I. Chinese Mandarin Squares

By: Schuyler Cammann

Originally Published in 1953

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The Chinese were the first people in the world to use silk, and the finest products of Chinese weaving and embroidery are marvels of technical achievement. They have never been surpassed in the Occident. A whole range of Chinese textile techniques is exhibited in the workmanship on the mandarin squares, the square plaques of silk which the Chinese officials of the last two dynasties wore on their robes to indicate their ranks. Last spring the University Museum acquired a large and comprehensive collection of these badges from Brigadier-General J. S. Letcher of the U.S. Marines, who had collected them in Peking before the Sino-Japanese War. The finest examples from this collection were recently shown in a special exhibition, and some of them will soon go on permanent display. Meanwhile, this issue of the BULLETIN has been prepared to tell something about the background of this collection, and the significance of mandarin squares in Chinese civilization.

Print of a first rank Manchu civil servant in uniform garb.
Portrait of Ch’i-ying, first rank Manchu civil official, in 1844, showing mandarin square, hat jewel and plume, and court beads.


When China was under the rule of Khubilai Khan and his successors during the Mongol Dynasty, from 1280 to 1368, the nobles and high officials wore robes with patterns of birds or animals on them. These designs were usually confined to an ornamental collar, or to squares on chest and back, and a band across the knees. The Mongols even carried these styles to Persia, as we can see from Persian miniatures which were painted during and after their domination over that land.

During the 14th century the Chinese rose up against their Mongol overlords, in a series of revolts, and by 1368 they succeeded in establishing a new native dynasty, called the Ming. The Ming court continued to use these bird or animal patterns, but they generally restricted them to the chest and back of their robes. In 1391, when the new dynastic laws were issued to determine Ming costume, they regulated the use of these designs, stating that they should appear on the everyday robes of nobles and officials, but that certain ones could only be worn by people belonging to definite ranks. The birds were assigned to the civil officials, and the animals to military officers. A Ming statesman, Ch’iu Hsün, explained the reason for this division, by saying that the birds symbolized the literary elegance, and the animals the fierce courage, of their respective wearers.

By the laws of 1391, dukes, marquises, sons-in-law of the Emperor, and earls, were told to wear patterns with two mythical horned animals called the ch’i-lin and the pai-tse, both of which were considered as noble animals possessing great power and wisdom. Civil officials of the first and second ranks were told to wear the white crane or the golden pheasant; third and fourth ranks, peacock or wild goose; fifth rank, silver pheasant; sixth and seventh ranks, egret or mandarin duck; eighth and ninth ranks and unclassed officials, oriole, quail, or Paradise flycatcher. Officials of the Censorate and Judges were to wear another mythical animal called a hsieh-chai, who was believed to be able to distinguish between right and wrong. The military officers of the first and second ranks wore the lion; third and fourth ranks, the tiger and leopard; fifth rank, bear; sixth and seventh ranks, the panther; and eighth and ninth ranks, the rhinoceros or Sea horse.

Ch’iu Hsiün explains this doubling up of patterns by saying that an official of the higher rank could wear either of the two birds (or animals), but that one of the lower rank could wear only the second bird; unless the right to wear the first was conferred by the Emperor. The Emperor traditionally bestowed the right to wear any of these patterns, but the officials had to have the robes made for themselves. Before long they began to take advantage of this, and the military officers in particular took to usurping patterns of higher ranks, to which they were not entitled, even to the extent of wearing the ones reserved for the nobility. Finally the situation became so bad that in 1527 new laws for insignia were issued. This time they specified for each rank a single type of bird, using the same species as before, but allowing no choice. The military insignia remained as before, except that now the eighth rank was to use the rhinoceros only, and the ninth rank the Sea horse. From then on, these patterns became specific marks of individual ranks, and they served as such until the end of the dynasty in 1644.

