World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

FORUM: Art in World History


Imperial Attire and National Identity in Ancient Assyria, Qajar Iran and Qing China

Ira Spar


     This article is an expanded version of an introductory exercise used in World History classes to show that concepts of national identity and royal entitlement can be explained visually without the need for excessive memorization of political events. Through the examination of portraits of monarchs attired in regal garments, world historians can access ideas about social status, wealth, religion, and royal ideology.

     From the beginnings of civilization royal images were considered to be a necessary part of the regalia of kingship. In a world where literacy was minimal, the image itself could in fact be a substitute for the ruler's physical presence. In Qajar Iran, a portrait of the ruler demanded homage even when moved through the streets in a box! According to a report by Sir John Malcolm, an English ambassador to the Persian court during the early 19th century, 1

     [envoys] carried, among other presents to their Prince [of Sind], a picture of His Majesty, Fatteh Ali Shah. This painting was carefully packed in a deal box; but the enclosed image of royalty could not be allowed to pass through his dominions without receiving marks of respect hardly short of those that would have been shown to the sovereign himself. The governor and inhabitants of Abusheher went a stage to meet it: they all made their obeisance at a respectful distance. On its entering the gates of the city a royal salute was fired; and when the Envoys who had charge of it embarked, the same ceremonies were repeated, and not a little offence was taken at the British Resident because he declined taking a part in this mummery.

     In a world where few were literate, portraits, especially those that portray the ruler, were also designed to convey significant messages of superiority, might and under certain circumstances, piety. When royalty was depicted dressed in special attire with symbols of imperial authority, the image and hence the person became more powerful. When the ruler was shown participating in the proper performance of cultic ceremonies, special attire often with a decorative pictorial vocabulary, conveyed messages of sanctity that associated the ruler through ritual with religious activities necessary to maintain the proper balance between heaven and earth. A royal portrait could also communicate a memory of a past historical achievement, a set of customs, a celebration of a prior way of life or a link to heroic cultural figure as continuity with the past was seen as an important imperial cultural value. An image of royalty is therefore not a replica of representation (i.e., a portrait in the western sense), but a culturally coded multi-dimensional signifier of ideals and cultural values.

     In this study we will examine images of three rulers from different cultures and chronological periods of time, each of which was associated with dynastic change. 2 An analysis of their portraits can reveal how visual imagery served to venerate and tie their rule to past traditions and illustrate how each used a similar template of attire and accessories to express ideas about royal responsibilities, ideologies and legitimacy.

Neo-Assyrian Royal Portraits & Costume

     Artisans employed in the royal court of the ancient Neo-Assyria empire (ca. 934-610 B.C.E.), pictured their ruler with the outsized physical perfection of a muscular heroic figure in order to emphasize his superiority and associate the king with mythological warrior deities such as Marduk and Ashur.3 In Fig. 1, the 9th century B.C.E Assyrian ruler Ashurnasirpal is shown on a stone palace wall relief wearing a ceremonial robe and sporting a large, curled, well-kept, black-painted beard, a mark of his fecundity.4 His bulging forearm muscles and tendons bear witness to his superhuman strength and prowess as hunter and fighter. He wears a conical shaped hat with a projecting peak, a symbol of his royal authority. Tassels emerge from the end of a cloth headband wound around the hat and stream down his shoulders. He holds a backward facing bow in his left hand and a ceremonial bowl in his right hand. A gold coiled armband is wrapped around each of his bare arms. In some reliefs these bands are terminated at either end with the head of a lion, signifying the ruler's power, military achievements, and control over the forces of unrest and chaos. On his wrist the king wears a three-strand gold band attached to a 16 pointed rosette thought to be a symbol of the goddess Ishtar. Ishtar was known as a goddess of war as well as an embodiment of the planet Venus, the morning and evening star. The king also wears gold earrings and a gold chocker. 5

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Ashurnasirpal Relief, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MMA 32.143.4 (permission pending).  

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Ashurnasirpal Relief, Detail, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MMA 32.143.4 (photo Ira Spar).  

     Tucked into his waistband are two daggers and a ceremonial sword sheathed in a scabbard with an image of opposing lions carved into the ends of the scabbard, all indicative of his power and achievements in battle. The weapons reflect in part, the Assyrian practice of presenting swords and bracelets of gold to soldiers as a reward for heroic achievement in battle.6

     According to the cuneiform inscription carved into the stone on the lower half of the relief, the king himself had been chosen by the gods to be their avenger, their "destructive weapon" who acted in battle with the support of his deities.7 This collaborative relationship between king and deity in which in the king garnered the gods' gift of prosperity in return for his piety and achievements is reflected in the images and designs woven into full-length Neo-Assyrian royal robes (Fig. 3).

Figure 3
  Figure 3: "Embroidery on the Upper Part of the Robe of a King" from Austen Henry Layard, Monuments of Nineveh, First Series (London, 1849), Pl. 8.  

     In the middle image we see the Assyrian king grappling with a lion, a sign of his power, courage and ability to control to forces of chaos.8 In the register above, two bird-headed genii enact a ritual in which they tend to a sacred tree, a symbol of prosperity. On both garments and in Neo-Assyrian reliefs the figures shown with bucket and purifier are apkallu-sages in bird/human guise.9 Similar figures are found in foundation deposits used to protect houses and palaces. According to a ritual, clay apkallu-figurines were made by exorcists as part of purification and dedication rites to offer protection from demonic forces. 10

     Seven apkallu-figurines of clay (variant: whose clay is mixed with wax), with bird faces and wings, holding in their right hands a mulillu-purifier, in their left hands a banduddu-bucket . . . you shall make.

