The Emperor’s New Clothes - An Imperial Robe Offers Glimpse Into The Tragic Life of Emperor Guangxu

Emperor Guangxu had his whole life overshadowed by the manipulative Empress Dowager Cixi, who acted as regent when the four-year-old emperor ascended the throne. Being an emperor without any real power, the Guangxu emperor was put under house arrest merely two years after becoming a formal ruler of the country and continued to live in this way until his death.

It is now difficult for us to imagine what a tragic life Emperor Guangxu was living a century ago. Perhaps an imperial robe which is believed to have been worn by the emperor himself would be able to shed light on the cautionary tale of Emperor Guangxu.

An Imperial Kesi orange-ground twelve-symbol robe. 19th century

A closer look at the Imperial robe

Empress Dowager Cixi was regent for Guangxu emperor and continued to influence his decisions

In 1875, Tongzhi emperor, the eighth Qing emperor to rule over China proper, died at the age of 18, leaving no sons to succeed him. To resolve the succession crisis, the formidable Dowager empress Cixi, the mother of Tongzhi emperor, designated her four-year-old nephew, Zaitian, to be the successor to the throne as the Guangxu emperor. Dowager empress Cixi acted as regent for the first fourteen years of the new ruler's reign (1875-1908).

Cixi retired from the regency in 1889 but she continued to influence the Guangxu emperor’s decisions even after he began formal rule. Following the Qing Empire's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Guangxu emperor hoped to make the Qing Empire more politically and economically powerful by learning from constitutional monarchies like Japan. With the help of a group of like-minded supporters, he ordered a series of reforms aimed at making radical social and institutional changes.

The reform sparked intense opposition among the conservative ruling elite. Empress Dowager Cixi engineered a coup on September 22, 1898, and put the emperor under house arrest within the Summer Palace until his death in 1908. The reform only lasted 103 days and went down in history as the ‘Hundred Days’ Reform’. It ended with the rescinding of the new edicts and the execution of six of the reform's chief advocates.

A closer look at the Imperial robe

A closer look at the Imperial robe

At the age of 37, the Guangxu emperor died on 14 November 1908, one day before Cixi’s death. It was speculated that the emperor could have been murdered but none of the theories was completely accepted by historians.

On the coming 7 November, an imperial kesi orange-ground twelve-symbol robe will be auctioned at Bonhams in London for £150,000 - 250,000. The auction house believes it probably dates to the 1880s and may have been worn by the Guangxu emperor (1871-1908) during the earlier years of his reign.

The apricot-orange colour xinghuang is referred to as one of the 'Five Imperial Yellows' used at the Qing Court, which could only be worn by Princes and Princesses of the First Rank and Imperial Consorts of the Second and Third Degree. The auction house believed that this apricot-ground 'Twelve-Symbol' robe would have been considered appropriate to signify the young Guangxu emperor's status as heir apparent, when he had not yet formally assumed control of the government.

The Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority further reinforce the emperor's essence over eloquence, articulation, forcefulness and vigour. A rigid scheme defined the position of the Twelve Symbols on the robes.

Upper row (left to right):
1. Axe head: the axe stands for 'cut-off' and represents the emperors power to act decisively
2. Dragon: the five-clawed dragon is the emperor's sacred symbol of imperial power
3. Pheasant: the Chinese pheasant is a kind of phoenix. Together with dragons, they are the representatives of the animal and bird kingdoms, symbolising the whole natural world

Lower row (left to right):
1. Constellation: constellation of stars is a symbol of the cosmic universe
2. Moon: the Moon is a symbol of heaven. Here it is represented by the hare pounding the elixir of immortality, which is derived from a Chinese legend of a hare that inhabited the moon.
3. Sun: the Sun symbolises the source of life. Here it is represented by a threelegged cockerel as it is symbolic of the dawn

Upper row (left to right):
1. Seaweed: seaweed represents water, one of the five elements. It represents purity and is the noble symbol of the emperor's leadership
2. Pair of sacrificial vessels: the vessels contain tiger-like creatures which represent bravery and filial piety. The vessels are also thought to represent metal, one of the five elements
3. The fu symbol: the fu symbol represents collaboration and the power of the emperor to distinguish evil from good, right from wrong.

Lower row (left to right):
1. Grain: grain represents the emperors capacity to feed its people, thus prosperity and fertility
2. Fire: fire is one of the five elements and represents the emperors intellectual brilliance
3. Mountains: moutains symbolises Earth, one of the five elements. It it also the symbol of the emperor's ability to rule earth and water

A closer look at the Imperial robe

The sun, moon, stars, and mountain, symbolised the four main ceremonies which the emperor presided throughout the year at the Altars of Heaven, Earth, Sun and Moon. They were placed in pairs at the shoulders, chest and mid-back area.

The paired dragons, the golden pheasant, the confronted ji character and the hatchet, represented all things on earth and the ruler's ability to make decisions. They decorated the chest area, while the sacrificial vessels, the aquatic grass, the grains of millet and the flames, representing ancestor worship and four of the Five Elements, were placed at the mid-calf level of the coat.

The seven-shaded lishuibands are flawlessly woven and include the aniline purple tone, which was imported into China from Europe circa 1863 and was highly-favoured by the Empress Dowager Cixi. all interspersed with the Eight Buddhist Emblems and further dragons emerging from rolling waves.

If this imperial robe was really worn by the Guangxu emperor, it would stand as a surviving testament to the dictatorship of the Empress Dowager Cixi. How ironic is it that the imperial robe turned out to be ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ which signifies the wishful thinking of the young Emperor Guangxi of becoming a formal ruler of the country?

An Exceedingly Rare Imperial Kesi Orange-Ground Twelve-Symbol Robe
19th century

Lot no.: 132
Size: 183 x 145cm

  • Linda Wrigglesworth, London, 1997
  • A Western private collection

Estimate: £150,000 - 250,000

Auction details

Auction house: Bonhams London
Sale: Fine Chinese Art
Address: 101 New Bond Street, London, W1S 1SR
Lots offered: 179
3 November 2019|11am - 5pm
4 November 2019|9am - 7:30pm
5-6 November 2019|9am - 4:30pm
Auction date:
7 November 2019|10:30am​