In that year, a powerful bandit leader seized Peking, the capital, and the last Ming Emperor committed suicide. Desperate at the idea of being ruled by a bandit-emperor, some Chinese officials requested help from the new Manchu nation beyond the Great Wall. Not only were the Manchus the nearest potential helpers to Peking, but the Chinese probably thought they were too insignificant to be dangerous. Here they were mistaken. The “Northern Barbarians” came down and drove out the usurping emperor, as they had been requested to. Then, finding themselves in possession of the capital, they stayed on to found a new dynasty, which they called the Ch’ing.

The Manchus when they entered China had a different system of insignia, distinguishing ranks by jewelled hatspikes and by ornamented belt plaques. However, they soon found it necessary to take over the Ming system of decorated robes, as well. On August 15th, 1644, scarcely a month after Prince Dorgan, the Manchu Regent, had ridden into Peking at the head of his victorious army, he received a report from the Chinese Civil Governor of Shantung Province to ask about the new government’s regulations for costume and ceremonial. The Governor reported that three Manchurian officials working with him had frightened the people by going about in armor, and asked if they could not wear the official hats and robes of the last dynasty, at least while giving audiences and conducting official business. Prince Dorgan responded with a decree saying that at the present time the new regime was principally concerned with military matters, in exterminating the bandits, and had no spare time to determine the laws for costume and ceremonial. In the meantime he ordered that all officials should follow the Ming regulations, and immediately have special robes made for attending to their official duties, reserving their Manchu costume for ordinary use and for travel. Thus, the bird and animal patterns to distinguish rank were taken over by the Manchus.

By 1652 the Manchus had sufficiently pacified China to take the time to make their own clothing laws. Prominent among these were regulations that nobles and officials were to wear over their robes an outer jacket called a p’u-fu, with square plaques depicting the bird or animal of their rank. The birds and animals were assigned to each rank of the civil and military officials in practically the same order in which they had been used in the Ming, except that the pai-tse and the oriole both were dropped. Most of the nobles now wore dragons, since the Manchus were very fond of these animals, so the pai-tse was no longer necessary. And as the new dynasty did not need a badge for the un- classed officials, who shared the ninth rank insignia, they simply omitted the oriole, as the least spectacular of the birds, keeping the other nine. (After 1766 the oriole was revived for the badges of the Imperial musicians in Peking, being appropriate for this as a songbird, but it was never again used to mark official rank).

In the course of the dynasty, other minor changes were made in the order of the animals, although the birds remained the same. (See the table of laws at the end of this section). Chinese civilization and its costume tradition were by no means static, especially during the Ch’ing dynasty. The most sweeping changes in Manchu costume were made during the reign of the Ch’ien-lung Emperor, who was inordinately fond of pomp and ceremonial. In 1759 he commissioned an illustrated picture book of the ceremonial laws of the Ch’ing dynasty, which formally appeared in 1766. After this, the laws for the badges on the jackets remained unchanged until finally the Manchu dynasty followed the others into oblivion with the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

The new Chinese Republic was bent on rapid modernization, to enable the nation to take its rightful place in the modern world, and to regain the lands and rights that it had lost to the European powers during the last century of Manchu decline. In this progressive mood, it had no place for an outmoded costume tradition. The old Ch’ing dynasty garb was completely abandoned, and the jacket insignia, known to the Europeans as “mandarin squares,” were cut from the obsolete garments to be sold to the foreign residents of Peking, or to tourists, for table mats or as examples of fine weaving and embroidery. Few people bothered to collect them systematically, but among the rare exceptions was General Letcher, whose collection we now have.


The Ming courtiers and officials wore their bird and animal pat- terns on their broad-sleeved, full-cut red robes, with the design stretching from side seam to side seam, completely covering the chest and upper back. This mode of wearing them caused them to take a trapezoidal form, with the sides tapering slightly toward the top. Portraits show that the wives of the nobles and officials had identical robes for semi-formal wear, with exact copies of their husbands’ patterns of rank.

