Published: May 1, 2001
Bruce Museum Explores
GREENWICH, CONN. – The Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences presents “Golden Dragon, Flaming Pearl: Symbolism in Chinese Robes of the Qing Dynasty,” an exhibition featuring Chinese robes from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, from May 5 through July 8. The exhibition includes an Imperial robe, three skirts, a jacket and accessories such as hats, shoes and pouches, all drawn from the Bruce Museum collection. The exhibition, on view in the Bantle Lecture Gallery, is underwritten by Davidde and Ron Strackbein.
In 1644 a rugged group of nomadic mounted warriors from Manchuria traversed the Great Wall of China and invaded Beijing. Conquering the Chinese Imperial rulers of the Ming Dynasty, the Manchus declared their ascendancy to the fabled Dragon Throne. They named their new dynastic period Qing, meaning pure, and successfully imposed their foreign leadership on China until 1911.
Ethnically and culturally different from the refined Chinese, the Manchus brought a flamboyant and militaristic vitality to the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus were related to both the Tartars and the Mongols, ethnic groups from the Northern Eurasian Steppes region, both had played dominant roles in earlier Chinese history. They were determined to maintain their extravagant identity beyond language and custom. Their national dress became the most visual form of distinction and remains one of the hallmarks of Qing decorative art.
A highlight of the exhibition is a silk yellow-ground Imperial dragon’s robe embroidered with the 12 symbols of Imperial authority dispersed among cloud bands and writhing gold dragons. Chinese Emperors had worn the 12 symbols since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and initially the early Manchu rulers shunned their use because of the association with Chinese traditions. However, the symbols reappeared by the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Eighteenth Century. The five-clawed dragon, often splendidly worked in gold thread, was reserved for Imperial use. The 12 symbols of Imperial authority were also originally reserved for use by the Emperor.
The origin of these symbols is unclear but they are associated with cycles of the moon and seasonal events such as the solstice and equinox. Motifs from nature, such as birds, insects, other animals and flowering shrubs, were colorfully interspersed with cloud bands and frothy waves of water to achieve stunning visual effects.
The shape and structure of Manchu garments link back to nomadic traditions of horsemanship and mounted warrior societies where occupations created specialized needs for outdoor functional clothing. The short vented coats, flared cuffs and trousers, and paired aprons allowed for freedom of movement and guarded against the weather elements.
The Manchu sumptuary laws strictly prescribed administrative and military organizations’ distinction of title, rank and status within the Imperial court. The Manchus adopted the use of pictorial devices on clothing to identify rank. Imperial wardrobes were divided into formal and informal dress. The exclusive silk fabrics were richly embroidered with designs and symbols from Chinese cosmology as well as Buddhist and Taoist emblems.
Accessories were also an important part of the Qing wardrobe. Hats, detachable collars, shoes, purses and jewelry added a sartorial dimension. The exhibition includes a group of accessories. Among these rdf_Descriptions are examples of the tiny embroidered silk shoes worn by Chinese women with bound feet.
Manchu women wore full-size shoes with concave heels to add stature to their height. Unlike the Manchus, Chinese women practiced the ancient custom of binding their feet, which required the breaking of foot bones and bandaging the feet to inhibit growth during childhood in order to fit into diminutive shoes, often no longer than three inches. The gruesome practice resulted in the near crippling of court women who required servants to prop them up while walking.
Their teetering gait supposedly aroused erotic desire. But the logical purpose of foot binding may have been to guard the virtue of one’s wife. While officially opposed by the Manchu, the practice of foot binding continued throughout the Qing Dynasty. It wasn’t abolished until the early Twentieth Century. Efforts of Western women living in China during the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century helped to bring this cruel custom to an end.
Jewelry was also a popular adornment for both men and women. Women of the court often wore elaborate headdresses made of the brilliant blue Kingfisher feathers enriched with gold filigree, glass and semi-precious stones. Pendant earrings complemented the headpieces. Jewelry on display includes delicately worked examples of Kingfisher filigree famous for the signature blue featherwork. By the end of the Nineteenth Century the popularity of Kingfisher adornments hastened the extinction of the tiny bird.
The exhibition is curated by Nancy Hall-Duncan, Bruce Museum Curator of Art, in conjunction with Karen Hayward Mehring, who is currently a consultant in the Asian decorative arts.
The Bruce Museum is at 1 Museum Drive. Telephone, 203-869-0376.
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