Dragon Throne for the Son of Heaven
Rosemary Scott, Senior Academic Consultant Asian Art
The primary decoration on this magnificent carved three-colour lacquer throne depicts nine five-clawed dragons amongst clouds. The link between dragons and Chinese emperors can be traced to legends associated with emperors of early China. One of these relates to the legendary first emperor of China, known as the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) whose dates are usually given as 2697–2597 BC. Among the myths associated with the Yellow Emperor it is stated that at his death he was transformed into a dragon and ascended to Heaven. This and other legends contributed to the adoption of the dragon as the symbol of imperial power – a symbolism which spread to other parts of Asia. The dragon is also one of the four celestial animals, which represent the four quarters – with the dragon representing the east.
The imperial title Son of Heaven (Tianzi) for the Chinese Emperor also had its origins in antiquity - as far back as the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046-256 BC) - and was linked to the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. The Zhou rulers claimed that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate from the previous Shang dynasty rulers (c. 1600-1046 BC), because of their corruption and failures in government, and had instead bestowed it on the Zhou, as being the most fit to rule. The Son of Heaven was seen as having the Mandate of Heaven to rule the Empire - tianxia, literally ‘land under Heaven’, and having personal responsibility for the prosperity and safety of his subjects. This responsibility for the welfare of their subjects is another reason for the link between emperors and dragons. In China the dragon was a beneficent creature, associated with water and specifically was seen as the bringer of the rain, which was required to water the crops and ensure a bountiful harvest. The dragon was believed to rise from beneath the waves at the spring equinox in order to bring this essential rain.
On the current throne nine dragons are depicted. Nine was regarded as particularly auspicious and was also the imperial number. Traditionally in China odd numbers were regarded as masculine while even numbers were regarded as feminine. Nine was the highest single digit number and was therefore regarded as the ultimate masculine number - thus symbolising the supreme power of the emperor. Nine representations of auspicious emblems were therefore often depicted on decorative arts intended for the emperor – such as nine peaches painted on a porcelain vase (fig. 1). Even the large metal studs on the huge gates at the entrances to the Forbidden City were usually arranged in nine rows of nine studs – 81 in all. Nine and its multiples can frequently be seen in palace architecture and furniture – such as the current throne. Nine is also an important number for the attributes of dragons. A dragon was believed to have 117 scales, of which 81 were male (9 x 9) and 36 were female (9 x 4). There were believed to be nine different forms of dragon, and the dragon was supposed to have nine children. Two of the most well-known examples of imperial decoration featuring nine dragons are the magnificent ceramic nine-dragon screens, such as that in the Forbidden City Beijing – built in 1771, and the famous Qing dynasty nine-dragon imperial robes (fig. 2).
The dragons on the current throne are depicted pursuing flaming pearls amongst dense and complex clouds, as is often the case on Chinese imperial decorative arts. The clouds themselves are auspicious symbols, in part because they provide a rebus for good fortune. It is also significant that clouds, such as the examples on this throne, are often shaped like lingzhi fungus of immortality, and so emphasise a wish for long life. Particularly in an imperial context, the clouds also recall the shape of the head of a ruyi sceptre, suggesting the hope for ‘everything as you wish it’. It is interesting to note that on this throne the clouds have subtle green highlights. Although the greatest proportion of the design appears in carved red lacquer against a yellow lacquer ground carved with lozenges, the majority of the clouds have small carved green lacquer extensions – either to the side or below the individual cloud forms.
The nine dragons appear on the interior backrest and sides of the throne. There are additional small dragons on the apron and in-turned horse hoof shaped legs. On the exterior of the throne back bats are depicted amongst clouds. Bats provide a rebus for blessings – combining with the clouds representing good fortune. On the central panel of the back an upside-down bat holds a ribbon from which are suspended a qing chiming stone and a pair of fish. The fact of the bat being upside-down suggests the arrival of blessings as the word for upside (dao ) is a pun for (dao ) ‘arrive’ The qing chiming stone provides a rebus for congratulations or celebrations (qing ), while the paired fish are one of the Eight Buddhist Emblems, but in this context, they represent abundance and in combination with the chiming stone suggest the wish jiqing youyu ‘May there be a superabundance of auspicious happiness’. It should be noted that the symbols which would have been seen by those permitted to enter the emperor’s presence were the dragons of imperial power, while the more personal auspicious emblems were on the back of the throne and would have been largely obscured from view even by those standing to the side of the emperor since a large throne screen would have been placed behind the throne. Most of the minor bands on this throne are either filled with bats and clouds or with well-carved squared spirals. However, at the waist is a band of scrolling lotus and a petal panel band. The lotus provides both a link with Buddhism and a suggestion of purity. The uncarved seat of the throne is well painted with floral scrolling designs, but in use this would have been covered with a silk-covered seat cushion.