Aside from the Imperial Silk Factories in the Yangtze Valley region, to the south, which turned out special textiles for the Emperor’s family and the Court, there were no regular factories for the mass production of such things as the bird and animal insignia. These had to be made on special order, or even woven and embroidered in the officials’ own homes. Thus there was an almost complete absence of uniformity, and surviving examples may be woven in fine silk tapestry or rich brocades, or they may be embroidered in a great variety of intricate stitches. The colored threads were tinted with vegetable dyes made out of various flowers, roots, and barks; while the metallic threads were made by wrapping very fine strips of silver or gold spirally around a silken core.

The Ming statutes never refer to the number of birds and animals which should appear on the official patterns. Yet we know from numerous examples, and from contemporary portraits, that two or even three of them were used in the beginning, and pairs of birds were regularly used until the last years of the dynasty. On one group of Ming squares the two birds were depicted in a perfectly balanced composition, poised in flight against a gold background which was cut by brightly colored cloud streamers. A second group was more naturalistic. These typically showed one bird perched on a rock or branch, while the other was depicted flying down toward it from above. Even though these patterns lacked the studied balance found in the simpler type, the addition of appropriate flowering plants at the sides-such as lotuses with waterfowl, and peonies with land birds-filled out the composition and helped to produce handsome effects of a somewhat idealized naturalism. A beautiful example of this type is shown on the fine Ming tapestry badge illustrated in Fig. 3.

Quite often, however, the backgrounds of the Ming patterns of rank were cluttered with extraneous details, while magic jewels were scattered in the lower portion to convey hopes of wealth and fortune for the wearer. This destroyed any sense of realism, and spoiled the general effect. Perhaps it was in reaction to patterns of this type that a move toward greater simplicity gradually became apparent. This is especially notable in the single bird, or single animal, squares from the last years of the Ming. Some of these-perhaps most of them-retained the flowering plants and the general appearance of natural surroundings; but in a few, all pretence of realism was abandoned. The latter simply showed a highly stylized bird or animal standing on a rock in a rather heraldic pose, against a formal background of ribbed silk or repeated cloud forms.

The first badges of this type worn by the Manchus, after they took to wearing Ming-style official robes in 1644, may have carried on from the late Ming ones; but there must have been an almost immediate break in styles. Some time before the Manchus completed their own costume regulations in 1652, their badges already displayed innovations which marked the beginning of a new tradition in form and design. We can distinguish the ones made just after the conquest, because the Ming, style robes temporarily still in use had the patterns on chest and back exactly the same. If the squares were woven into a robe composed of separate panels, both would have been bisected by a central seam; or, if they were embroidered and applied separately, both would have extended unbroken straight across. After 1652, however, when the new Ch’ing Dynasty laws required that the badges were to be worn on an outer jacket, the front square always had to be split to allow for the opening of the jacket, which buttoned down the center.

The Letcher Collection has a pair of Early Ch’ing badges which apparently date from the transitional period between 1644 and 1652. (See Fig. 5). They are brocaded, with a bisecting seam down the center of each, showing that they had been woven directly on a two-panel robe. Each shows a single, very large heraldic bird perched on a rock among waves, with the rest of the background consisting of a cloud-filled sky; the whole composition thus represents the Universe in miniature, with its component elements of Earth, Sea, and Sky. This was to remain the basic design for the two hundred and fifty years; although, as we shall see, other elements gradually intruded to complicate the pattern. To this extent these badges do not differ very greatly from the late Ming ones, but there was one marked innovation. This was the addition of a red sun disc in the upper left corner, toward which the bird stares fixedly.

A later explanation for the sun disc was that it formed part of the cosmic symbolism which characterized the Ch’ing designs, since the bird or animal gazing at the sun disc was appropriately symbolic of the official who wore it looking up to his Emperor. However, if there were this element of a declaration of loyalty involved, we would expect to find the sun on all the badges, and yet it was rather late in appearing on the military insignia, and never was used at all for the badges of the Manchu noblemen. More probably it originated as a kind of rebus, illustrating the old Chinese saying, “Point at the sun and rise high” (chih jih shêng kao), thus symbolizing hope for an advance in rank. Whatever its precise origin, the sun disc remained an essential element on the Ch’ing badges, and clearly distinguishes them from those of the previous dynasty.

