-te-tching’. Below is a segment of a much longer poem by this author. Isn’t this always the case with him? I can still recall “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis…” But, I forget myself. Now back to China.

O’er desert sands, o’er gulf and bay,
O’er Ganges and o’er Himalay,
Bird-like I fly, and flying sing,
To flowery kingdoms of Cathay,
And bird-like poise on balanced wing
Above the town of King-te-tching,
A burning town, or seeming so,—
Three thousand furnaces that glow
Incessantly, and fill the air
With smoke uprising, gyre on gyre
And painted by the lurid glare,
Of jets and flashes of red fire.

As leaves that in the autumn fall,
Spotted and veined with various hues,
Are swept along the avenues,
And lie in heaps by hedge and wall,
So from this grove of chimneys whirled
To all the markets of the world,
These porcelain leaves are wafted on,—
Light yellow leaves with spots and stains
Of violet and of crimson dye,
Or tender azure of a sky
Just washed by gentle April rains,
And beautiful with celadon.

Nor less the coarser household wares,—
The willow pattern, that we knew
In childhood, with its bridge of blue
Leading to unknown thoroughfares;
The solitary man who stares
At the white river flowing through
Its arches, the fantastic trees
And wild perspective of the view;
And intermingled among these
The tiles that in our nurseries
Filled us with wonder and delight,
Or haunted us in dreams at night.

And yonder by Nankin, behold!
The Tower of Porcelain, strange and old,
Uplifting to the astonished skies
Its ninefold painted balconies,
With balustrades of twining leaves,
And roofs of tile, beneath whose eaves
Hang porcelain bells that all the time
Ring with a soft, melodious chime;
While the whole fabric is ablaze
With varied tints, all fused in one
Great mass of color, like a maze
Of flowers illumined by the sun.

MFA_square_water_dropper_14thc_Yuan_chi_drgons_7
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Yuan dynasty – 14th century, square water dropper with chi dragons

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British Museum
Ceramic stoneware wall tiles -14th to 15th century – Ming dynasty (明: 1368-1644)

MMA_front_of_Tibetan_or_Chinese_saddle_ca.1400_7b
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Front of a saddle – Tibetan or Chinese – ca. 1400
Created during the Ming period

The curatorial files say of this unbelievably, remarkable saddle: “This set of saddle plates represents a high point in the medium of pierced ironwork, equaling or excelling anything of its type. Each plate is chiseled from a single piece of iron. The long, thin four-clawed dragons, carved in high relief in great detail, are cut entirely free from the surrounding scrollwork ground so that they can move slightly within it. The scroll patterns are undercut to give the appearance of depth and overlap, in addition to the areas where the bodies of the dragons actually do overlap. There is a Wish-Granting Jewel motif made with pieces of blue and green turquoise set in shaped compartments in the center of both the pommel and the cantle, and scattered lotus blossoms made in the same way. The outer edges of the plates are bordered by rows of semicircular pieces of lapis. The iron surfaces of the plates are damascened completely with gold foil, and the precision and fineness of the cross-hatching beneath the gold are exceptional.”

MMA_Tibetan_or_Chinese_saddle_ca.1400_7b

MFA_Yongle_lacquer_bowl_carved_dragon_7
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Yongle era (1403-24), Ming dynasty  – carved red lacquer bowl

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British Museum
Yongle era (1403-24), Ming dynasty – white dragon on a blue ground, porcelain

The curatorial files read: “Dish with relief decoration fired in the biscuit on a monochrome blue glaze. This unusual flat dish has shallow sides, an out-turned flattened rim with a rolled edge and an unglazed base. Applied in relief in the centre of the dish on a deep ink-blue monochrome glaze is a sinuous dragon and its flaming pearl. Details such as scales have been added in slip to give a more prominent profile to the dragon. Originally it may also have had gilded decoration which has worn away. The dragon’s eyes are glazed too for greater realism.”

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British Museum
Xuande era (1426-35), Ming dynasty – lidded cloisonné jar

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Metropolitan Museum of Art
Daoist priest’s robe – Ming dynasty

The files at the Met read: “The poncho-like jiang yi [降衣] is worn for particular ceremonies by high-ranking Daoist priests. Boldly tapestry-woven with writhing five-clawed dragons (long) on a red ground clutching a yin and yang symbol, this jiang yi’s lower band features dragons with trigrams on a golden-yellow ground. The sleeve and neck bands are later replacements.” There is a Chinese woodblock print from a 17th century novel, the Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅 – ‘The Plum in the Golden Vase’), chapter 62, showing a Daoist priest performing a sacred ceremony. It clearly shows that the most elaborate decorations of this type of garment were worn on the back so they could be viewed by worshippers.

