This rare and splendid cape is made up of individual shaped silk panels onto which peacock feather designs have been couched using the side branches of real peacock feathers. When these individual panels were combined, a garment of shimmering magnificence was created. Textiles embellished with peacock feathers in this way are, understandably, very rare since the feathers would have been costly, and their application would have required the talents of a very skilled embroiderer. However, Dale Gluckman illustrates a canopy or cover from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in P. Pal (ed.), Art of Tibet, 1990, p. 313, no. T5. A woman's robe in the collection of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is made of similar panels, while the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, has a group of unassembled peacock panels. A kesi floor covering embellished with peacock feathers was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 November 2007, lot 1824.
There is a famous reference to a peacock cloak in the novel Hong Lou Meng, known either The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone in English, by Cao Xueqin (1715-1763). In this story the most beautiful and spirited of the maids, Jingwen, devotedly mends a precious peacock cloak belonging to the son and heir of the noble house, Jia Baoyu, despite the fact that she is very ill. However the reader does not glean much in the way of details of the cloak's construction, merely that it is a valued item.
Peacock feathers have long been prized in China and were sent as tribute to the Qing court. Fans made of peacock feathers are traditionally associated with royalty, and the wearing of a peacock feather on an official hat was restricted to those of high rank. Depictions of Xiwangmu (Queen Mother of the West) often show her flanked by peacock feather fans, while occasionally the side branches of peacock feathers were used in the weaving of imperial kesi textiles.
Today the green peafowl - only the male is a peacock, while the female is a peahen - Pavo muticus is found in Tibet, and the Chinese province of Yunnan, but as early as the Tang dynasty peacocks were well known in China, and indeed even then some districts paid tribute in peacocks, their feathers already being used both for imperial decoration, and for the designation of official rank. For further discussion see Katherine M. Ball, Decorative Motives of Oriental Art, John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd., London, 1926, p. 222. Even at this early date peacock feathers were apparently also bestowed on both civil and military officials as marks of imperial favour, rewarding faithful service. Additionally, according to legend, the founder of the Tang dynasty was associated with peacocks. The story tells of the beautiful and talented daughter of a military commander, Dou Yi. The daughter was fond of painting and embroidering peacocks on screens, and eventually it was decided that her future husband should be chosen by seeing which archer could shoot the eyes from one of her embroidered peacocks. The successful candidate was the man who was to rule China as Tang Gaozu (AD 618-26), and so the Commander's daughter became an empress.
The peacock is associated with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, otherwise known as Guanyin, who enters the Chinese Buddhist pantheon in male form but comes to be represented in female form, especially in relation to the role of Goddess of Mercy. One of the stories relating to the Chinese Guanyin in female form tells of Guanyin summoning a large bird with dull plumage, sweeping her hands across her own face and then over the feathers of the bird. The bird was suffused with brilliant lights and colours, to the extent that other creatures had to look away. When they looked back they saw that each of the bird's 100 tail feathers contained an eye. Guanyin explained this by saying that as she was unable to be omnipresent in watching over them, the eyes in the peacock's tail would keep watch for her and remind them of her constant care (see M. Palmer, J. Ramsay and Man-ho Kwok, Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, Harper Collins, London, 1995).
It is no coincidence that the famous 1904 portrait of Dowager Empress Cixi painted by the American artist Katherine Augusta Carl, see Katherine A, Carl, With the Empress Dowager of China, KPI Ltd., London, 1986, front cover and p. 305, now in the National Museum of History, Taipei, shows Her Majesty flanked by magnificent peacock feather fans, while the screen behind her is decorated with elegant birds sporting peacock-like tails. Cixi's appreciation of this portrait is indicated by the fact that she designed the elaborate camphor-wood frame in which it now stands, and had it made in the palace workshops under her own direction. Cixi's appreciation of peacocks is reinforced by various photographs taken of her flanked by magnificent peacock fans. In some of these photographs she is also seated in front of a screen painted with peacocks and peonies (reproduced in Gugong zhencang renwu zhaopian huicui, 'Exquisite Figure-pictures from the Palace Museum', Forbidden City Publishing House, 1995, pp. 30-4, figs. 1-6), and illustrated in this Catalogue on pages xxx. In some other photographs the Dowager Empress sits or stands in front of a screen with appliques depicting flowers and trees, behind which is a painting of bamboo, however the peacock fans with their bodies and winds cast in metal and their tails made of real peacock feathers remain, ibid., pp 35-8, figs. 7-12; illustrated in this Catalogue on p.xxx.