Another innovation characteristic of the early Manchu badges was a slight reduction in their size, so that they no longer extended from side seam to side seam of the robes, but formed a square pattern, which before long was set off with a border. The first borders, on the badges of the period that immediately followed the Conquest, often consisted of merely a slender line or two in gold; but they soon became highly elaborate, with ornamental golden scroll work set off between broader lines of gold. After the patterns were made in definite rectangles, with their shape further emphasized by the demarcating borders, they could be properly referred to as “squares of rank” (p’u fang). This was the origin of the later, foreign term, “Mandarin squares.”

The earliest Manchu squares from immediately after the Conquest can also be distinguished by the way in which they were made. The woven ones, like the pair just referred to (shown in Fig. 5), were usually worked in threads of spun peacock feathers and of gold; while the embroidered ones, besides using these same rich types of thread, have the portions in colored silk worked so that they lie entirely upon the surface, as on the example illustrated in Fig. 6. The lavish use of gold and peacock feathers might seem to be the natural result of a poor, border people suddenly finding themselves rulers of a vast empire with new wealth beyond their dreams, and no doubt this partly accounts for it. But there was also an economic reason, which was further reflected in the use of surface techniques of embroidery to avoid waste. In brief, there was a serious shortage of silk, so that threads of gold and peacock feathers were actually easier to obtain. This paradoxical situation arose because it took the Manchu conquerors several years to subdue the silk producing regions to the south and restore their productive capacity, but in the meantime, they had found in the Imperial Palace storehouses in Peking, among the bales of tribute offerings, a quantity of the peacock plumes which bad regularly formed part of the required tribute from Annam, in Indo-China, and other countries to the south.

The second important group of Ch’ing dynasty squares date from after 1652, and apparently lasted well into the second reign, the period of the K’ang-hsi Emperor, who ascended the throne ten years later. Meanwhile, the Yangtze Valley bad been pacified, the damage done by war had been repaired, and silk production was again booming in the south. Thus, this second group of squares has a very lavish use of colored silk thread, carried over to the back of the fabric with no slightest effort to avoid wasting it. The background is usually heavily embroidered in gold, broken up into sections to avoid excessive glare, at the same time ensuring that it would flash more spectacularly in the sunlight. Spun peacock feathers continued to be used, especially for the rock, and for the borders. They tried experiments with the birds. Often these were curled to form circular designs, as illustrated on the example in Fig. 7; sometimes two birds were used, as shown by examples in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum in New York; but the usual pattern simply showed a very large bird, or animal, spread out imposingly against the rich background, as shown in Fig. 8.

Toward the end of the K’ang-hsi reign the squares began to contract, and the birds and animals became much smaller to fit into the reduced space. The imposing ornamental borders gave way to delicate ones formed of a line or two of gold thread, and the gold threads in the background were simply laid straight across, with fewer cloud masses to break them up. In this way they served to mark the transition to the almost miniature squares of the Yung-cheng period (1723-1735), which are the smallest of all. On the latter, there is no longer much use of gold, and hardly ever any trace of peacock feathers. Instead, the birds, or animals, clouds, background, and natural features, are all worked in colored silk. For the fast time since the Ming, there is some effort toward naturalism, with rocks that really look like rocks, occasional flowers and plants growing on the “land” portion, and tumbled seas with curling breakers tossing up foam. (See Fig. 12).

Since the beginning of the dynasty the only extraneous symbols on the mandarin squares had been in the form of objects from the set of symbols known as the Eight Jewels-symbols of wealth such as rhinoceros horns, ivory tusks, scroll paintings, or conventionalized pearls-shown jutting from the waves at the bottom. Now more elaborate symbols came into use, such as the rebus figure consisting of three pole-axes rising from a lotus flower. This picture would be described in Chinese as lien sheng san chi, literally “lotus producing three halberds,” but by replacing these words with four others having exactly the same sound, you get a new phrase, “(May you) peacefully rise three degrees in rank.” (An even more elaborate rebus symbol is embroidered on No. 41, which dates from this same period. There, a swastika, a persimmon, a jade musical stone and a scepter, form a pun picture which can be read, “In a thousand matters may you have good fortune, as much as you desire.”)

