The 'Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority' are presented by the sun, moon, the constellation of seven stars of the Big Dipper, mountains, dragons, pheasants, a pair of sacrificial cups, water weed, grains of millet, flames, a sacrificial axe, and fu symbol. These symbols appeared as early as the Zhou dynasty, and the entire combination when used together was exclusively reserved for the emperor, signifying the Ruler of the Universe, cf. V. Garrett, Chinese Clothing: An Illustrated Guide, Oxford, 1994, p. 4. These twelve symbols were later adopted as imperial motifs on Qing dynasty 'dragon' robes which were regulated in the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. 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 and it is highly likely that the present robe was made for the Qianlong Emperor himself.
Imperial Twelve-Symbol robes dating to the eighteenth century are extremely rare and only a few such robes are known. The most similar example is the embroidered yellow Twelve-Symbol robe with a similar wan-fret ground, dated to the Qianlong period, included in the exhibition Imperial Robes and Textiles of the Chinese Court, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, April 13 - June 15, 1943, illustrated by Alan Priest, Catalogue no. 20, plate IV.
Other eighteenth-century embroidered Twelve-Symbol dragon robes reserved on a plain yellow ground include: one illustrated by John Vollmer, Silks for Thrones and Altars, Myrna Myers, 2003, no. 26; and one included in the exhibition, The Qianlong Emperor, Treasures from the Forbidden City, Zhang Hongxing, National Museums of Scotland, National Museums of Scotland Publishing Limited, 2002, p 45, Catalogue no. 12.
Compare two other yellow-ground kesi robes, one illustrated by Dickensen and Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong, 1990, pl. 57; and another sold at Sotheby's New York, 22 March 1995, lot 88. A related dragon robe embroidered with gold and silver with the Twelve Symbols on a blue-ground was offered in our New York Rooms, 24 March 2004, lot 36.