Previously sold at Christie's New York December 1, 1994, lot 307
From the unusually small size,the current robe was made for a child and it may have been for the Emperor Guangxu (r. 1875-1908) during his minority. Judging from the use of aniline dyes, especially the purple colour as seen on the present lot, the robe was produced after 1870 when these types of dyes were first introduced. In view of this, the present robe should not be dated to the late 19th century.
The 'Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority' appeared as early as the Zhou dynasty, and the entire combination when used together were exclusively reserved for the emperor to signify the 'Ruler of the Universe'. These 'Twelve symbols' were later adopted as imperial motifs on Qing dynasty 'dragon' robes which were regulated in the reign of Emperor Qianlong(1736-1795). The Huangchao Liqi Tushi, 'Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court', which was enforced in 1766, restricted the use of the 'Twelve Symbols' to the emperor.
There is much documentation on the Emperor's life: from his accession at the age of four through his coming of age at 16, his marriage and assumption of imperial authority in 1889 at age 19. It is against these records that an understanding of imperial robes can be formulated. A comparatively large number of 'Twelve Symbols' robes dating to Emperor Guangxu's reign survive, and from this group of late 19th century imperial robes, there are indications of a wide range of variation on the precise number in the use of 'Twelve Symbols' and basic ground colours. These have all lead to a wealth scholarly speculation about the reasons for these deviations from the Qing dynasty dress codes that had previously been regulated under Qianlong in the late 1750's and the 1760's. These deviations seem to reflect uncertainties at Court which were largely caused by the Dowager Empress Cixi's break with convention, in particular when she appointed her nephew Zaitian, who was a cousin of the preceding Emperor Tongzhi(r.1861-1875), to rule as Emperor Guangxu.
Robes made at the beginning of the reign for the child emperor Guangxu, adhered very closely to Court dress regulations but as the adolescent emperor reached maturity, and at a time when the Dowager Empress Cixi was to step down, issues of authority (both symbolic and actual) seemingly became less conventional. Robes dating to the decade of the 1880's such as this example are rare. Two others of approximately the same size (90 cm long), are in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and the Victoria and Albert Museum(V&A), London. The Royal Ontario robe (acc.no. 910.65.15) is also kesi example, worked almost entirely in metallic gold and silver-wrapped threads on a yellow ground with only the 'Twelve Symbols' worked in coloured silks. The kesi robe was purchased by the museum from S.M Franck, London, among a small collection of imperial robes which included the only known Qianlong robes with the mountain and constellation symbols at the back of the neck. The example in the V&A (acc.no. T229-1948) was part of the Vuilleumier collection and is embroidered in coloured silk floss in count stitch on yellow silk gauze. The dragons are worked in couched gold-wrapped threads, and the cuffs and facings are replacements.
A possible explanation for the limited number of very small robes dated to the Guangxu period is that they were repurposed during the first decade of the 20th century for Puyi (1906-1967), the last emperor who ruled under the reign title of Xuantong (1908-1911). The accession chaopao, 'Court Robe', and accessories of Emperor Xuantong were included in the exhibition, The Secret World of the Forbidden City, Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Santa Ana, California, 2000; some of these robes, made three decades earlier for the Emperor Guangxu, had signs of hastily made alterations so that they would fit the two-and-a-half year old Emperor Xuantong.
(Additional reference notes by John E. Vollmer)