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Follow the Thread: A Mandarin Coat

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Catalog no. 70/2280. Photo Credit: (c) AMNH/D. Finnin


In 1901, budding anthropologist Berthold Laufer sent a brilliant blue silk robe he had bought in Shanghai to the American Museum of Natural History with a simple note: “Coat of a mandarin, for the summer.”

Within a few years, fakes would flood the market, says Curator Laurel Kendall, chair of the Division of Anthropology, but the time and place of this purchase indicates that it is “the real thing,” a coat that could only have been worn by a scholar-advisor to the Imperial Court during the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.

Part of the Museum’s extensive collection of textiles, this coat exemplifies the rigidly defined rules of Imperial Court dress in which an elaborate system of colors and motifs telegraphed rank. The dragon, for example, is the ultimate “yang” or male symbol, and a sign of the Emperor’s power. The water represented at the bottom of the robe reflects the legendary role of dragons in East Asia’s traditional agrarian societies as denizens of lakes, rivers, and seas who once a year ascend to the heavens to bring on the rain. Overall, the decoration suggests a mandarin of the fourth to sixth rank.

Laufer, who would go on to become the premier Sinologist of his generation, was sent to China by Franz Boas, then director of the Museum’s Anthropology Division and the acknowledged father of the field in America. Boas had secured a grant of $18,000 (about $400,000 today) from New York banker Jacob H. Schiff to cover Laufer’s expenses for three years to gather “collections which illustrate the popular customs and beliefs of the Chinese, their industries, their mode of life.” Laufer set about buying the stuff of everyday life, completing what is still the most extensive ethnographic collection from pre-revolutionary China in North America.

“Nobody was doing that kind of work at that time,” says Kendall. “He gave us a picture of daily life…And that’s us! We’re all about the time capsule, the trunk in the attic, trying to imagine how people lived.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Rotunda, the magazine for Museum Members.

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