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Daoist Priest's Robe
Daoist Priest's Robe, c. 1850-1900
Silk satin with silk and gilt thread embroidery; couching, satin, chain, and brick couching stitches
Center Back Length: 53 inches (134.6 cm)
Purchased with the George W.B. Taylor Fund, 1967
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About This Robe

This image shows the back of a beautifully embroidered robe of the type worn by Daoist (DOW-ist) high priests when officiating at religious rites and ceremonies. The robe is filled with images of auspicious (favorable or lucky) symbols of the Daoist religion. Along the bottom edge, dragons frolic in ocean waves, chasing flaming pearls. On the sleeve borders, sets of three lines, known as trigrams, represent the changing forces of nature. Between them are emblems of Daoist Immortals, beings who attained immortality through their Daoist practice. These emblems include: a flower basket for a female immortal who became a fairy after eating a magical peach; a sword for a scholar who had supernatural powers over evil and sickness; musical clappers for the patron saint of theater; and a pair of gourds for a beggar who was able to make his spirit leave his body.

Six large medallions in the center of the robe contain elaborately embroidered decorations of animals, plants, and celestial formations. A tower and three small palaces, home to Daoist gods, are depicted in the top central circle. These decorative elements and the 24 multicolored dots represent the 28 Lunar Mansions (or constellations), where the moon rests as it journeys around the Earth each month. The moon (right) and sun (left) can be seen just above the center circle. Inside the moon, a rabbit mixes the elixir of immortality; the crow, another deity, lives in the sun. White cranes, like the ones flanking the tower, are closely associated with Daoist priests, who were said to ride the tall birds to the heavens and speak with the gods.


Daoism is both a philosophy and a religion that originated in China. The philosophical aspects of Daoism are expressed in the Yi Jing (Daodejing), a famous book possibly written by Laozi (lao-tzu), a philosopher who lived in the sixth century BCE. Daoism teaches harmony between humankind and the natural world. Humans may discover the secret to everlasting life if they follow the dao (literally "the way") of nature and the universe. One of the most famous precepts of Daoist philosophy is the notion of yin and yang, two complementary forces that represent everything in the universe and its opposite. Daoists believe that the world and the dao are composed of these oppositional energies. Yin is dark, female, passive, and soft; yang is light, male, active, and hard. The moon is yin; the sun is yang. Many things contain elements that are both yin and yang. The famous symbol for the yin and yang forces of the universe is illustrated here.

Yin-Yang Symbol

Daoist philosophy developed into a formal religion, complete with gods, goddesses, scriptures, rituals, temples, and priests. The practice of honoring immortals (those who follow the dao so well that they achieve everlasting life) is particularly strong in this cosmology. References to celestial spheres, as those seen on the Daoist Priest's Robe, are also important. The rites and rituals of Daoist religious ceremonies are meant to remove distractions and obstacles that prevent worshipers from achieving oneness with the dao.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: China, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.

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