MFA_Wanli_Daoist_deity_of_north_porcelain_blue_white_dragon_7b
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – Wanli period (1573-1619), Ming dynasty – made at Jingdezhen
Porcelain figure of the Daoist god of the North, Xuanwu
It has at least five dragons – maybe more, two flaming pearls and six blue bats.

Yellow, bright yellow, is the color of my true emperor’s robe – “From the 1630s, minghuang, or “bright yellow,” was reserved for the robes of the emperor and empress alone…. but the emperor also wore robes of other colours when required by ritual or precedent. “

MFA_early_18thc_Qing_jifu_yellow_7b
Museum of Fine Arts
Jifu from the first half of the 18th century – Qing dynasty (清: 1644-1912)

In 1636 the Manchu ruler, Hongtaiji (皇太極: 1592-1643), in anticipation of conquering China, declared a dynasty color and it was yellow, symbolizing the earth. The Ming dynasty color was red, symbolizing fire. In his thinking earth trumped fire. The Qing government declared that only the emperor and his family could wear yellow and have it decorated with a dragon with five claws – the long (龍) dragon. Lesser nobles were only allowed to wear the mang four-clawed dragon, unless given special dispensation to add a fifth claw. But the emperor wearing yellow doesn’t just go back to the Qing rulers. It may actually go back as far as the first Tang dynasty emperor (618-26) and he may have adopted this color because the mythical founder of the Chinese civilization was Huang di, the Yellow Emperor.

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Palace Museum, Beijing
Portrait of Hongtaiji
See the detail of the dragon throne below.
Hongtaiji_Palace_Museum_Beijing_dragon_throne_7_detail

What else do we know about dragon robes? Well, first off, what you think you know may be wrong. There is so much conflicting information out there it would take a genius to sort this one out. For example, once someone has heard that imperial dragons have five claws that is almost all that they ever remember. Only problem is that dragons with five claws are not always or necessarily imperial. At times when the imperial court was weak and ineffectual a presumptuous official might have an extra claw or two sneaked onto his own garments. La-di-dah… As if no one would ever notice. Also, what applies at one time in one place does not apply at a different time in a different place. Five-clawed dragons may mean something imperial or maybe not.

That said, here is some information from a book by Evelyn S. Rawski called The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions:

“The dragon robes that constituted semiformal attire first appear in Chinese court records in the late seventh century. The dragon was a popular symbol in both Han and non-Han culture. From the Song dynasty, the dragon became the symbol of the emperor and by convention to refer to the emperor’s person: his body was the dragon body, his hands the claws, his capital the dragon’s pool. The Song, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties forbade subjects to wear robes with dragon patterns. But the dragon symbolism did not simply isolate the emperor from everyone else. There was a hierarchy of nine types of dragons, of which the highest, the five-clawed dragon (long), was prominently featured on the emperor’s court robes. The four- clawed dragon (mang) appeared on the robes of his brothers who held the higher princely ranks. And dragons topped the seals of rank (bao) presented to empresses and consorts.

The Jurchen [ a group which was not native Chinese, but conquered China and established the Qing dynasty] elaborated and modified the Ming ranking system, which classified dragon robes by their color and the type of dragon portrayed. Initially (1636) first-rank princes and the emperor were permitted to wear yellow robes with five-clawed dragons. The 1636 code reflected a collegial political tradition in which the emperor was primus inter pares; as the imperial power increased at the expense of the princes, the clothing hierarchy was altered to reflect the new power configuration. In the dress code of 1759, it was not the five-clawed dragon so much as the twelve symbols that were reserved for the sole use of the emperor and empress. The right to wear robes decorated with nine five-clawed dragons was restricted to the emperor, his sons, and princes in the first and second ranks. Among males, only the emperor could wear bright yellow (minghuang) robes; his sons wore other shades of yellow, while other princes and all Aisin Gioro wore blue or blue-black robes.”

