These two narrow bright yellow palace furnishings were probably intended to be used as hangings and suspended against pillars supporting the roof beams of a room. The astral symbols represent the Big Dipper (Ursa Major: the seven white linked balls) and Sagittarius (the six red linked balls). The three unlinked white balls at the top are the Sanyuan, or Three Enclosures. The stars and constellations of the Sanyuan lie near the north celestial pole and are visible all year from temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. The central enclosure is known as the Ziweiyuan, or Purple Forbidden enclosure. It contains Polaris, the North Star, around which all other stars circle. The Big Dipper appears to rotate around it and is position vis-a-vis the North Star has long been used to mark time during the year. The position of the dipper with handle upper most is linked to the spring season. Sagittarius is part of the twenty-eight xiu, or mansions that divide the elliptic and serve as a means of tracking the Moon's progress during a lunar month. Sagittarius marks two xiu: dou, or the dipper, and ji, or the winnowing basket: the former in the winter quarter, the later the first in the spring quarter. The combination of astral and lunar symbols point to a specific occasion with the astronomical year associated with the actions of the emperor, Heaven's Son on Earth.
Two additional panels from the set are in the Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum, at Sookmyung Women's University, Seoul, Korea (see: Lee Talbot and Hye Ran Jung. Threads of Heaven: Textiles in East Asian Ritual and Ceremony, Seoul: Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum, 2006 Cat. 3, pp. 36-39 (fig.1). One panel features a red-headed dragon facing right like the two here, however the panel across the top reverses the positions of the constellations and changes their orientation so the handle of the Big Dipper points down in the autumn position. The other panel features an orange-headed dragon facing left. The orientation of the constellations is identical to the first, but their positions have been reversed and they flank a red sun disc. The two Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum panels have been joined and framed with black borders. The blue panel at the top have been detached and framed as a valance.
These motifs suggest these banners may originally been part of a set of banners made to be suspended against the pillars in the Zhonghedian, 'Hall of Central Harmony', which is situated between the Taihedian, 'Hall of Supreme Harmony', and the Baohedian, 'Hall of Preserving Harmony', on the three tiered terrace in the Outer Court of the Forbidden City. The Zhonghedian, a small three-bay square structure, was used by the emperor as a private retreat or an official study when on the way to conduct ceremonies in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. It was here that the Emperers consulted with their religious advisors prior to their departure for important sacrificial rites, such as those at the Temple of Heaven, or the Altar of the Earth. During the Qing dynasty the imperial genealogy was revised every ten years. A special ceremony was conducted in this hall so that the revision could be presented to His Majesty for approval.
Stylistically the work and draftsmanship of the pattern can be related to the early 18th century - end of Kangxi or Yongzheng period. The satin stitch is worked in concentric or parallel bands and lines to the production techniques developed at the Wanli period imperial workshops. The cloud-patterned damask also suggests Ming dynasty precedents. Outlining with gold-wrapped threads, which also creates the striated contours of the billows, however, are Qing innovations. So too is the drawing of the dragons heads with truncated snouts and a foot pad consisting of a single ball with tripartite division, rather than the triple overlapping balls of the early 17th century. The sparseness and stateliness also reflects early Qing tastes.
Reference notes provided by John E Vollmer