     In the ritual images shown on the royal garment the winged figures hold a banduddu-bucket in their left hand and a cone purifier in their right hand. The mulillu-purifier is either a fir cone of a date palm or a clay replica of the cone. In Assyria as one's right hand was considered male and the left female, the (female) metal bucket was a seen as a receptacle. It probably contained holy water. During the ritual the supernatural figure would dip the cone into the bucket and then sprinkle holy water onto the tree buds to protect them from destruction by demonic forces. On other Neo-Assyrian reliefs the apkallu-figures are shown purifying the king with a mulillu-cone in their right hand. According to the text of a ritual,

     Take the bucket, the hoisting devise with the wooden bail, bring water from the mouth of the twin rivers, over that water cast your holy spell, purify it with your holy incantation and sprinkle that water over the man, the son of his god."11

     The ritual complete, the trees and by implication all of the lands of Assyria flourish, as can been seen in the depiction of hearty trees with sprouting buds shown throughout the image.12

     Assyrian stone reliefs which adorned the walls of Ashurnasirpal north-west palace at Nimrud depict a narrative of royal conquest, power and ritual activities, the mixture of the political and the religious. The king in the above [Fig. 1] relief is shown accompanied by a court eunuch and supernatural figures. The scenes carved on the stone and embroidered on his garment express the ideology that the king with guidance from above, has established through defeat of the forces of anarchy, an orderly stable world, governed by a ruler who is both powerful and pious. Through the performance of ritual obligation and political achievement, the king has pleased the gods, his mentors, who in turn ensure prosperity and plenty for his land. The king, either by himself or assisted by cultic personnel, had through ritual united heaven and earth. And through his actions as conqueror and protector had established his authority and forged a link between the needs of his people and the realm of the gods.

     Lying beneath this royal ideology is a clear iconographic connection to the past. The imagery and theology of the sacred tree ritual harkens back to prototypical scenes found on cylinder seal carvings in the expansive territorial empire of the Middle Assyrian monarchs (ca. 1390-1076 B.C.E ). Ashurnasirpal, following upon a period of decline and loss of territory, became the first of the Neo-Assyrian kings to aggressively consolidate and re-extend the boundaries of his empire. On his wall reliefs he claims legitimacy via his imagery, and thereby be connected to the previous dynasty. Rather than being different from those who came before, he asserts not just monarchic descent, but an acknowledgment that the past and present are linked through a visual ideological bond.13

Qajar Royal Portraits & Costume

     Almost two thousand years later in Iran, Fath 'Ali-Shah of the Qajar tribe ascended the throne following the assassination of his uncle Aqa Muhammad Shah in 1797.14 Through three years of fighting, political marriages and alliances he was finally able to consolidate his power. Here we see him in his first royal portrait (1797-98)15seated on a carpet set on top of a platform.16 He wears a turban decorated with a plumed jiqqa (of heron feathers) in a revised style of previous Zand rulers.17 The headgear is black with a red top matching his black beard. The hat is a sign of new era while his prominent beard indicates rectification of the indignity heaped on his beardless and castrated uncle after his capture by the Zand as a child.18

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Fath 'Ali Shah kneeling on a "pearl" carpet. Oil painting by Mirza Baba, dated 1213 or 1798–99. London, British Library, Oriental and India Office Library Collections, Foster, 116. (Photo courtesy, The British Library).  

     His jewels recall his portable wealth, most important for a tribal chief.19 The encrusted scepter, dagger and sword designate his authority and role as conqueror and protector as do his jewel bedecked armbands, set with pearls, emeralds, diamonds and polished red spinels, a practice common among early 18th century Mughal rulers.20 Fath 'Ali Shah's armbands have been interpreted as a reference to the subordination of the Zands, and Lutf Ali Khan in particular.21 His full length, long sleeved, deep blue silk outer gown decorated with an all-over flower design was also worn by the Zand elite.22

     The ruler, proudly displaying his wealth, is shown seated on his knees with his legs tucked under his hips as if he were receiving an audience in his tent. Beneath him is a sumptuous knotted silk carpet, with a red field and a broad border of curving intersecting vines or tendrils joined by flowers on a blue ground, the vines and flowers all woven with precious jewels.23 Beneath the carpet, shown with its end jutting out beneath the carpet's edge, is a luxurious felt or takya-namad. Namads, made of undyed brownish sheep's wool, originally were used to cover the cold ground in tents to add insulation and keep the tent dwellers warm and dry. Here, the high quality felt, shown with a finial design enclosed in a red outline with an outer plain red stripe, would functionally have kept the carpet from sliding.24 However, the takya-namad, no longer merely a symbol of tribal origins, was now a royal symbol, a prestige item, having been a feature in Iranian court decoration dating back to Safavid and Timurid periods in the 15th and 16th century. A painting (Fig. 4) of Karim Khan Zand (c. 1705- 1779) also depicts the Zand ruler seated with bent knees on a fine quality red-brown felt known as a takya-namad, depicted folded under his body with a flowered design in its field.

     Royal floor rugs were not only used for warmth or as measures of status and wealth, they could also embody symbols of the royal presence. Several paintings depict Fath 'Ali Shah seated on a small-sized rug known as a masnad. When the Shah travelled without his throne on a royal tour or on a hunt, the masnad acted as a substitute throne. This type of rug was woven with silk, gold or silver thread. Its small size (ca. 80-90 x 60-70 cm.) was just large enough to accommodate the king and a bolster.25

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Karim Khan Zand and his kinsmen, attributed to Muhammad Sadiq, Shiraz, post 1779. Oil painting, Private collection. See Layla Diba and Maryam Ekhtiar, Royal Persian Paintings: the Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925, New York: 1998, cat. No. 25.  

