My evaluation of a Japanese mourning kimono inspired S.L. in Santa Maria to sends me this gorgeous Chinese Mandarin robe.
Look at the back of the robe and you will see a pagoda enclosing two male figures flanked on one side by cranes, the other by deer surmounting two monkeys. This motif is called a Mandarin square, which, although here not square is the eponymous name of a symbol which indicates the rank and status of the wearer, as worn by a civil or military official in the Mongol, Ming or Qing dynasties. The front of the robe also has two emblems on either side of the chest.
As far back as the 14th century, Kublai Khan introduced these badges of embroidered silk of patterns of birds and animals worn on the back and chest areas of robes of the Mandarin class, who had to pass difficult examinations to achieve their posts. Military officers also had certain motifs for particular ranks. Only the emperor could confer the privilege to wear Mandarin squares; this continued well after the 14th century, when the Ming dynasty ruled supreme.
After the Manchu people seized power in 1654, their Qing dynasty established the type of over-jacket (p’u-fu) with those squares bearing more elaborate embroidery work, adding pure gold thread that glistened in the sunlight.
S.L.’s robe is early 20th century however. By this time, rank was not the driving force behind the square, but the mythology of traditional “good luck” charms. Politically, China was in turmoil and people distrusted their officials. The wealthy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wore Buddhist emblems of good fortune, such as the eight Immortals or the eight Taoist symbols.
If you have ever seen the reverse painting on glass of these Mandarin officials, you have seen “Ancestor Portraits.” These robes are featured prominently in these portraits, and Mandarins often immortalized their wives in portraiture. When two people were painted, the robes bear symmetrical representations of good luck symbols. For example, portraits of a formally enthroned couple are sitting side by side: the wife may have a half-sun on her shoulder, and her high-ranking husband might have the other half of the sun on the shoulder barely touching hers. You'll also see the front of a deer on one shoulder and the back-end of a deer on the other. I wonder which part of the deer was most auspicious, the head or the hind?
Mandarin squares of luck were custom-ordered. If a Mandarin official courted wealth, he would ask for embroideries of ivory tusks, peonies, or the eight Buddhist jewels. If the Mandarin prayed for long life, the robe boasted pine trees, bamboo, cypress or evergreen trees or fungus. If the Mandarin longed for honor and privilege, he’d ask for embroidered peonies. If he sought eternal youth, he’d request roses on his robe. To amplify the wish for good fortune in a particular sphere of his life, he'd ask for a naturalistic background behind his charmed symbol, such as S.L.’s pagoda surrounded by flowers, or the cloud designs with dragons featured on the hem of the robe, or the rock designs in waves at the base of the hem. Nature’s energies were thus captured by the export needlework in precious gold or silver that emphasized naturalistic color.
Beloved by seekers of luck, these robes often pictured the eight Immortals. Even today, these Immortals are Daoist models for imitation when life seems overwhelming, and because of their wise yet playful nature, they rise above the frustrations of normal daily life. Depictions of these Immortals emphasize "The Way," personified. Zhongli Quan carried the secret of the Elixir of Life and immortality. The old man, Zhang GuoLao, was a symbol of wisdom and hope for conception for the childless. Lü Dongbin, the scholar, could cure illness and offered protection and scholarly success. Cao Gou Jiu is the beautifully dressed courtier offering fame and recognition. Iron-Crutch Li Tie Guai has a deer as a companion and is the most powerful of the Eight, because he bestows wisdom. Han Xiang Zi plays his flute and his happiness brings healing. The hermaphrodite Lan Cai wears blue, and carries flowers conferring luck to young maidens, and the eighth Immortal, a female, He Xian Gu is called upon for wisdom, meditation and purity.
S.L. asked me to help her sell the robe so I contacted Clars Auctions in Oakland. They have estimated the value at $1,500.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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