This rich navy blue (Satin) (Bufu) robe or (Surcoat) dating back to c. late 19th century was purchased by Dr. Reem El Mutwalli from Kerry Taylor auctions in 2015 to be incorporated in the Zay Initiative collection.
This Qing Dynasty silk Surcoat in a rich navy blue Satin weave base dates back to c. late 19th century. The coat has ball-shaped metal buttons possibly either in brass or silver with Satin loops as fasteners.
The design elements and motifs on the robe are filled with a variety of floral and animal symbolisms with deep significance adhering to strict sumptuary laws common to the period, especially in the royal court.
It is embellished with a combination of (Satin_stitch), (Peiking_knot) or (Chinese_knot) and (Chain_stitch) embroidery style done by hand in silk Floss threads primarily of ivory, blue and grey shades. The entire field of the robe is scattered with peonies and lotuses in full bloom and butterflies in flight in Satin_stitch embroidery.
The ivory stain band on the sleeves is embellished with scenic countryside landscapes executed primarily in Peiking_knot as well as Satin_stitch. A square pattern depicting a Paradise Flycatcher in flight rising from a wavy water body towards a circular figure resembling either a sun or a moon amongst rolling clouds is split into two halves along the front opening of the robe. This section is also almost completely executed in Satin_stitch embroidery except the figure of the bird which is executed in Peiking_knot in ivory and Coral.
The hem of the robe shows a stormy water body on the far end depicted through rolling waves in the background and a calmer foreground depicted through the (Lishui) stripes that symbolises standing water. The rolling waves are executed in Chain_stitch style of embroidery while the rest of the water is executed in Satin_stitch style. Other elements mostly floral in nature are shown floating on the waves which are executed using both Peiking_knot and Satin_stitch techniques in pink and Coral silk Floss threads.
The back of the robe resembles the front in all its depiction and execution of the design elements and motifs except that the central square patch with the bird is not split in two halves. In fact, it is a single piece. The lining of the robe is in a thin light blue silk (Damask) which is quite frayed, however, the back of the neck is an extension of the front navy Satin field with a Satin_stitch embroidered floral motif.
It is interesting to note that robes like this with rank badges – buzi – often called Mandarin Squares by collectors were worn as signifiers of civil, military, or imperial court rank. The practice gained popularity, especially during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods.
Nine ranks each for civil and military positions were bestowed upon the emperor’s royal advisory councils as well as army generals. Civil badges displayed nine different birds in contrast to the nine animal figures displayed on military badges – in this case, a Paradise Flycatcher which represented the 9th-ranking civil officer’s post.
Usually, there was a sun depicted on either the left or the right of the bird or the animals corresponding to the side of the person’s position next to the emperor in the royal court. While the sun would usually be depicted in shades of orange or red, this robe is an anomaly as the circular motif resembling a sun is in fact in blue and not red.
Furthermore, the civil rank holders would sit to the left of the emperor with their birds both front and back facing the emperor – thus the right of the wearer. Alternatively, their wives’ badges for social events would mirror their husbands’ as they sat on the right side of their respective husbands – thus having their bird face to the left of the wearer. Once we apply this theory to this piece it could be concluded that this piece was a man’s robe.
With just a handful of countries earning mentions in the “Object range” section due to technical limitations, one must never forget the vast range of influence the Chinese culture has had across the globe, especially in South and Central Asia, southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Chinese politics and administration spanning the Ming and Qing period influenced all of southeast Asia especially its neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Korea, which too adopted similar robes with insignias for their respective government officials.