Symbols of rank and status

Symbols of rank and status

David Rosier’s July lecture on Chinese imperial dress was brilliant. With a focus on the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), David illustrated how highly decorative and expertly created costumes and embroideries were used to denote rank and status at the Chinese Imperial Court.

The lecture gave an excellent background to the history of Chinese Emperors and provided a revelation on the features and symbols embroidered on Chinese court dress.

The Imperial Palace, now better known as the Forbidden City, was home not only to the Imperial family but to several thousand royal courtiers and officials. The rigid dress code gave the viewer instant recognition of the status and rank of every individual at court. Given that there were 12 symbols of sovereignty, colour too helped to distinguish the Imperial family from the ranks of the officials.

Dragons, reserved for Emperors, came in several designs and, regardless of whether depicted front-facing or side-facing, were delineated in detail, including five dragon claws. Beautiful depictions of animals, birds and flowers were also ranked in a hierarchy. As the Mandarin progressed up the scale of civil exams, the motifs changed on the square badge carried on each robe.

The day following the lecture David and Wendy Rosier viewed the Chinese costumes in Te Papa’s collections. Their international experience in collecting Chinese textiles and the discussion over Te Papa’s costumes added greatly to the research undertaken by Justine Olsen in her role as Lead Curator for the 2014 exhibition Throne of Emperors.

“How grateful I have been”, Justine said afterwards, “to get such expertise on this complex subject.”

Elizabeth Ridder

Feature image: Justine Olsen and David Rosier checking the detail on the Court gown (jifu), from late Qing dynasty, late 1800s/early 1900s. Purchased 1926. FE001939.