     Returning to the portrait of Fath 'Ali Shah, note the ornate European pocket watch at his foot with the dial showing 2:30, a reference to the time of his coronation corresponding to the vernal equinox of 1798 and the celebration of the New Year, an auspicious time for the accession of the Persian king.26 Here also is portrayed a young man with large black eyes, fair complexion, bushy eyebrows, thin face and vivid large black beard. Napoleon's French enjoy to the Persian court described the Persian ruler as follows: "He is of tall stature and has a very strong constitution. His physiognomy is that of the men of Turkestan, from whence he comes and whose language he speaks; his fiery deep eyes are overshadowed by very thick eyebrows. He has a long thick beard like all Persians, which he carefully dyes to make it even blacker than his natural color."27

     But where is the famous Qajar crown worn by his uncle predecessor and why is he sitting like a tribal chief on a carpet rather than raising himself in a glorious throne? According to one source he had retrieved the Kayanid crown in August 1797 long before his coronation in March 1798. However, other sources state that the crown was not retrieved until three months after the coronation.

     The powerful Sadiq Khan,chief of the Kurdish Shaqaqi tribe, the last ruler of the Zand dynasty, had in fact harbored the two assassins who had murdered Fath 'Ali Shah's uncle and had stolen his royal Kayanid crown. According the the Qajar chronicler, 'Abd al Razzaq Dunbuli, the assassins "secretly took the royal crown together with other implements and furniture of kingship such as the bejeweled armbands, the decorated foe-exterminating sword, the jewelry chest, and other items—every part of which as a an ornament on the body and shoulders of the world rulers of the time—and offered it to Sadiq Khan."28 According to another chronicler they also took the famous Kuh-i Nur diamonds which the Shah, always afraid of their being stolen, took with him and kept in his tent during all of his campaigns.29

     Once he had the Mughal jewels safely in his hands, Fath 'Ali Shah decided that he needed a different type of crown, one that didn't recall his brutal treatment of the Zands and his usurpation of the dynasty. A new cylinder-style Kayanid crown was commissioned to replace the older Zand turban style headdress. Over time the crown became more elaborate and included a wide band of precious stones surrounded by pearls. In its final version the crown incorporated 300 large emeralds, rubies, 1500 red spinels, hundreds of diamonds, and 1800 pearls all sown with string onto a velvet body [Fig. 000].30

     Military success after success followed as he consolidated his throne by defeat of all rebellions. To celebrate and symbolize his new authority he declared himself "king of kings" (shahanshah) recalling the tiles of his Achaemenids and Sassanians forebears and indeed had his image carved on cliff rock faces next to images of ancient illustrious rulers.31

     In 1815 Fath 'Ali Shah commissioned Hajji Mirza (Muhammad) Husayn Isfahani to construct a Sun Throne to replace the now lost or destroyed Mughal Peacock throne (Takht-i-Nadir) stolen by Nadir Shah.32 Portraits show him seated on this jewel encrusted throne dressed in his royal oriental regalia and wearing an even larger and more elaborate headdress. He wears high-heeled footwear with an upturned pointed toe beneath floral patterned hose. A long jeweled Qajar-style strap hangs from his elaborate belt. The painting, an image of splendor together with symbols of his supreme power (i.e., the dagger and sword), was given to the French envoy Amédée Jaubert to be brought back to Europe and presented as a gift to Emperor Napoleon.33 For the Qajar ruler the sense of awe embodied in his portrait should have been sufficient to impress the rulers of Europe that he indeed was the mighty, Shahanshah, the king of kings, the descendent of the great Achaemenid and Sassanian rulers.

Figure 6
  Figure 6: Attributed to Mihr 'Ali ca. 1800–1806 Musée du Louvre, Section Islamique, on Loan from the Musée National de Versailles MV638 (Art Resources).  

     These portraits may have dazzled his domestic contemporaries but had little political influence upon the emerging European powers. Soon after the turn of the 19th century Persia became embroiled in European politics. To the north Russian forces were advancing towards the Persian borders and the Shah realizing that he needed to gain alliances, sent his ambassadors to both England and France in search of military support.34 Royal paintings of the Shah now began to place more emphasis on foreign elements. Instead of blue sky [Fig. 6] in the background, a European style landscape appears in court paintings as if viewed through an open window behind the royal figure [Fig. 7].

Figure 7
  Figure 7: Portrait of Fath 'Ali Shah Seated, Mihr 'Ali. Oil on canvas. 253x118 cm. Iran. Qajar Dynasty. 1813–1814. Photo, courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg Inv. no. VR–1108. Photograph © The State Hermitage Museum. Photo by Vladimir Terebenin, Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets.  

     Painted by the Tehran artist Mihr 'Ali [Fig. 6] in 1813-14, this portrait was given to the French envoy to take back to France in order to show Europeans that Persia was not only a great Near Eastern country whose history went back thousands of years, but also a great modern nation open to alliance with its European brethren. But it didn't work, a putative alliance with Napoleon to stop the Russian advance of the borders of the kingdom, soon turned sour as Napoleon in 1807 entered into an alliance with Russia. Russian armies twice crossed the border in the Russo-Persian Wars (1804-1813, 1826-27) annexing northern portions of the empire, and instead of being the "King of Kings" Fath 'Ali Shah had had become in the eyes of Europeans a small time ruler, obsessed with pomp and jewels and reigning over a decaying and declining kingdom.