The Imperial Household Department (Neiwufu) in the Ming dynasty had included some 24 departments and two of these – the Neiguanjian (Directorate of Palace Servants, responsible for all palace construction and repairs) and the Yuyongjian (Directorate of Imperial Accoutrements) - both produced lacquer wares and in the case of the Neiguanjian, these lacquer wares included furniture. There were further lacquer workshops elsewhere, run by local government agencies. However, the production of official Ming dynasty carved lacquer appears to have come to an end in 1610 and there seems to have been no official carved lacquer made in Beijing until the Qianlong reign. In 1739 an official lacquer workshop producing carved lacquer wares was established in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, where there was already an official textile and embroidery workshop, and as the Qianlong reign progressed, carved lacquer wares came to dominate the lacquers made for the court. Records suggest that the lacquer items made in the palace in the late 1730s and 1740s were not carved by craftsmen who restricted themselves to carving lacquer, but who were also skilled carvers of ivory, bamboo, rhinoceros’ horn and a range of other materials. It seems that even in the 1750s relatively few carved lacquer pieces were made in the Beijing palace workshops and that these were carved by craftsmen who specialised in carving, rather than simply lacquer carving.
There has been a tendency amongst scholars to ascribe all fine Qing dynasty carved lacquer in the palace collections, which does not bear a reign mark, to the Qianlong reign. However more recent research by Chinese scholars such as Zhu Jiajin has shown that finely carved vermillion lacquer thrones decorated with dragons were in use in the Qing palaces prior to the Qianlong reign. Interestingly, the Yangxin dian Zaobanchu Gezuo Chengzuo Huoji Qingdang (Catalogue of Objects made in the Palace Workshops of the Hall of Cultivating the Mind), provides information that makes it clear that a wide range of lacquer wares – some 20 different types - are mentioned as being made in the palace workshops during the Yongzheng reign, including those covered with gold lacquer and those with painted gold lacquer, but does not mention any carved lacquer from the palace workshops in the Yongzheng reign. However, palace records of lacquer wares manufactured in provincial workshops and either specially ordered by the emperor or presented to the emperor do include items of carved lacquer. One of these is an unusually long red lacquer throne, carved with dragons amongst clouds and waves, in the collection of the Palace Museum Beijing (illustrated in Gugong shou cang - diaoqi Palace Museum Collection - Carved Lacquerwares, Beijing, 2008, p. 210, no. 140). Zhu Jiajin has discovered that this was in fact presented to the Yongzheng Emperor by Sui Hede of Jiangning on the 21st day of the 7th month of the 7th year of the Yongzheng reign  (see Zhu Jiajin, ‘’Yongzheng Lacquerware in the Palace Museum, Beijing’, Orientations, March 1988, p. 36). On the same date several other lacquer wares from Sui Hede were also presented to the emperor, including pieces of yangqi (foreign style lacquer) and tianxiangqi (literally ‘filled-in with fragrance lacquer’) - see ibid. p. 38. It is possible that the carved red dragon throne presented by Sui Hede was the ‘carved lacquer five dragon throne’ mentioned in the palace archives as being one of the items sent on the Yongzheng Emperor’s orders to the Yuanming yuan in November 1729 (fig. 3). It is not surprising to note that the official who presented the throne to the emperor was Sui Hede, who was Superintendent of the Imperial Silk Manufactory at Nanjing in the Jiangnan region, where there were workshops making fine lacquer, from which the Yongzheng Emperor himself ordered special lacquer wares. Carved lacquer was popular in the Jiangnan region during the Yongzheng reign and pieces of very high quality were made there.
The palace archives note that in December of the ninth year of the Qianlong reign  the Emperor ordered that a carved lacquer dragon throne should be placed in the Chonghua gong, the Palace of Doubled Glory (fig. 4). In March the following year the Qianlong Emperor ordered a matching throne screen to stand behind it, despite the fact that the throne was not in the best condition. The screen was to be decorated with the theme of yinghai fei long, dragons flying over the sea. The emperor’s fondness for the carved lacquer dragon throne is further suggested by the fact that he ordered incense stands to accompany the throne and screen, and these were delivered in December of the eleventh year of his reign  (fig. 5).
