Brilliantly colored, boldly patterned Chinese silks of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties appealed to Tibetan aristocratic tastes. However, in adapting these silk textiles to Tibetan-style dress, sometimes the patterns were freely rearranged. Rarely do they retain the integrity of the original concept, as is the case here. This brocaded damask fabric was designed for an emperor's chaopao, the most formal and prestigious garment worn at the Qing dynasty court. The original design with quatrefoil yoke and bands at the knees can be traced to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and was continued as one of the formal dragon robe styles during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The original design featured a dragon head at the chest and back with the body looping protectively over the shoulder. Yardages with these designs were sent to the Manchu vassals of the Ming court during the sixteenth century and influenced the patterns of formal Manchu robes which featured a fitted jacket with long sleeves and horsehoof cuffs and gathered, or pleated skirt to the floor. The Ming yardages featured dragon-patterned areas in brilliant colors accented with various gold threads separated by sections of solid color self-patterned in damask with designs of trailing clouds.
When the Qing assumed control of the imperial silk factories in Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing in the 1680s several changes were made to this standard formula. The number of dragons in the yoke area doubled from two to four. Rather than wrapping around the neck, these beasts were presented frontally, each occupying a lobe of the yoke. At the same time the damask areas were patterned with various arrangements of dragon roundels. See J. E. Vollmer, Silks for Thrones and Altars: Chinese Costumes and Textiles from the Liao through the Qing dynasty, Paris, 2003, nos. 20 and 45, pp. 48-9 and 96-7.
This bright yellow chaopao yardage was made during the reign of the Kangxi emperor, either for an imperial robe or as a diplomatic gift for important Tibetan leaders. In any event, this garment was not made up in China first, but rather it was tailored in Tibet, to retain the maximum number of dragon-patterned areas. This garment, reserved for the most important officers of the lay state council, opens down the center front, rather than having the front overlap.