Decoding Manchu Robes
When the Manchu, a nomadic tribe, took over China from its Ming rulers in 1644 they immediately imposed Manchu-style dress on the new Qing imperial court. Instead of the ostentatious, cumbersome robes favored by the Ming, the formerly nomadic Manchu preferred more practical attire: shorter, tighter-fitting robes and trousers.
While the robes themselves were pure Manchu, the symbolism of the weaving and embroidery was deeply rooted in Chinese history and legends. Every image on the robe had a deeper meaning, and simply by looking at a person's clothes, one could distinguish the wearer's rank and position in the imperial household. For example, five-clawed dragons were reserved for the emperor, his immediate family, and the highest officials as designated by the emperor. Dragons with four claws were worn by lower officials and princes, and those with three claws were worn by the lowest officials. The color yellow could only be worn by the emperor, the empress, the empress dowager, and the heir apparent.
Courtly robes were also adorned with other symbols considered auspicious by the Chinese. Bats signified happiness and longevity, waterweed represented purity, and coins represented prosperity. With their intricate embroidery and slit tapestry designs, a single robe could take years to complete.