Qing Dynasty Royal Costume

     Fath 'Ali Shah, the second Qajar monarch, ruled from September 5, 1772 to October 23, 1834. In China nearly two centuries earlier a peasant revolt led to the sack of Beijing in 1644. When the last Ming emperor died by his own hand, a newly united group of Manchu warriors seized the opportunity to attack and control the capital. The new rulers acutely aware of their cultural distinctiveness as horsemen and archers had several important decisions to make. Would they restore the old imperial order and continue the civil service system or establish a Manchu form of government? Would they declare themselves worthy inheritors of the Mandate of Heaven? Would they stress Confucian values and integrate themselves into the native Han culture by continuing old customs and rituals? In some cases the Manchu chose to impose such social habits as the mandating the queue, the braiding of men's hair and shaving the forehead. But in most cases the Qing like the Qajar and Assyrian monarchs chose to associate themselves with their country's past and in China the new rulers preserved the administrative structure, translated Chinese classics into Manchu, adopted age-old Chinese symbols and actively participated in traditional rituals, all in order to stress their legitimacy.

     In their official attire, the Qing rulers realized that costume needed to be a defining characteristic their dynasty. Thus in the early 17th century C.E. when Jurchens clans from northeastern China (Manchuria), who traced their ancestry back to traditions of hunting, horsemanship and archery, replaced the Ming dynasty, they were faced with the issue of how to appear at court and in ritual ceremonies. For attire denoted kinship, rank, and most importantly cultural identity. Any variation from a previous norm according to a tradition that dated back to the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1050-256 BCE) and recorded in the Shujing (Book of History) would be noticed as a mark of change that could lead to rebellion. How then could the foreign Manchus who brought to China their own writing system and language maintain their own distinctiveness and yet be accepted by the native Han as legitimate leaders?

     In 1636 soon after the founding of the Manchu dynasty the Hongtaiji emperor (r.1635-1643) said to his various lords and princes, "Our nation is one of horsemen and archers. If we now rashly adopt the customs of the Han (the native Chinese) people, we shall become unfamiliar with the bow and arrow. How then will we remain prepared for battle?"35 In 1650, the Emperor Shunzhi stated, "Our dynasty was founded on martial prowess. After years of war and conquest, we have finally won, thanks to our native equestrian and archery skills. Today we enjoy peace and have accomplished our great goal. Although the country is united, we should never forget the importance of practicing our martial arts, continue to emphasize prowess in archery and riding in order to excel in war."36

     In order to maintain the independent spirit of their Jurchen Manchurian tribal origins the new alien rulers made a conscious symbolic effort to avoid looking and dressing like the ethnic Han Chinese.37 For in China as in ancient Assyria and Qajar Iran, official attire was a clear visual mark of a ruling elite's political philosophy. Official costume reflected the myth of state, their own heritage and relationship, depending on circumstances, to the forces of the divine or to the peoples they governed. The costumes and accessories chosen to be seen in ceremonies and in royal portraits carried iconography symbolic of hierarchy and their associations with the past.

Figure 8
  Figure 8: Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799) wearing a chaofu-robe38 Painting on a silk scroll by ananonymous artist. Palace Museum, Beijing, China Image, Wikimedia Commons.  


Figure 9
  Figure 9: Qianlong emperor, Festival Dress (jifu).  

     State ritual in China as well as in ancient Assyria affected the balance between an unseen heaven and the tangible world assuring social harmony and political stability. According to Zhou royal custom, ceremonial and ritual clothing, together with a rich variety of accessories and furnishings, were regarded as absolutely necessary to maintain the proper hierarchical order in society. The Zhouli (Book of Rites of the Zhou) described the rulers clothing, listing nine sets of ceremonial attire as well as clothes for attending to government affairs, clothes for hunting and clothes for warfare. From the Confucian perspective, proper clothing ensured that virtue was recognized and praised so that commoners would not encroach upon their superiors. 39

Figure 10
  Figure 10: Hung-Wu, the first Ming emperor wearing ordinary attire with dragon medallions, National Palace Museum, Teipei, image from Wikimedia Commons.  

     Ceremonial costumes worn by the Ming elite were characterized by their voluminous loose-fitting, wide-sleeved robes. The full-length robe with wide sleeves was symbolic of both the Confucian gentleman and Han ideals of cultural superiority. The use of this form of clothing which dates back to the Han dynasty stressed continuity with the past and evoked memories of grand achievement. Constructed with up to twelve meters of heavy silk, the robe limited movement when worn during court ceremonies in accordance with Confucian ideals of proper behavior. The exaggerated width of the heavy sleeve partially covered the hands making any quick movement such as an attempted assassination instantly recognizable as one hand was needed to lift the sleeve prior to any aggressive movement. For the Ming this loose-fitting robe reflected the rejection of the alien style wear of the Liao, Jin and Yuan dynasties while patterning those used in the Song dynasty. In contrast the traditional Manchu form-fitting knee-length coat with belt (to conserve body heat) together with its tight fitting sleeves cuffed at the wrist and flared skirt, was suitable for riding and quick handling of a bow.

Figure 11
  Figure 11: Anonymous, portrait of Zhan Yinbao attributed to Castigione, 1760 C.E. Hanging scroll: ink and color on silk; 188.6 x 95.1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase Dillon Fund gift, 1986. 1986.206.  

     If we were to adopt the Han type of dress, it was asked, "how could we defend ourselves against attack? It would be like waiting to be mutilated and devoured piece by piece!"40 But the new rulers also recognized that they needed attire that symbolized their new social status as rulers, so they kept the Manchu close-fitting and narrow-sleeved garment that was practical and well-adapted to the needs of riding and archery and combined it with traditional Chinese ornamentation.

