When I was teaching embroidery in China last year, I saw so many beautifully embroidered items. Far too many to put into one blog post. Today we will explore a very distinctive form of embroidered items: rank badges. Those square pieces of densily embroidered cloth that were sewn onto the formal dress of Qing-dynasty (1644-1911 AD) court officials.
The Qing emperors were the last house to rule China. They were not native Chinese, but rather a nomadic minority from Manchuria. Due to a power vacuum in the middle of the 17th century they were able to take over the dragon throne. Native Chinese viewed these newcomers as barbarians. Vice versa, the Manchu viewed the Chinese as too refined. Discrimination and mistrust were the result. In an attempt to at least minimize discrimination amongst the court officials and to legitimize their new dynasty, court dress was completely renewed by the new emperor. Modelled on Manchu dress, but with strict rules on who could wear what and when.
As the imperial administration became ever more complex, it was necessary to be able to easily distinguish people's place or rank in the system. There were nine ranks of civil officials all sporting a different bird on their rank badge. From first to ninth rank these were: Manchurian crane, golden pheasant, peacock, wild goose, silver pheasant, egret, mandarin duck, quail and paradise flycatcher. The badges (called pu zi) were sewn onto the surcoat pu fu, or 'coat with a patch' and worn over the formal court robes. The badges would be sewn onto the front as well as onto the back. That's why a pair always consists of a 'whole' one for the back and a 'split' one for the front.
Why did they use birds to differentiate between civil officials? As always, everything depicted has more than one meaning for the Chinese. Birds collectively were seen as a symbol of literary elegance. Additionally, the crane was associated with happiness and longevity. The wild goose and the mandarin duck represented loyalty; not an unimportant quality for a court official.
Military officials wore rank badges too. Instead of birds, animals associated with courage and ferocity adorn these badges. Again there are nine ranks and from first to ninth rank these are the animals depicted: qi lin (a mythical creature with the head of a dragon, scales on his body, the legs of a stag and a bushy tail), lion, leopard, tiger, bear, panther, rhinoceros, rhinoceros and sea-horse. Lower ranks of the imperial nobility were also permitted to wear the military rank badges. The wives of military and civil officials adorned their formal dress with rank badges too. Rather than being part of the court, they would wear their dress with badges during important social occasions such as marriages.
Besides his official empress, the emperor had many secondary consorts and concubines. They were ranked as well. And with so many potential partners, he had many offspring too. The emperor, his sons, first-rank princes, second-rank princes, third-rank princes, fourth-rank princes, imperial dukes and other non-imperial nobles wore round rank-badges displaying dragons. The number of dragons you could wear depended on your rank. As did the type of dragon you were permitted to wear: front-facing dragons were higher in rank than side-facing dragons. And five-clawed dragons (long) were higher in rank than four-clawed dragons (mang).
If you have enjoyed reading about official court dress, I can highly recommend the book 'Imperial Wardrobe' by Gary Dickinson and Linda Wrigglesworth (2000, ISBN: 1-58008-188-6) for further reading. This is the revised edition of an original from 1990.
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