Friendly yet dangerous, benign yet powerful, the Chinese dragon has long been worshipped as a dynamic symbol of vitality in the Far East. Rising into the heavens, the dragon would call forth the rains that kept life flowing within an ancient civilization dependent on agriculture. The dragon was believed to make an appearance in the sky whenever a new emperor was born, and in this way the dragon became a symbol of imperial Chinese leadership and authority.
Dragons on robes began as a purely informal fashion during the Ming dynasty, quickly became the highest form of official dress. Dragon robes were adopted by the rulers during the Qing dynasty and became part of the wardrobe of the imperial court. Their use declined with the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, although members of the Imperial Family continued to wear them on formal occasions until departing the Forbidden City in 1924.
Today, most Chinese Dragon Robes are found in the West, having been removed from China during times of distress, such as the sacking of the Summer Palace in1860 and the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, when westerners in Beijing were able to get a hold of robes from nobles anxious for quick cash. Unlike today's apparel many dragon robes were never worn, and some never made it through the inspection process implemented by the imperial household.
For the aspiring collector, dragon robes can be obtained from antique dealers or auction houses in the United States and Europe. Before buying a robe, any collector should consider how best to display the robe. Robes sent to Tibet by rulers of the Ming dynasty five hundred years ago came to light when they were revealed in 1980. The display was critical to establishing the fact that silk robes can survive centuries proper care.
Common methods for displaying a fine silk robe include within a Plexiglas box with holes to allow for proper ventilation. Another way to do it is to hang the robe from a padded pole, but a treasured robe should never be exposed to strong sunlight which can cause fading. And a robe should never be displayed beneath a spotlight. Most classic examples of the fine art of Dragon Robes have been preserved in museums. The Palace Museum in Beijing has perhaps the finest collection in the world, but they are seldom on display for the public.