     In contrast to Ming and older style court robes41, the Manchu ruler wore a newly designed formal ceremonial costume known as a chaofu ("court robe" or "audience robe")42 worn at important rituals and at state assemblies.43 The costume, made of silk, was comprised of several units.44 A knee-length skirt was attached to a jacket-robe with long narrow sleeves terminated with horse-hoof cuffs .45 Worn on top of this robe was a knee length coat or gunfu. This dark blue coat had sleeves that extended only as far as the elbow so as not to cover the hoof-shaped cuffs of the chaofu which was worn underneath. During the cold months, a winter version was worn lined with fur. Five-clawed dragons were depicted on the shoulders, chest and back, each embroidered in gold. The emperors wore this outfit over trousers and long boots, a reminder of their horse riding origins in the steppes of northeastern China.

     The chaofu was also worn with an embroidered shoulder cape (piling), faced with various furs, depending on the rank of the user. Sable was reserved for the exclusive use of the emperor and his consort. In nomadic society the cape may have originally been used as hoods.

     On festive occasions such as birthdays and weddings and during imperial banquets the emperor wore a less formal coat known as the jifu, which in the West is commonly referred to as the "Dragon Robe." This robe could on occasion also be worn with a surcoat on top.

     The royal robes were each worn with a set of accessories. Hats, both in summer and winter were worn on all public occasions as symbols of status. A Manchu festive winter hat was made of sable (from the Sino-Siberian border) or sea otter fur, the summer variety was fashioned out of straw, rattan or bamboo strips. The wide upturned brim of the close fitted winter hat with a rounded crown was based on a nomadic shape wherein the brim could be turned down for face protection. The emperor's hat worn during formal occasions was topped with a jeweled finial set with pearls set in gold. When dressed in his jifu the emperor wore a hat containing a large "Eastern pearl" imported from his Manchu homeland. Other types of garments were worn on hunting expeditions and during official tours. There was also special attire for military occasions and for daily activities.

     The color, designs and figures on Qing royal garments also illuminates aspects of cultural identity. In 1636 the emperor Hongtaiji decreed that only the ruler could wear yellow robes (the color of the earth),46 and the five-clawed traditional dragon motif (symbolizing potent power), first found on Tang imperial coats, could not be used by anyone of lower standing than those of the Imperial Consorts of the First Rank (in contrast to the European dragon associated with evil power). In 1723 it was further provided that the emperor's ceremonial robe be decorated with three types of designs, and nine dragon roundels, with each dragon holding a pearl in its mouth (an ancient Chinese symbol associated with royalty).47 Elaborate rules for dress ornamentation were designed for all other ranks from the brothers of the Emperor down to military and civilian officials, princesses, regional lords, and even for the wives of officials and noblewomen.

     The Dragon robe (jifu) can be read as a cosmic vision, a schematic diagram of heaven and earth. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art robe a series of undulating parallel diagonal lines are found on the lower border and above are pictured rounded billows representing the universal ocean surrounding the earth. Placed at the four axes of the robe are cascading prism-shaped rocks that symbolize the earth-mountains that emerge above the earth. In Chinese thought, mountains were a manifestation of the sacred vital powers of nature (qi). Waves breaking against rocks are depicted along the lower edges of the decorative areas. This Ming innovation creates, along with the cloud and symbolic motifs in the field, a cosmic landscape for the imperial dragon.48 In this firmament, nine five-clawed mythical dragons, the symbols of imperial authority since Yuan times, coil and twist. When the Qing emperor dones the coat his body unites all elements. He becomes the unifying pillar that links heaven and earth. His head emerging out of the neck-opening reaches through the symbolic gate into the center of heaven and the world beyond. Twelve symbols of authority which first appear on Manchu clothing in 1759 are dispersed throughout the field. Bat motifs (fu) representing happiness and prosperity are placed amidst the clouds. The twelve symbols which can be traced back to the Han dynasty reflect notions of ritual and sacral obligations as well as the political intention of linking the new dynasty to the ancient Chinese past.


     Even though the Qing emperor and the Assyrian monarch lived in different worlds, separated by culture, geography, religion and time both were viewed as trustees of their respective deities, chosen to unite heaven and earth and bring stability to their lands. Both were expected to be pious, to offer sacrifices, ensure prosperity and wear attire on sacred occasions that was appropriate to their prestige and symbolic of their roles as mediators between the gods and the human world. Their imperial attire worn as part of ritual performances stressed how each brought order and harmony to their own religious and political worlds, bearing testimony to the civilizing nature of their powers. These royal garments were an essential part of the dynamic cultic performance rituals associated with kingship. In contrast the Qajar ruler whose nomadic desires for wealth resulted in an ostentatious display (while ceding many aspects of religious leadership to the ulema)49, stressed in his attire his superiority, his military prowess, his political strategy, and although a bit player, a desire to be viewed by others as an important player in world politics. Common to all three rulers was the notion that the fate of their countries rested upon themselves. To reinforce this idea of superiority, all dressed in garments of royal splendor with either iconographic designs or associated objects that tied them as heirs to an idealized past and reflected ideas about their present rule. The garments, an extension of both person and office, projected images of reverence, continuity between the past and present, and where necessary, concepts of change. In a world where images served as a presence of reality, indeed as the manifestation of reality itself, attire and accessories were signs that conveyed ideas beyond their superficial appearance, being vital elements of national identity and heritage.

     In addition, a costume's decorative patterns and color when worn during ceremonies or rituals projects both the psychological power of imperial authority and submissiveness. Embodied within the design are concepts of political ideology, the oneness of the ruler and historical tradition. Changes in the cut, materials, design and colors of royal costume do not simply reflect changes in taste, but as we have seen, embody fundamental beliefs about political hierarchy.