A large group of mandarin squares from the reign of Ch’ien-lung in the mid-18th century are perhaps the handsomest of all, refined products of an age of elegance. Still small in size, they are finely embroidered in colored silks to show the bird or animal among rocks and plants, with trees on rocky crags at each side, and often a waterfall leading down to a brook in the foreground; all on a plain background of dark silk, which sets off the rest very well. (See Fig. 11). Unfortunately, these were soon spoiled by an increasing amount of lucky symbols, carrying to extremes the tendency that we saw beginning to develop during the previous reign. First, a few red bats appeared in the sky, as a pun on hung fu, meaning “vast happiness”; then five bats were used, to recall the five kinds of happiness: long life, wealth, tranquility, love of virtue, and a happy death to crown a lifetime of accomplishment. Then the bats were depicted as dangling lucky symbols from their jaws, usually objects taken from the “Eight Jewels” group. Gradually the lucky plants became larger and more numerous: pines, cypress, evergreen bamboo, and fungus, to symbolize longevity; peonies to symbolize riches and honors; and bushes of roses to symbolize eternal youth. (Some of these are shown on a later square in Fig. 23).

The Ch’ien-lung style of squares continued on into the reign of that Emperor’s son, which lasted until 1820. However, quite early in the 19th century, the patterns became much more stereotyped, and the easy naturalism of the landscape backgrounds gave way to increasing formalism. In effect, these changes produced a new type, more severe in pattern and rather monotonously alike, which persisted with only minor variations throughout the 19th century.

The typical 19th century pattern showed three rocks projecting from a tumbled sea, with the animal or bird perched on the central one, while the rocks at the side supported lucky plants and trees. The latter were nearly always the same combination: a tree peony with fungus and bamboo growing on one side, and a peach tree with a narcissus plant on the other. The fungus, narcissus, bamboo and peaches were all symbols of long life, taken individually; but collectively their names formed a rebus on the popular expression Ling hsien chu shou, “Divine spirits invoke Longevity,” and that is probably why they were shown together as symbols on the squares, as an expression of good luck for the wearer. (See Figs. 23 and 26).

We cannot say exactly when the pairs of squares for the officials and those for their wives began to be made in matched sets, with the lucky plants, sun discs, and other details arranged in exactly opposite fashion. This was one of those conventions that was established by custom rather than by law, so no precise date is given for it. In any case, it was a regular procedure on the later Ch’ing squares after 1800.

On the later Ch’ing squares for officials, the sun disc was placed in the upper right-hand corner (as the square was worn) and the bird or animal was represented facing it-either directly or over its shoulder. By contrast, the squares for an official’s legal wife (as opposed to secondary wives, who wore none) had the sun disc occupying the upper left corner, with the bird or animal facing it. Thus, when husband and wife sat together on state occasions to receive guests, the wife on her husband’s right, the birds or animals on their respective squares would confront each other, making a more balanced effect.

The other elements of the composition were also altered to conform to this opposite arrangement. Whereas the man’s square bad the peony and the fungus with bamboo growing from the right rock, while the peach tree and narcissus sprang from the one on the left; on the wife’s square their positions were exactly reversed, so that they appeared on the opposite sides. Similarly, in the types of squares on which the principal background decoration consisted of other groups of symbols, the order was completely reversed for the wives’ squares, so that each individual symbol would appear on the spouse’s square as though reflected in a mirror.

The use of group symbols was another development of the times. By the early 19th century, the jewel symbols in the waves were joined by the Eight Buddhist Symbols: the Wheel of the Law, royal canopy, state umbrella, lotus flower, vase, endless knot, conch shell, and twin fish. (See Fig. 9). Almost simultaneously the Eight Symbols of the Taoist Immortals made their appearance, more usually in the sky portion. These consisted of a magic fan, bamboo rattle, lotus, castanets, sword, gourd and crutch, flute, and flower basket. (See Fig. 24, in waves).