Not only were the peacock fans and painted designs a reference to royal status, they also associated the Dowager Empress with the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin. Cixi liked to dress-up as Guanyin and to pose in tableau with members of her court. Several photographs of these tableaux have been preserved. One such image is produced in Empress Dowager Cixi - Her Art of Living, Regional Council, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 96, while another was published by Princess Der Ling (1886-1944), in her 1911 book Two Years in the Forbidden City, facing page 250. Two more photographs of the Dowager Empress dressed as Guanyin, taken by Princess Der Ling during her time in the Forbidden City (1903-5), are in the photographic collection of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (image ID: SC-GR-246 and SC-GR-263). Cixi was a devout Buddhist, but some scholars have also suggested that she intended her public image to be enhanced by association with the Goddess of Mercy.
Interestingly there is also a painting in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, in which Cixi is depicted as Guanyin, illustrated in Empress Dowager Cixi - Her Art of Living, op. cit., p. 99. The Dowager Empress wears a five-panel Buddhist crown and has a yolk of lotus petals around her shoulders. Either as a covering for the rock on which she sits, or attached around the lower edge of her robe, the artist has painted a wide band made up of what appear to be loose feathers or petal shapes. They are brightly coloured, and while each is a single colour, they may have been intended as a reference either to a lotus throne or to feathers.
The wearing of full-length capes seems to have been taken up by high-ranking ladies of the court during the late Qing and several photographs have survived showing royal ladies attired in capes made of sumptuous fabrics. These capes all seem to be made in approximately the same style - bell-like in shape, and gathered at the neck into a high 'mandarin' collar. Wan Rong, the wife of Emperor Puyi was photographed wearing such a cape decorated with flowers and shou characters (reproduced in Gugong zhencang renwu zhaopian huicui, Exquisite Figure-pictures from the Palace Museum, Forbidden City Publishing House, 1995, p. 183, fig. 20). In another photograph Wen Xiu, Pu Yi's consort, is shown wearing a cape which is also decorated with flowers and shou characters (reproduced in Gugong zhencang renwu zhaopian huicui, op. cit., p. 195, fig. 44), although the flowers are larger in scale than those of Wan Rong's cape, while Yu Chong's sister was photographed wearing a cape decorated with prunus blossom (reproduced in the same publication, p. 197, fig. 50). An unknown court lady is shown seated in a further photograph, wearing a cape made of very rich material and apparently with a white fur collar (reproduced in Gugong zhencang renwu zhaopian huicui, op. cit., p. 200, fig. 56.
Photographs also suggest that Dowager Empress Cixi favoured the wearing of such capes. Three images of Cixi wearing a cape are reproduced by Princess Der Ling in Two Years in the Forbidden City, op. cit. Two of these show the Dowager Empress, accompanied by Princess Der Ling and others in the snow (facing pages 80 and 220), while a third shows a standing group, with Cixi in the centre, in front of the Paiyunmen of the Summer Palace (facing page 40). A photograph taken at the same time, but with Cixi seated (still wearing the cape) is reproduced by Dieter Kuhn, et al., in Secret Splendors of the Chinese Court: Qing Dynasty Costume from the Charlotte Hill Grant Collection, Denver Art Museum, 1981, p. 12.
Given the Dowager Empress's love of luxurious clothing, her adoption of the fashion for wearing capes, and the relation of the peacock with high status and Guanyin, with whom Cixi liked to associate herself, it seems very possible that this magnificent peacock feather cape could have been made specifically for the Dowager Empress.