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The Twelve Ornaments or the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty

Probably as early as the Zhou dynasty (11th-3rd century BC), the Twelve Ornaments or the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty appeared on the sacrificial robes of the Son of Heaven. As a symbolic interpretation of the universe, these symbols of imperial authority assumed a cosmic significance and represented him as the ruler of the universe.

In 1759 the twelve symbols were reserved exclusively for the robes of the Emperor. When listed to correspond with the twelve months of lunar year the order is the following:

  1. The Sun (red) represented by a red disc with a three-legged crow (raven), a symbol of Yang principle, male, imperial sovereignty, brightness.

  2. The Moon (white) represented by a light blue or green disc enclosing the legendary hare pounding the elixir of immortality in a mortar, female, passiveness, sacrifice, the Yin Principle.

  3. The Seven-star constellation, often shown as a constellation of three stars, represent China and the Heart of the Emperor, the inexhaustible source of pardon and love.

  4. Mountains, symbols of stability and the earth, also represent a place of worship.

  5. Dragons. Mythological animals and their powers. Symbolise adaptability because of the transformations they can perform.

  6. The Pheasant, also represents beauty and good fortune, is an attribute of the great Emperor Yu. As a 'bird', the pheasant also occurs on Badges of Ranks for Civil officials (Mandarins) as symbols of literary refinement.

  7. The Fu pattern, symbolizing right and wrong, the Emperors power over life and death, or the law, however often translated as the art of embroidery.

  8. The Ax represents justice, authority, the power to punish. Emblem of Lu Pan, God of Carpenters, also the symbol of go-betweens.

  9. A Pair of Goblets, together, they symbolise respect for one's parents. One cup has a monkey (cleverness), the other a tiger (physical strength).

  10. Water plants, representing wood. Have the connotation of 'forever' or 'everlasting'. Water weed also represents purity in the same vein as the lotus within Buddhism, since it has the ability to raise pure and beautiful from the mud in a pont.

  11. Fire, represents intellectual brilliance, the spirit of fire, heat, the Yang Principle.

  12. Rice or Millet, represents earth and the country's capacity to feed its people, a symbol of prosperity and fertility.