     Cultural memories honoring the past which are usually associated and preserved in religious traditions, epics and oral traditions also survive in attire. In China, vestiges of the lifestyles of ancient steppe riders and hunters who wore animal skins were preserved in a much altered but still recognizable form in Qing dynasty robes, hats, collars and other forms, bearing witness to ethnic and political identity. The namad in use as floor coverings in Zand and Qajar palaces were no longer seen as a casing to provide warmth in cold tents, but were now symbols of wealth while still preserving elements of a tribal past. In ancient Assyria the sacred tree ritual linked the king to the imperialistic territory ideology of the previous Middle-Assyrian dynasty. And in all three of our examples images of royalty dressed in hunting apparel killing or grappling with animals all evoked historic pictorial and oral traditions of cultural identity dating back to a distant age. This veneration of the past gave justification for present policies and practices.

     It is my hope that by bringing attention to the symbolic meaning of attire though the cross-cultural analysis of royal garments as depicted in imperial portraits, that world historians can gain an additional mode of insight and understanding into the world of past cultures and at the same time recognize that the similarity of patterns of imperial ideology as reflected in portraits and dress are also an important element in the study of world history.

Ira Spar is Professor of Ancient History at Ramapo College of New Jersey and Research Assyriologist in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where he has written and edited a four volume edition of the Museum's collection of cuneiform tablets. From 1987 to 1997 he co-directed the Tel Aviv University-New Jersey Archaeological Consortium excavations at Tel Hadar in Israel. Dr. Spar is also the author/narrator of an on-line children's story "Marduk, King of the Gods," available on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website. He teaches world history from the perspective of the visual arts and is presently preparing a World Civilization textbook based on visual source materials.


1 Cited by Willem Floor in, "Art (Naqqashi) and Artists (Naqqashan) in Qajar Persia," Muqarnas 16 (1999), p. 135, from Anonymous (Sir John Malcolm), Sketches of Persia, 2 vols. (London, 1828), 1:84; Moritz von Kotzebue, Narrative of a Journey into Persia, (London, 1820), pp. 248-49.

2 Ashurnasirpal, king of Assyria (r. ca. 883-859 B.C.E.), the Qajar Fath 'Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834 C.E.) and Chinese Manchu emperors from the early Qing dynasty (r. 1644-1911 C.E.). Each of these rulers traced their ancestry back to tribal or non-urban roots. For Neo-Assyrians who claimed descent from those "who lived in tents," see Jean-Jacques Glassner, Chroniques Mésopotamiennes (Paris, 1993) translated as Mesopotamian Chronicles, Writings from the Ancient World, Society of Biblical Literature, (Leiden, 2005). The late 18th and early 19th century Iranian ruler, Fath 'Ali Shah was a Qajar tribal leader and the non-Chinese Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty traced their origins to non-urban tribal confederations.

3 A court eunuch is shown next to the king holding a saucer in his left hand and a flywhisk in his right hand. He also wears a garment embroidered with ritual scenes.

4 For further information on Ashurnasirpal reliefs see, Ada Cohen, Steven E. Kangas (eds.), Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: A Cultural Biography, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College (Hanover, N. H., 2010); Mehmet-Ali Ataç, The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art (Cambridge/New York, 2010); Samuel M. Paley, King of the World: Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria, 883-859 B.C., Brooklyn Museum of Art, (Brooklyn, 1967); Julian E. Reade, "Ideology and Propaganda in Assyrian Art," in Mӧgens T. Larsen (ed.), Power and Propaganda: A Symposium on ancient Empires (Copenhagen, 1979), pp. 329-43.

5 Recent Iraqi excavations at ancient Nimrud have uncovered graves of four Assyrian queens. Several of the graves contained hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry. See, Muayad Said Basim Damerji, Graeber assyrischer Koeniginnen aus Nimrud, Mainz 1999. An English edition is now in preparation to be published by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

6 See Karen Radner, "War Heroes: Royal Recognition for Assyrian Soldiers," [] and Karen Radner,, "Fame and Prizes: Competition and War in the Neo-Assyrian empire', in N. Fisher and H. van Wees (eds.), Competition in the Ancient World (Swanse, Wales, 2011), pp. 37-57.

7 See Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions Part 2: From Tiglath-pileser I to Ashur-nasir-apli II, Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia 1, (Wiesbaden, 1976), pp. 113-211.

8 Depictions of kings as warriors and hunters are known from the very beginnings of Near Eastern history dating to the early third millennium B.C.E. and continued in the Near East well into the 19th century (for third millennium B.C.E. Sumerian representations of the "Priest King" as warrior and hunter, see Joan Aruz (ed.), Art of the First Cities, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 2003), pp. 22-24). Mural paintings decorating the palaces of Persian Qajar rulers during the 19th and late 18th century C.E. depict battles, hunting scenes and historical events. On one wall of his Sultaniyya palace Fath 'Ali Shah was shown spearing a wild ass. See Willem Floor, "Art (Naqqashi) and Artists (Naqqashan) in Qajar Persia," Muqarnas 16 (1999), p. 136 and p. 152 n. 126. Royal portraits also show the Shah dressed in hunting outfits. Qing emperors wore special travel attire during the hunt.

9 According to Babylonian traditions the apkallu, pictured in Neo-Assyrian art as part animal/human, were ancient sages who lived before the flood. Their inclusion in on wall reliefs from Ashurnasirpal and depictions on his garments, link the king to ancient wisdom traditions and to an idealized past that existed in the distant antediluvian age. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the apkallu are said to have constructed the walls of Uruk.

10 See, F. A. M. Wiggermann, Mesopotamian Protective Spirits: The Ritual Texts (Groningen, 1992).

11 Ibid., p. 66

12 Other figures with horns, a sign of a deity, are shown purifying sacred trees.

13 See E. Porada and D. Collon, with contributions by W. G. Lambert and M. Sax, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum. Cylinder Seals IV. The Second Millennium BC (Continued from Cylinder Seals III), (London, forthcoming)

14 Aqa Muhammad Khan (r. 1785-97), having defeated the last of the Zand forces in 1794 reunited the country and established the Qajar dynasty which ruled in Iran until 1925.