MMA_17thc_Qing_chuba_7b
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Early Qing dynasty chuba

“Court clothing was part of the Qing emperor’s gift exchanges with the rulers of Tibet and Mongolia. The privilege of wearing five-clawed dragon robes was extended to the Dalai lama, Panchen lama, and Jebtsundamba khutukhtu of Urga, the three most prominent dignitaries of Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet dragon robes could be worn only by nobles and high  lamas. Dragon robes were presented to Mongol nobles as the Mongol tribes were brought under Qing control: from 1661, the Qing dress code was applied to the Mongol nobility. Mongol nobles and their wives who accepted Aisin Gioro brides for their sons were given court robes as part of the bride’s dowry; sons-in-law also received court robes. The use of these robes on special occasions in Mongolia seems to have persisted even after the dynasty ended.”

The Aisin Gioro group claimed direct descent from the Jurchen Jin who ruled north China in the 12th century and who were the inner circle that formed the support group for the Qing emperors.

MFA_Buddhist_monks_cape_late_Qianlong_7b
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Buddhist monk’s cape – late Qianlong period – ca. 1750-1800

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – mid 17th to early 18th century – Qing dynasty
Carved rhinoceros horn just crawling with baby dragons.
Some of them appear to be teething.

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British Museum
Kangxi (1662-1722) porcelain water pot

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Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Possibly Qianlong period (1711-99) ornament carved from tortoiseshell

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Porcelain hat stand – Jiaqing period (1756-1820), Qing dynasty

Goucher_College_dowager_empress_robe_late_19thc_7b
Originally Goucher College
National Textile Museum – George Washington University
A robe worn by an empress or dowager empress – late 19th century

GWU_dowager_empress_robe_aun_moon_emblems_7b
You can’t see it clearly in the robe shown above, but in the dragon roundels partially shown on each shoulder are two small symbols of the sun
and the moon. Originally the sun was represented by a three-legged crow, but by the time of the Qing dynasty it had often been replaced by a
colorful rooster, a symbol of the dawn, and the only bird in the Chinese, hence Japanese, Zodiac. On the right is the rabbit, another Zodiac image,
pounding the elixir of life, i.e., immortality. In the Chinese cosmology the yin factor, the female side, is represented by the moon and its rabbit.
The male, yang, is represented by the sun/bird element. Both together form a harmonious one-ness to the universe.

According to the Shujing (書經), an ancient Confucian text, there were twelve symbols of imperial authority. These included sun, moon, stars, mountains, dragons, pheasants, the fu pattern, an ax, two cups, water plants, fire and grain. They correspond to the twelve months, too. These motifs showed up regularly from Han times through the Ming. The Qing abandoned them, only to take them up again later under the Qianlong emperor.

I started this post with a favorite piece of mine. Now I will end it the same way. Both of them are out of chronological order, but I don’t call this ‘Vegder’s blog’ for nothing. There is always a method to my madness – usually with an emphasis on the madness side. Below is a carved green jade medallion from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It shows a dragon, face on, chasing a flaming pearl. It is said to date from the Qing dynasty, late 18th century. Maybe it is, but it looks timeless to me.

VAM_green_jade_medallion_dragon_flaming_pearl_7
Victoria and Albert Museum

REMEMBER NEW TEXT IS ADDED OCCASIONALLY.
SO, REVISIT THIS SITE, AS THE SPIRIT MOVES YOU, TO SEE WHAT’S NEW.

GOD, I LOVE THIS STUFF. HOPE YOU ARE WITH ME ON THIS. BUT, A LITTLE HINT, A LITTLE TEASE:
THE NEXT POST WILL BE ON THE CHRISTIANS 
vs. THE DRAGONS. THREE GUESSES AS TO WHO WINS.

2 Comments »

  1. Love your lead-off piece from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Sui-Tang period. It must represent the entrance to the temple, for two NIO guardians stand on both sides of the door. Not sure of the deity at top center with raised leg. Nice work………………..

    Comment by Mark Schumacher — March 29, 2016 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

  2. Lovely piece, that Buddhist one. The ‘dancer on the lotus’ is a real joy. Interesting to see how long the Hellenistic-Buddhist period left its traces, faint though they are by this time.

    Comment by D.N. O'Donovan — April 2, 2016 @ 9:51 pm | Reply


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