Chinese Robes from
The Kent State University
Museum's Collection

By Erin Harvan
Art Museum Internship, Spring 2001
Kent State University Museum

Chinese Symbolism

Symbolism is an important part of Chinese culture and serves to relay a message via a piece of art work, pottery or even a robe. The symbols found on Chinese robes indicate to the viewer the status of the individual who would have worn the garment. Symbolism denotes social standing, moral messages, and also told historical and legendary stories. The "Twelve Symbols" used on the emperor's robes were present every imperial dynasty from the Han (206 BC-AD 220) to the Ming (AD 1368-1644). The Ch'ing or Qing Dynasty(AD1644-1911), also known as the "Dragon Throne", elevated the symbol of a dragon, which was part of the "Twelve Symbols" as the main symbol used on imperial robes. Some of the following "Twelve Symbols" are also found in other types of robes but they can have different meanings depending upon who the robe was made for. For example, the number of dragons on a robes indicates a higher or lower official of the imperial court. The origins of the "Twelve Symbols" are vague but they seem to relate to a time when the emperor made sacrifices in honor of his people at the imperial altars. The sacrifices were made during specifictimes during a year which coincided with the equinoxes and solstices. The emperor would wear specially prepared robes with the embroidered "Twelve Symbols" to make these sacrifices.



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The Sun, the Moon, and the Constellation

The sun, the moon and the constellation symbolized the light and wisdom of the emperor shining upon the world. The first three symbols of the series are celestial and relate to the measurement of time.



The Rock or the Mountain

The rock or the mountain stand for the earth and clouds, the latter producing rain that bring benefits to the world.


The Fu

The Fu is categorized as the symbol of distinction. It is represented by two chi characters presented back to back
and appearing defined as two blue and black lines. The fu is connected to the winter solstice and represents the
prince and his ministers working together.


The Dragon

The dragon symbolizes the adaptability of the emperor and his willingness to change laws according to the needs
of his people. This could be due to the link the dragon has with the changing of the seasons. The dragon is a very important symbol associated with the spring and symbolizes transformation and productive force. In the spring the dragon ascends to the skies, and in autumn, it buries itself in the watery depths. It covers itself with mud in the autumnal equinox, and emerges in the spring, thus announcing by its awakening the return of nature's energies (Williams 131). The Chinese dragon was on every court robe and the dragon itself was a symbolized the emperor as well as a symbol of imperial power. The Chinese dragon robe varied in color depending upon the rank of the official as well as the number and placement of the dragons on the robe. On a robe the dragon is placed opposite the fu and correlates with the sun's rising and setting points on the solstices.


The Axe-head

The Axe-head is a symbol of the emperor's power over difficult situations, life and death, times of war and famine.


The Flowery Creature

The flowery creature may represent a constellation called "Red Bird" which was located in the southern hemisphere
and was visible from late spring through summer. It symbolized the cultural accomplishments of the emperor.


The Water Plant

Water is always represented on the hem of a robe. Emerging from this symbol is the water plant.The water plant can be another symbol for water and winter.



The Sacrificial Vessel

The sacrificial vessel is associated with metal and is also called a cup. The cup symbolizes the emperor's ability to pacify any rebellion that may arise with courage.



The Flames

Flames were used in daily activities such as firing pottery and cooking. Each time fire was used it renewedthe imperial power of the emperor. Fire also symbolizes the summer solstice.


The Grain

Grain is the basis of all food, and as part of the "Twelve Symbols" symbolizes that the emperor is the mainstay for the people.



The image of a crane with its wings out stretched and one leg raised up is a symbol of longevity. This longevity symbol when combined with a spotted deer and the pine is known as the 'prolonged life' design (Hanyu 15). The crane was also represented on civil officials' robes serve to depict rank throughout the different Chinese dynasties. The bird was a symbol of literary elegance and, therefore, an appropriate creature to designate civil officials who had gained their position through examination based on the classics of the Confucian canon.


Geometric Patterns

Geometric patterns are used as borders or as bands along garments for added decoration. Two common patterns are the meander pattern and the key pattern. One of the oldest pattern types is the swastika. In China the swastika became a Buddhist symbol for luck sometime after AD 200. It is also the shortened form for the number ten thousand, and this indicates longevity (Chung168).



The bat in China is the symbol for happiness and joy. It is occasionally represented in a very ornate manner and can be mistaken for a butterfly.




The Butterfly is a popular symbol in Chinese embroidery. It is the symbol of summer and joy.


Water Motif

The water motif was very popular on Chinese garments and is always found on the bottom portion of a robe. Diagonal stripes represent the depths of the waters. At the front and back and on either side of a garment, a mountain can be found which seams to emerge from the foamy waves. The mountain is said to represent an ancient belief; China believed that the earth was a land mass surrounded by four oceans.



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