The Twelve Ancient Symbols of Imperial Authority first appeared on the Manchu emperor's clothing after 1759. 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. The symbols imply the notion of Imperial authority, signifying that the Emperor is the Ruler of the Universe. In the Qing dynasty, the first four symbols- sun, moon, stars, and mountain-were placed at the shoulders, chest and mid-back; the symbol of distinction (fu), hatchet, paired dragons, and the golden pheasant appeared at waist level; and temple-cups, aquatic grass, grains of millet, and flames were placed at knee level on the skirts of the coat.
The current kesi robe is a spectacular example of a late 18th-early 19th century Emperor's longpao. The dragons are worked in metallic gold threads with clouds woven almost exclusively in shades of blue against a yellow ground. The “five colors" of the clouds have been rendered as small color accents throughout. The reasons for this variation were not recorded and most likely reflected fashionable tastes, rather than ritual requirements. Among the earliest examples of the predominant blue and yellow schema for an emperor's twelve-symbol dragon robe is an embroidered satin robe in a private London collection that dates to the late eighteenth century. See Dickinson and Wrigglesworth, p. 33. However, most surviving pieces date from the nineteenth century. See J. E. Vollmer, Decoding Dragons: Status Garments in Ch'ing dynasty China, Eugene, Oregon, Museum of Art, 1983. pp. 143 and 209.
The present robe is particularly rare in that it has the added wan-emblem background, unlike most published examples which are reserved on a plain yellow ground. A related embroidered dragon robe on a similarly ornate floral trellis ground, was sold at Christie’s 22 March 2007, lot 459. An example of a dragon robe with plain yellow ground is in the National Museum of History, and illustrated by Chen Cheng-Hsiung, Imperial Costumes of the Qing Dynasty, 2008, p. 28, no. 5.