Museum Dictionary

Lucky Motifs on a Dragon Robe

In January, in celebration of the New Year, the Kyoto National Museum often exhibits textiles with auspicious (good luck) patterns. Japan has many auspicious patterns, but China also has many lucky motifs that symbolize happiness and long life. The Dragon Robes, worn by the Emperor and his retainers in the Qing Dynasty, are especially rich in auspicious motifs.
Within the Imperial Palace, the color of a Dragon Robe reflected the rank of the wearer. In a society with clearly defined social classes, color of clothing was the easiest way to emphasize differences in rank. The Emperor and Empress wore "yellow," the Crown Prince wore "apricot," and the Imperial Prince and the Emperors other wives wore "golden yellow." Lower-ranked people probably wore blue.

  • Golden-Yellow, Tapestry-Weave Dragon Robe
    Golden-Yellow, Tapestry-Weave Dragon Robe
    (Kyoto National Museum)

The designs on this Dragon Robe are, not surprisingly, centered around a dragon motif. Even though the dragon is an imaginary animal, it was long regarded as a god in China and was loved and respected as the highest symbol of good luck in the animal kingdom. The dragon thus became a symbol representing the dignity of Emperor, who was considered to be the ruler of the earth.

This Dragon Robe has nine, five-clawed, two-horned dragons (not including the dragons on the black bands on the sleeves and cuffs). There are four forward-facing dragons on the front and back of the robe. Then there is a pair of dragons facing each other on both the front and back. That makes eight. The last dragon is on the chest area, but is covered by the front flap. This robe was worn by someone in the Imperial Family. A lower ranked official would never have nine dragons, and the dragons would have four instead of five claws.

The dragons are surrounded by lots of clouds. These clouds look like a kind of mushroom called ling zhi mushrooms, so they are called ling zhi clouds. They are an auspicious symbol of perrenial youth. Scattered among the clouds are other good luck symbols, such as manji (an ancient Chinese good-luck symbol that looks like a backwards swastika), peaches, and flying bats.

You might wonder why the bat is a good omen. This is because, in China, instead of writing actual good luck characters (words), objects with the same pronounciation as the lucky characters are often used instead. The Chinese word for "bat" happen to have the same pronounciation as the characters for "good luck," so the bat has become a symbol of good luck! In the same way, the manji has the same pronounciation as the word for "ten-thousand," another symbol of happiness. When you put the characters "ten-thousand" together with the characters for "good luck," the resulting combination means "all health and happiness." The peaches are a symbol of long life. When you combine long life and good luck, they mean "long and happy life." The bats flying among the clouds on this robe are a reddish color. The pronounciation of the characters for "skies full of red bats" is the same pronounciation as characters meaning "the heavens are full of happiness and good fortune." The robe also has the actual characters for "long life" and others lucky words as motifs.

At the bottom of the pattern section of the robe, there is a design of ocean waves with mountain peaks jutting up on the front back and sides. The combination of the ocean and mountains together means "unification of the people." Floating among the waves are another set of motifs, the lucky "Eight Treasures," which symbolically represent that the sea is the source of all treasure houses. There are different variations for these Eight Treasures depending on whether they have Buddhist or Taoist meanings. The Eight Treasures on this Dragon Robe come primarily from Buddhist legends and are as follows:

[1] the "conch shell," which makes a sacred sound and brings good luck;

[2] the ever-revolving "wheel of Buddhism;"

[3] the "sacred parasol," which protects people;

[4] the "canopy," which saves people from sickness and poverty;

[5] the "lotus flower," which grows in the mud but blooms pure and white;

[6] the "sacred vase," full of good fortune and wisdom;

[7] the "goldfish," which strongly and quickly drives away evil;

[8] and the geometric "bancho," which looks likes Mobius's continuous belt and represents eternal life.

Take another look at the whole robe. It actually tells a story. The bottom has the sea with its waves. Floating above the waves are the Eight Treasures, and above the sea, mountains rise up in the four directions. Above that are the heavens, filled with dragons and other lucky omens. In the lovely colors and moralistic themes found in this Dragon Robe are the spiritual ideals of Chinese culture.

Text by Shigeki Kawakami, Department of Applied Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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