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Balancing Manchu and Han Culture: Qing Imperial Textiles

Updated: May 5, 2023

By Kendall Hanner

With the fall of the long-reigning Ming dynasty and the establishment of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty came an onslaught of economic, political, and social transitions that redefined life in China throughout the 17th-early 20th centuries. The ruling regime navigated the pressures of legitimizing their dynastic reign as a continuity of the Mandate of Heaven, and maintaining a balance of Manchu culture and the native Han Chinese, resulting in centuries of reform and adaptation. Although unique court costume regulations were required for preceding dynasties, the Qing installed a staggering set of these regalia guidelines upon their ascent to rule.

These costume regulations culminated in the 1748 review and edict, Huangchao liqi tushi; a Confucian-derived code of dress believed to link mortal, earthen vessels with universal forces. The edict enacted a strict social class order, which corresponded with a specific code of garment materiality, color, and motifs permitted to be worn. The Manchus believed that a full-scale integration of Han cultural continuity would result in the overthrow of their dynastic rule, but a fully Manchu cultural code would draw unrest from the native Han constituents.

This considered, aspects of Ming dress were incorporated into Qing court attire, such as the dragon motifs and the traditional chao fu. While maintaining this aspect of Han continuity, the Qing restructured the traditional court robes to adhere to the Manchu semi-nomadic lifestyle by introducing hoof-style cuffs and an overall fit that accommodated their horse-riding culture. This design reform can be observed in this early 19th century blue-ground kesi robe, offered as lot 531 in Oakridge’s upcoming Chinese Textile sale on June 4th, 2023. The robe exemplifies this fusion of cultures through its inclusion of the central five-clawed long dragon with a flaming pearl, intricately depicted with goldwork, and the sporadic placement of bat motifs, signifying imperial continuity, within a Manchu-style garment framework.

Although the Manchus accepted and recognized the various folk religions and philosophies, namely Confucianism and Taoism, the Qing heavily leaned into Tibetan Buddhism following their conquest of Tibetan and Mongolian territories. Visual motifs found within this offshoot of Buddhism permeated into Manchu imperial attire, despite Tibetan Buddhism occupying only a minority of religious identification amongst Qing constituents. One of the most frequently employed sets of Tibetan Buddhist motifs are the eight auspicious symbols, several of which can be observed in the embroidery of a 19th century red-ground dragon robe, offered as lot 502 in the upcoming Textile sale.

Amongst the traditional Chinese shou longevity characters and brightly-colored clouds, one can find the flaming dharma wheel, a parasol, a pair of golden fish, lotus, and the endless knot. The result is a harmonious blend of Manchu and Han visual culture, producing its own hybrid of a unique Qing style.

Works Cited

Chan, Wing-Ming. “The Qianlong Emperor’s New Strategy in 1775 to Commend Late-Ming Loyalists.” Asia Major 13, no. 1 (2000): 109–37.

Dreyer, June Teufel. "Multiculturalism in History: China, the Monocultural Paradigm." ORBIS 43, no. 4 (1999): 581. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed April 13, 2023).

Elverskog, Johan. “Things and the Qing: Mongol Culture in the Visual Narrative.” Inner Asia 6, no. 2 (2004): 137–78.

Thorp, Robert. Son of Heaven: Imperial Arts of China. Seattle, Washington: Son of Heaven Press, 1988.

Vollmer, John E. “Clothed to Rule the Universe.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 26, no. 2 (2000): 13–105.

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