Lot 291. An uncut silk 'Twelve Symbols' apricot yellow-ground robe, Late 19th century; 305.5cm x 151.5cm (120 7/8in x 59 5/8in). Estimate £ 7,000-10,000. Sold for £ 47,500 (€ 53,063). Photo: Bonhams.
The bright apricot-yellow silk finely embroidered in gold-wrapped thread to the front, back and inside flap with nine variously coiling five-clawed dragons, full-faced beneath the collar, all amidst red bats and cloud-constellations interspersed with the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority, all above tumultuous waves dotted with flowerheads and breaking against a rocky outcrop, and a lishui band above the hem.
Note: The embroidery of the present lot proclaims the high status of the intended wearer: the complete set of the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority are placed around the neck, chest and lower skirt, indicating that the robe was for an adult son of the Emperor. This is further reinforced by the use of the bright orange-yellow ground, which was reserved for sons of the Emperor.
The 'Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority' were embroidered on the robe in concentric rings at shoulder, waist and knee height, and can be divided into various groups.
The first group of symbols is:
1. 日 (ri) the sun (containing a three-legged bird)
2. 月 (yue) the moon (containing a rabbit pounding the elixir)
3. 星晨 (xingchen) the constellation
4. 山 (shan) the mountain
Together these symbols represent the four most solemn ceremonies over which the Emperor presided throughout the year, at the Altars of the Temples of Heaven, Earth, the Sun and the Moon.
The next group of symbols is:
5. 龍 (long) the dragon
6. 花蟲 (huachong) the flowery bird (or pheasant)
These represent things on earth, and can sometimes be grouped with the mountain (no.4. above) to contrast with nos 1, 2 and 3 which relate to heavenly bodies.
The next group is:
7. 黼 (fu) the axe head
8. 黻 (fu) the confronted ji character
9. 宗彞 (zongyi) the sacrificial vessels
which were used for ancestor worship; the first two can also represent the Emperor's ability to make decisions, including judgment and punishment, and the sacrificial vessels can represent the element metal.
The final group of objects is:
10. 藻 (zao) the waterweed
11. 火 (huo) the flame
12. 粉米 (fenmi) the bowl of grain.
which together represent three of the Five Elements. The sacrificial vessels (no.9 above) could also be included in this group.
These symbols had ancient roots, with the number twelve being described by the Book of Rites (Liji) as 'the number of Heaven'. The Book of History (Shujing) suggests that the Twelve Symbols may even have existed as early as the Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC). However, S.Camman, in China's Dragon Robes, Chicago, 2001, p.85 states that 'we can be sure that they appeared on the Imperial sacrificial robes in the Han Dynasty, and they were used by all the native Chinese dynasties thereafter'. Significantly, the ethnically distinct Manchu Qing dynasty also chose to preserve such Ming and earlier customs to reinforce a sense of continuity within the empire.
Bonhams. FINE CHINESE ART, 14 May 2015, LONDON, NEW BOND STREET