Chinese Dragon Robe

This exhibit was located at Brown University's Roberts Campus Center from January through March, 2012.

This 19th-century blue silk robe, embroidered with silk and gold thread, symbolically depicts the Chinese cosmos – a celestial landscape of mountains, oceans, and clouds where bats fly and five-clawed dragons coil and twist. Its symbolism suggests that it is a semi-formal robe (ch’i-fu) that belonged to a member of the imperial family or the highest Chinese nobility.

Robes like this embodied the status and power of the Emperor. The gold spirit dragon, Shen Long, is the most important symbol of the imperial family, and is an indirect statement that the Emperor brings good fortune to China. On imperial robes, eight large dragons appear on the exterior - one on the center of the chest and back, before and behind the knees, and on each of the shoulders. A ninth, hidden, dragon is embroidered on the inside lining of the chest, protecting the robe’s wearer. Observed from the front or behind, five dragons can always be seen. In Chinese tradition, the numbers nine and five symbolize the dignity of the throne.

For hundreds of years, these robes were traditionally passed down from one emperor to another. After the Chinese empire fell to Republican forces in 1911, robes like these were no longer worn.

FROM IMPERIAL COURT TO MUSEUM

We do not know who wore this robe, or how exactly it left the imperial court. We do know, however, how it left China. The robe was given to Dr. Robert Ellsworth Baker, medical officer on the American gunship, USS Villalobos, in 1927. The boat was patrolling the Yangtze River, protecting US interests in the region during the Chinese Civil War. During the winter, when the river dried up, the Villalobos moored in Lake Tung-t’ing near Hangkou (present-day Wuhan). While docked, Dr. Baker taught bacteriology at Yale-in-China’s medical program and studied Mandarin. He became close friends with his tutor, who presented him with the robe as a gift when the Villalobos and other American gunboats retreated to Shanghai in May of 1927. His daughter, Diana J. Baker (Brown ’56), donated the robe to the Haffenreffer Museum in 1999.