Artwork: Yao Double Dragon Ceremonial Cloak
Design No: CH1077
Embroidery Style: Ping Xiu, Po Xian Xiu
Era: Late Qing Era (circa 1850)
Dimensions: 2000mm x 2500mm (both sides combined)
Reference Material: Xu Zhu Xiang, “The Yao Hanging Lanterns and the belief of Daoist North Seven Constellations”, Journal of Yunnan Nationalities University, 23, no.2, pp. 102 – 107.
The branch of the Yao in the Congjiang region are known as the Guoshan Yao, which literally means ‘The Yao who crossed the mountain’. The traditional religion of the Guoshan Yao was based on nature worship in which power over the spiritual was wielded by wizards. Daoism and Buddhism, foreign faiths, began to be followed by the people of the region from the thirteenth century. The greatest impact of the new faiths was made by Lushan Daoism and Meishan Daoism, which in many ways were similar to the traditional beliefs of the Guoshan Yao. To this day the wizard in any Guoshan Yao village is seen as the intellectual leader of the community due to his ability to read and understand the classics of the Dao, abilities which in turn make him potent socially, politically and economically. A wizard master of Daoism takes charge of many kinds of village events including births, marriages, funerals, the spring tillage, and the curing of diseases.
The upper part of the back of the cloak has been beautifully embroidered with the two Chinese characters 寿星, or God of Longevity. A vivid and powerful dragon twists and turns to the left and right of the two characters. Characters and dragons show the influence of Daoist astrology, for the Guoshan Yao believe that anyone who follows the Dao will, with the help of a wizard master, become an immortal. The three seated figures above the two dragons and two characters are the Three Pure Ones. They are, from left to right, the Jade Pure One, the Supreme Pure One and the Grand Pure One, the three highest gods in the pantheon of the Dao. The lower part of the back of the cloak shows a variety of Daoist symbols, among them the Wu Xing, or Five Elements’ of wood, fire, earth, water and metal, together with the Ba Gua, or Eight Trigrams.
Furthermore, the cloak shows that the Guoshan Yao did not simply adopt Daoism wholesale but on their own terms. The names of the seven northern constellations are embroidered on both sides of heavenly gate: 贪狼, 巨门, 禄存, 文曲, 廉贞, 武曲, 破军. Interestingly, the name of the second star is given here as 巨门, rather than 厄门, which is the correct form according to Daoism. This could be a mistake in the translation from Chinese to Yao. What is very special about the cloak is that it adds two more stars to the seven, making up a total of nine northern constellations, a find which may date the cloak to around the middle of the nineteenth century. Scholars have found no evidence of any belief in nine constellations in Yunnan Province, the homeland of many of the Yao. Also scholars have found that around the middle of the nineteenth century there was a belief in nine constellations in Guangxi Province. No scholar, however, has written yet about the evolution of Yao Daoism in Guizhou. This cloak clearly shows that the Yao in Guizhou not only had a belief in nine constellations but for a long time worshipped on the basis of this belief. The twenty-eight Chinese constellations appear on the back of the cloak, too, embroidered as twenty-eight little human figures holding sparking lights to represent the stars; this is a uniquely Yao interpretation of Daoism. A wizard master among the Guoshan Yao would light seven, nine or twelve lights in a ceremony, the number of lights determined by the status of the worshipper.
Apart from being notable as a complex piece of evidence for cultural beliefs and practices, this cloak reaches a very high level as a work of art. It is large in size, measuring 1 meter by 1.25 meters, two sides richly covered with silk embroidery on a base of handwoven blue calico. Dark red silk covers the edges. The artist freely uses a great deal of silver and gold thread, which enhances the cloak’s luxurious extravagance. The dragon patterns are outstandingly beautiful, energetic and powerful. The combination of Chinese characters, Daoist symbols and little human figures creates an impressive spiritual atmosphere in which the imagination of the viewer meets magic, religion, mysticism and wizardry. The cloak tells us a story about the past, about the occult secrets of the Guoshan Yao, and ultimately about how cultures borrow and synthesise one another, coming together to blend and afterwards evolve in telling new ways.