Unmistaken identity: a guide to the rank badges of ancient China
Decorative embroidered panels were worn to denote status for over 600 years — and have become highly collectible
The Chinese tradition of wearing rank badges (buzi), also known as Mandarin squares, to demonstrate civil, military or imperial rank began in 1391 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and continued throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
These insignia were sewn onto or woven into the wearer’s garments to indicate their rank. Civil officials wore insignia with different bird species corresponding to their rank, while animals denoted military officers. Court attire was regulated by imperial decrees such as the Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court, published in 1759.
The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 brought an end to rank insignia. Consequently, many found their way into Western collections.
While several American museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, have fine collections, today’s market primarily consists of private buyers. It includes many emerging collectors, who are attracted by their graphic imagery and reasonable prices, particularly of 19th-century examples.
There were four types of rank insignia: imperial, Civil officials’, military and censors’. There were nine different ranks each for civil and military officials. Each of these insignia gave a clear indication of the rank of its wearer.
A badge featuring a bird identified the wearer as a civil official. To attain such a position required years of intense study, so birds may have been selected because of their literary associations. Each rank was represented by a different species, and while there were slight variations over time, by the Qing Dynasty the order from highest to lowest was: crane, golden pheasant, peacock, wild goose, silver pheasant, egret, mandarin duck, quail and paradise flycatcher. Civil officials sat on the emperor’s left at court functions, so their rank birds faced right towards him.
While it may be easy to tell a duck from a goose in real life, identifying different species on rank badges can be difficult. Birds are shown in similar poses, are of similar size and are placed on grounds of similar decoration, which had slight variations from period to period.
Certain species, such as peacocks, can be identified easily because of the distinctive eye design on their feathers. For the more difficult varieties, look at the form of the head and neck and the shape of the tail feathers. For example, the first-rank crane typically has a rounded head topped by a red cap, while the silver pheasant worn by fifth-rank civil officials has distinctive long, scalloped or serrated tail feathers.
The real or mythical animals that decorate military rank insignia symbolise the wearer’s courage. As with civil officials, the order of ranking creatures varied over time. By the late Qing Dynasty the order was: the mythical qilin, lion, leopard, tiger, bear, panther, rhinoceros (seventh, after 1759, and eighth) and sea horse (not the undersea creature, but an actual horse galloping through the waves). Military officials sat on the emperor’s right, so their animals faced left towards him as a sign of respect.
Military squares are more desirable because they are harder to find than civil badges.
Focusing on the details is essential to identifying animals. At first glance a tiger may look like a panther, until you spot wavy lines or open crescent shapes on its body and three horizontal lines on its forehead to symbolise its status as king of beasts. Panthers, on the other hand, do not have distinguishing marks.
Dragon Roundels for the Imperial Family
The emperor, his immediate imperial family and the highest-rank nobility all wore circular badges, which signified heaven. Lower ranking nobility wore square badges, symbolsing earth. According to their status, male members of the imperial family wore either long or mang dragons, which each had five claws. Long dragons were used only for robes and badges worn by the emperor and mang dragons, which looked the same as long dragons and are distinguished only by name, were assigned to the emperor’s sons, imperial princes of the first rank and their sons, and to imperial princes of the second rank. The emperor’s grandsons, great-grandsons, great-great-grandsons and imperial princes of the third rank to nobles of the seventh rank all wore four-clawed mang dragons.
How to distinguish Ming from Qing
Imperial regulations governing court costume and rank insignia were issued by the first Ming emperor in 1391, and again in 1652 and in 1759 by Qing emporers. Ming squares are more varied because early costume mandates were less specific. Nonetheless, there are a few key indicators to identify Ming buzi.
In the early Ming dynasty, birds were shown in pairs with both in flight. By the 16th century, one bird was shown above the other, which stood on a rock and, in the Qing dynasty, the badges showed singular birds. Ming badges are also larger and typically do not have borders.
The introduction of a form-fitting surcoat by horse-riding Qing emperors meant that rank emblems worn on the chest had to be split vertically so the garment could be opened. Qing insignia are smaller and more of a true square shape (about 12 x 12 in) than the Ming badges, which were designed to fit on flowing robes.
Qing badges feature a single creature and sun as well as ornamental borders with clouds and auspicious symbols. Appliqué animals began to appear on badges in the mid-19th century, which made it easier for officials to swap creatures as they moved up the ranks.
Ming examples are rare, and so generally command high prices. There is a greater supply of Qing rank badges, especially 19th-century examples. High-ranking badges from the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly examples from the Kangxi period (1661–1722), are the most sought-after for their fine gold backgrounds and embroidery containing peacock feather filaments.
The first rule of badges
Because rank badges were produced by different artisans across a vast empire for nearly 600 years, they often break the rules. Although certain stylistic trends are associated with certain periods, badges were constantly evolving and so do not fit into well-defined categories.
In the seminal text Ladder to the Clouds: Intrigue and Tradition in Chinese Rank (1999), the collector and scholar Dr David Hugus sums up the problem: ‘Remember this one unvarying rule for Mandarin squares: there are no unvarying rules for mandarin squares.’
Lower-rank badges are harder to find
There is a greater supply of badges for higher-ranking civil officials than for lower-ranking ones. It is estimated that nearly half of bureaucrats who had completed the gruelling examinations advanced to the first rank, and with these promotions came wealth and the possibility of ordering several sets of luxury attire. Those of lower standing — secretaries from the eighth rank or prison wardens from the ninth — had fewer chances for advancement and buying a lavish wardrobe. Consequently, low-ranking civil officials were often buried in their best clothes, and their rank badges were lost.
The same applies to their military counterparts. Military badges are more difficult to find in general, but low-ranking ones depicting rhinoceroses or sea horses are extraordinarily rare and there are no known examples in major public collections.
Although Ming portraits show women wearing identical rank badges to their husbands, edicts outlining rules for women were not issued until the Qing dynasty, when the wives and children of officials (sons and unmarried daughters) were permitted to wear their husband’s or father’s insignia. It became the tradition that a wife’s badge was a mirror image of her husband’s, so when she sat beside him (women sat on their husband’s left) their creatures would be facing each other. For example, a civil official’s wife’s rank bird would face left.
Condition is key
Rank badges are made of embroidered silk, brocade or kesi, and the main issue associated with conserving them is the same as for other historic textiles. The silk thread was dyed with organic pigments, which means any fading caused by sun exposure will be permanent. Mandarin squares, and the garments they decorate, are best displayed away from direct sunlight.
Rank badges were made to be worn. Collectors should be aware of signs of wear-and-tear: look for well-preserved, intact squares without stains, loosened threads or splitting in the weave. It is almost impossible to find a Ming or early Qing dynasty badge in perfect condition, so keep this in mind when evaluating a rank badge for your collection.