15 Ca. 15 monumental portraits are extant, most designated to be presented as gifts to European ambassadors. Other royal images were placed in wall niches in his palaces. European envoys to the Qajar court commented on the accurate depiction of person and attire in the paintings. See for example, S. G. W. Benjamin, Persia and the Persians, London, 1887, p. 77. For Qajar period paintings see, Layla Diba and Maryam Ekhtiar eds., Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925 (New York, 1988).

The Assyrian wall reliefs which decorated the palaces of Assyrian kings also served as visual propaganda for royal ideology. For the placement of Assyrian wall reliefs and their meaning see, John Russell, Sennacherib's "Palace without Rival" at Nineveh (Chicago,1991); The Writing On the Wall: Studies in the Architectural Context of Late Assyrian Palace Inscriptions, Mesopotamian Civilizations (Winona Lake, Ind., 1999).

16 Carpet production in 18th century Iran included both folk crafts and royal commissions. The Zand ruler 'Ali Mardan Khan (r. 1781-85) is known to have donated gold-threaded carpets to shrines in Karbala and Najaf in Iraq.

17 For examples of Zand turbans as shown in miniature paintings, see Hadi Maktabi, "Under the Peacock Throne, Carpets, Felts, and Silks in Persian Painting, 1736-1834," Muqarnas 26, (2009), pp. 328-29 and

18 In the Near East dark prominent beards are a signal of virility and fecundity. See Fig. 1 and note that Assyrian ruler's beard on the stone wall relief was originally painted black.

19 In tribal cultures possession of large amounts of jewels was a sign royal power and prestige. They are an easily concealed and portable. Gift giving and exchange of jewelry was an important element in international politics, well documented throughout Near Eastern history. For ancient sources of exchange in precious materials, see, Joan Aruz et al (eds.), Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 2008).

20 Note the similar symbolic meaning associated with the gold arm bands worn by the Assyrian ruler in Fig. 1.

21 See Abbas Amanat, "The Kayanid Crown and Qajar Reclaiming of Royal Authority," Iranian Studies 34 No. 1/4 (2001), pp. 24-25. For the diamonds set into the armbands and a detailed description of the jewels set into his regalia, see V. B. Meen and A. D. Tushingham, The Crown Jewels of Iran, Toronto, 1968 and Patricia Jellicoe, "Crown Jewels of Iran," Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. VI, Fasc. 4, pp. 426-430, updated version Nov. 2, 2011 at

22 For Qajar period fashion, see Patricia L. Baker, "Following Fashion: Qajar Dress Observed," Hali Anniversary Issue, July/August (2004), pp. 100-109.

23 The blue border and red field colors were a popular combination in 19th century court carpets and those in possession of high office. The bejeweled carpets were known to foreign visitors as "Pearl Carpets."

24 See further Hadi Maktabi, "Under the Peacock Throne, Carpets, Felts, and Silks in Persian Painting, 1736-1834," Muqarnas 26, (2009), pp. 318-337.

25 See Parvis Tanavoli, Afshar: Tribal Weaves from Southeast Iran (Tehran, 2010) and Parvis Tanavoli, "The Persian use of Masnads: Carpets for Kings and Guests," Ghereh 9 (1996), pp. 19-29 and p. 20 for an illustration of Fath 'Ali Shah seated on a masnad.

26 Abbas Amanat, "The Kayanid Crown and Qajar Reclaiming of Royal Authority," Iranian Studies 34 No. 1/4 (2001), pp. 24.

27 Jaubert Pierre-Amédé, Voyage en Arménie et en Perse, fait dans les années 1805 et 1806 (Paris, 1821) as cited at:

28 Abbas Amanat, "The Kayanid Crown," p.19.

29 The jewels, probably the most valuable collection in the Islamic world, had originally been plundered by Nadir Shah from the treasuries of the Mughal rulers in his Indian campaign of 1739 with other jewels coming from looting of Safavid treasures. Aqa Mohammad Shah took them from Lutf Ali Khan Zand, the last of the Zands in 1792. After capture of Lutf Ali, Mohammad Shah was tortured, sodomized, blinded and carried to Tehran to be executed in Aqa Muhammad Shah's presence. His wife and daughter were raped and given as captives to "the scum of the earth". His young son was castrated.

30 At least one version of this crown resides in the collections of the Bank of Iran in Tehran, Iran.

31 See Judith A. Lerner, "A Rock Relief of Fath 'Ali Shāh in Shiraz," Ars Orientalis, 21 (1991), pp. 31-45.

32 The throne was constructed of wood, covered with gold, and encrusted with over 27,000 jewels. For an eyewitness description of the original Peacock throne see Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India, English translation by Valentine Ball, Oxford, 1925

33 Note the visual reference to the power of the sun expressed by the jeweled sunburst roundel placed atop the back of the ruler's chair.

34 For a watercolor of a wall painting (ca. 1815) at the Negārestān Palace near Tehran which depicts foreign emissaries at the Qajar court of Fath 'Ali Shah each wearing red cloth boots as required according to court etiquette, see Patricia L. Baker, "Following Fashion: Qajar Dress Observed," Hali Anniversary Issue, July/August (2004), pp. 100-101.

35 Da Qing Taizong Wen huangdi shilu太宗文皇帝實錄]. 32.8-9b; 34.26b-27 Taipei, Taiwan Hua wen shu ju, 1964 (reference courtesy of John Volmer).