Thrones were of immense importance in emphasising imperial power and majesty. They, together with the throne screens that usually accompanied them, provided a setting by which the emperor’s person was rendered even more imposing, set apart from those who sought audience but the focus of attention for all. Thrones were undoubtedly the most important items of furniture in the palace in terms of reinforcing the position of the Son of Heaven. The thrones would always have faced south, so that those approaching the emperor faced north. They would have been required in all of the halls in which the emperor received officials and J.C. Ferguson in Survey of Chinese Art, Shanghai, 1940 noted that there would have been more than one hundred thrones in the palace. In Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing and Lu Yanzhen, Daily Life in the Forbidden City, translated by Rosemary Scott and Erica Shipley, Hong Kong, 1988, p. 144, plate caption 196, it is noted that early in his reign the Qianlong Emperor decreed that a throne and a throne screen should be placed in each of the 12 Eastern and Western Palaces. The emperor stated that these could not be changed, but in fact numerous alterations were made in succeeding reign periods. Thus, it was not only in the main audience chambers on the central axis of the Forbidden City where thrones would have been placed, but also in smaller halls, palaces and pavilions, where appropriate. The Chonghua gong, for example, where the Qianlong Emperor placed a carved lacquer dragon throne, throne screen and incense stands in the 1740s, was built in 1727 on the orders of the Yongzheng emperor for the use of the heir apparent Prince Hongli (the future Qianlong Emperor), and was part of the Inner Court in the rear, north, section of the Forbidden City. It was one of the palaces in which the Qianlong Emperor hosted tea parties during the Spring Festival, at which guests were required to compose poems in bailiang style, with seven characters to a line, each carrying the same rhyme.
Although a significant number of thrones are preserved in the Palace Museum Beijing, very few of those are of carved red lacquer, despite the fact that thrones of this material, rather than hardwood, appear to have been favoured for the most important occasions. There is a set of carved red lacquer throne, throne screen and pair of incense stands illustrated in The Palace Museum Collection – A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, volume 1, Beijing, 2006, p. 15, fig. 1, and in the same volume is illustrated an early Qing dynasty carved red lacquer throne with pierced back rest and sides (ibid. p. 76, fig. 50). A zitan and carved red lacquer throne and throne screen from the Yongshou gong (Palace of Eternal Longevity) is illustrated in The Palace Museum Collection – A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, volume 2, Beijing, 2006, p. 689, fig. 787.
While the carved lacquer dragon throne presented to the Yongzheng Emperor has an undulating back, the current throne is a so-called ‘five-panel’ throne in which the backrest is formed of a higher central panel with a lower panel on either side. A carved red lacquer dragon throne of similar form in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing is illustrated in Lacquer Wares of the Qing Dynasty, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 6, no. 4, where it is dated to the Kangxi reign. The Kangxi throne is also decorated with dragons amongst clouds, and also has in-turned horse hoof feet. A very similarly-shaped Kangxi throne decorated with tianqi and qiangjin lacquer was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong on 29 May 2000, lot 1395 (fig. 6). The proportions of both of these thrones as slightly different from those of the current throne. There is less difference in height between the central back panel and the panels on either side, and the legs of the thrones are longer and thinner. The proportions of the current throne are closer to those of another carved red lacquer dragon throne in the collection of the Palace Museum Beijing, which is illustrated by C. Ho and B. Bronson in Splendors of China’s Forbidden City, London and New York, 2004, p. 251, no. 321. This latter throne dates to the Qianlong reign and is also decorated with dragons amongst clouds. The back of this throne is decorated with bats, clouds and a qing chiming stone, similarly to the back of the current throne, although the back of the Beijing throne is painted in gold on yellow, rather than carved in red lacquer. The shape of the apron of the Beijing Qianlong throne is somewhat more exaggerated than that of the current throne.
Another carved lacquer throne decorated with dragons amongst clouds, but with an additional panel inset into the backrest depicting figures in landscape, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (discussed by Craig Clunas in ‘Whose Throne Is It Anyway? The Qianlong Throne in the T.T. Tsui Gallery’, Orientations, July 1991, pp. 44-50) (fig. 7). The Victoria and Albert Museum throne is a much heavier piece of furniture with very elaborate carved decoration including raised ruyi-shaped strips and the raised panel depicting figures in landscape, mentioned above. From its overall style it would appear to date to later in the Qianlong reign. While the current magnificent throne has immense presence, its less exaggerated form and more restrained decoration suggest that it probably dates to the early part of the Qianlong period, or even to the Yongzheng reign. For either emperor, this rare three-colour carved lacquer throne with its decoration of nine dragons would have been a precious and treasured reflection of supreme imperial authority.