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Color My World

Rules and rulers
China<br><i><b>Manchu Woman’s Semiformal Court Robe</i></b>, early 18th century<br>Silk and embroidered satin
zoom China
Manchu Woman’s Semiformal Court Robe, early 18th century
Silk and embroidered satin


Bright yellow for the emperor and empress. Apricot yellow for the heir to the throne and his wife. Golden yellow for the emperor’s mistresses and his sons. Blue or brown for lesser princes and their wives. Blue or black for other officials and their wives.

The rules about who could wear what in 18th-century China filled twenty volumes. Only the emperor and those closest to him could wear yellow, which symbolized the center of the universe. Everyone who was anyone at the imperial court owned a “dragon robe” to wear on official occasions. But rules controlled how many dragons could appear on a robe. The emperor’s robe had nine. And only the emperor and his closest family could sport dragons with five claws instead of the usual four. By these rules, this robe likely belonged to a woman close to the emperor.

Certain features appeared on all dragon robes. Diagonal lines around the bottom stand for the oceans of the world. Frothy waves form spirals where the water meets land. Rocky mountains rise at the front, back, and sides, symbolizing the four directions. The dragons frolic across a heaven filled with little clouds. Dragon robes formed a sort of map of the universe, and the people who wore them knew their place in that world.

November 2004