36 Da Qing Shizu Zhang huangdi shilu大清世祖章皇帝實錄]. 54.18b. Taipei: Xin wen feng chu ban gu fen you xian gong si, Vol 1, 1978 (reference courtesy of John Volmer). See also Zhang Qiong, "Ceremonial Armour of the Qing Emperors," in Ming Wilson (ed.), Imperial Chinese robes from the Forbidden City (London, 2010) and Zong Fengying, "Introduction," in Heavenly Splendour: The Edrina Collection of Ming and Qing Imperial Costumes(in Chinese and English), Hong Kong, 2009.

37 In the preface to the 1759 costume edit (The Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Implements of the Imperial Court) issued on behalf of the Qianlong emperor, it was stated that it would be an offense to the Qing ancestors if official clothing were to revert to the Ming style.

. . . as for the Northern Wei, the Liao and the Jin, as well as the Yuan, all of which changed to Chinese robes and hats, they all died out within one generation of abandoning their native dress. Those of Our sons and grandsons who would take Our will as their will shall certainly not be deceived by idle talk. In this way the continuing Mandate of Our dynasty will receive the protections of Heaven for ten thousand years. Do not change Our traditions or reject them. Beware! Take warning!

("Introduction" in Huang-ch'ao li-ch'I t'u-shih [Huangchaoliqitushi] 5.6.), quoted in Mary M. Dusenbury, Flowers, Dragons, & Pine Trees; Asian Textiles in the Spencer Museum of Art (New York, 2004), pp. 107-108.

38 See for additional images of the Qianlong emperor seated and attired in a chaofu.

39 Confucius maintained that proper attire was a reflection of a person's virtue (Analects 2.9-10). Proper clothing was a requisite part of the Confucian concept of etiquette, a necessary component of rule. During the Han dynasty, the historian Ban Gu (d. 92 CE) wrote in the Book of Han, "The ancients used clothing for the purpose of distinguishing between the noble and the common and to illustrate virtue so as to encourage the imitation of good example."

40 Da Qing Taizong Wen huangdi shilu[太宗文皇帝實錄]. 32.8-9b; 34.26b-27 Taipei, Taiwan Hua wen shu ju, 1964 (reference courtesy of John Volmer).

41 According to John Volmer, "In traditional Chinese clothing, the Chinese robe (pao), a full length coat with a seam at the back was originally produced during the Han Dynasty. Two broad lengths of fabric were brought over the shoulder, seamed under the arms, leaving the front open in a kimono-like construction. Sleeves were added lengths of material joined to the side edges at the shoulder. The sleeves functioned independently of the body and could be extended to any dimension. Additional fabric was sewn on the front edges to provide an overlap for more secure closure and better body covering. . . The pao was always worn over layers of underrobes, and during the hot, humid summers a bamboo mesh undershirt helped keep the robes from sticking to the body." JohnVolmer, Ruling from the Dragon Throne: Costume of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), (Berkeley/Toronto, 2002), p. 27.

42 The court robe was only worn at annual state sacrifices, at the emperor's birthday celebration, and during formal audience assemblies with courtiers. See for additional images of the Qianlong emperor seated and attired in a chaofu.

43 Court assemblies were held at the southern end of the Forbidden City in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian) with the emperor dressed in his full official attire. During other important occasions such as the emperor's ascension ceremonies, his birthday, wedding ceremony, New Year and Winter Solstice celebrations, and acts of sending troops off to battle, the emperor also wore his official attire.

44 From at least the Shang dynasty, silk has been the preferred fiber for status garments. Followers of Confucius taught that a ruler should wear silk in order to distinguish between the noble and the commoner. Silk also expressed ideas of refinement and virtue.

45 Prototypes of garments that exhibit the distinctive Qing feature of long narrow tapering sleeves with flared cuffs, elements not found on Ming robes, have been excavated from Yuan tombs of the 14th century CE. Both the Yuan and the Manchu originated in regions to the north of China where each were known for their superb skills as riders and archers. See Mary M. Dusenbury, Flowers, Dragons, and Pine Trees: Asian Textiles in the Spencer Museum of Art (New York, 2004), pp. 104-105. When the Ming took control of China from the Yuan in the early 14th century CE, they deemed it important to distinguish themselves from the previous "barbarian" rulers. Ming costume designers looked for inspiration to earlier Han (206 BCE), Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) garment constructions.

46 Beginning with the Han Dynasty color became a distinguishing mark of the ruling elite. For the Qing, the red court dress of the Ming (fire) was replaced by yellow representing the earth. Use of yellow as the royal color also linked the emperor back to Huangdi , the legendary Yellow Emperor, thought to be the founder of Chinese civilization. All members of the royal family were to wear various shades of yellow during court ceremonies. Blue ground jifu-robes such as the magnificent 18th century one in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pictured in fig. 000, were only worn during the fast period prior to the biannual sacrificial ceremonies conducted at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven.

47 In 1748 the Qianlong emperor commissioned a review of all previous costume regulations enacted during the reigns of the first three Qing emperors. The review culminated in the promulgation of a comprehensive set of costume edicts in 1759.

48 Only the emperor was permitted to wear a robe with twelve sacred symbols. The symbols of the sun, moon, constellation, mountain, dragon, flowery creature, axe head, back—to-back ji character, sacrificial vessels, waterweed, flame and grain have ancient associations. For the Qing use of these ancient symbols tied their dynasty to both their Ming predecessors and to ideas of rule associated with classic Chinese civilization dating back to at least the Han dynasty. The sun, moon and constellation were symbols of the unity of the heavens. The mountain, dragon and flowery creature, depicted as a multi-colored pheasant recalled the earth. The axe-head, back-to-back ji characters and sacrificial vessels stressed continuity with age old ideas of ancestor worship. The waterweed, flame and grain represent three of the traditional Chinese notions of the five basic elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

49 See Robert Gleave, Religion and Society in Qajar Iran (London, 2009).


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use