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Embroidered Dragon Rondel

Height: 32.5 cm. (12 7/8 in.)
Width: 29.8 cm. (11 3/4 in.)

Qing dynasty
18th century


(NOTE: Further information is provided below the detailed images.)




The present rondel was cut from an imperial ceremonial garment, either a robe or surcoat. The front-facing head of the five-clawed dragon is supported on a massive body with barbed spine twisting below and framing an orb issuing flames. The short, thick limbs end in claws each opened wide to display five sharply hooked nails. Long horns shoot straight up from the skull, the wide open eyes are magnified by thick brows above, whiskers like spikes grow from the cheeks, and the toothy mouth is opened above a bifurcated beard growing from the chin. The dragon looms above a range of triple peaks below where stylized curved waves billow. Curling waves spiral up the sides past further clustered peaks on each side with ruyi-form clouds afloat throughout. Couched gold threads are reserved primarily for the dragon, while silver is used throughout. Threads in two shades of blue and a fawn color complete the land, air, and sea-scapes, all intricately embroidered on a light-brown silk ground.

Imperial fashion in Qing China, the era of the present rondel, was a celebration of color, symbols, the trappings and creatures of the sky, oceans and the earth, and at the head of the role of honor the most powerful and consequential of them all, the dragon. Even as the Manchus established dress codes aligned with their nomadic heritage, these were superimposed upon a Ming style, itself beholden to models, modes and methods streaming from the past. From that past came a creature with powers like no other. Since early imaging of the dragon—the earliest known to date from the 4th millennium BCE—the dragon has been befriended by all media and at the beginning of the Han dynasty was recognized as progeniture par excellence.

Liu Bang (256-195 BCE), founder and the first emperor of the Han dynasty, claimed to have been conceived after his mother dreamed of a dragon; some legends have it that the dream included intimacy between her and the dragon, resulting in a true son of heaven. The dragon was not only supremely powerful but had multitudinous forms and habitats. The five-clawed creature was appropriated by the Yuan and Ming dynasty emperors as the denizen of their attire exclusively. And what better, more visible, more constant and more personal way to honor and celebrate the dragon upon treasured items within the wardrobes of the emperor and his circle. Later this particular stricture would be relaxed and while the dragon would continue to inhabit, first and foremost, the imperial domain, it would continue to dwell, as it had from the beginning, in the world beyond.



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