Buddhist and Taoist emblems.

As the 19th century progressed, with local revolts and foreign en-croachments, culminating in the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese people lost faith in the orderly scheme of things and depended more and more on luck. As a reflection of this, the lucky symbols multiplied on the squares, until the three main sets-the Eight Jewels, the Eight Buddhist Symbols, and the Eight Symbols of the Taoist Immortals-could all be found in the background of a single mandarin square, along with the auspicious plants. This overcrowding was further complicated by the fact that the deep sea below the waves, indicated by slanting stripes called li shui, began to expand upward to such an extent that it greatly reduced the space in which the main elements could be represented. (See Figs. 9 and 16).

In spite of the large number of symbols used as extraneous decoration on the squares by the second half of the 19th century, and the seemingly endless combinations in which they might be arranged, there tended to be a fairly small number of standard patterns. This might have been due to mass production of insignia in a few chief centers such as Peking, Suchow, and Canton; but more likely it was because of a spirit of conservatism, leading to the wide use of pattern books which dictated the general composition. Although no such books have come into Western collections, I was told about them in China; and only the use of basic pattern guides could explain why a number of squares in entirely different weaving or embroidery techniques, and presumably from different localities, should have almost identical patterns.

The techniques used for making the squares greatly multiplied in the later 19th century, as jaded officials tried to find some kind of variety which would set their badges apart from those of their colleagues. With fairly similar patterns, differences in techniques helped somewhat to break the monotony. But technical standards had degenerated so far by this time that the general quality of workmanship was low in comparison with earlier squares. The silk tapestry technique was used again on the squares, after a long period of imperial monopoly, but it had now so greatly deteriorated that many details were now just painted in instead of being woven. (See Fig. 10). The desire for novelty also caused great variations in embroidery. For example, the Peking knot (like the “French knot” of Western embroiderers) had formerly been used merely to pick out details, but now it was called upon to render entire patterns; and a whole series of European “counted canvas stitches” were taken over for the squares which were worked on gauze for use on thin summer jackets. Even when the embroidery work was skillfully done, the whole effect was often ruined on these late squares by the use of bad color combinations. Not only had the Chinese in their decline lost most of their native color sense, but they were importing such quantities of foreign dye stuffs, as well as previously-dyed silk thread, that it threw off their traditional color schemes which had formerly been based on local vegetable dyes. This trend is especially apparent after the 1870’s when aniline dyes were imported from Europe on a large scale.

By the last years of the 19th century, the crowding in of extra symbols, and the encroachment of the sea portion with its li shui stripes, had so reduced the size of the bird or animal which served as the actual insignia that the squares became rather ineffective for their main job of indicating the wearer’s rank. Perhaps in realization of this, or else because of the spirit of reform aroused by the abortive efforts of the puppet Emperor to overcome the reaction of the Empress Dowager during “the Hundred Days” in 1898, a severe purge of the accessory symbols took place about the turn of the century. In the period between 1900 and the fall of the dynasty in 1911, a goodly proportion of the mandarin squares had only the bird or the animal, and the sun disc, against a cloud-filled sky, with the few lucky symbols confined to the border. (See Fig. 13).

These reformed squares look, to our modern eyes, extremely handsome in their simplicity. But apparently all the Chinese officials did not agree about this, and there was an opposite tendency toward over- elaboration. In short, we find an enormous variety of patterns-from the simplest to the most complex-after the conservative standards of the 19th century gave way to the comparative chaos of the early 20th.

Even the reformed type of late Ch’ing mandarin squares were not immune to the degenerative tendencies of the times. On some of them the sea portion crept back, especially the deep-sea li shui stripes, while on others some of the accessory symbols resumed their place in the sky. In the meantime, the older types repeated all the evils of the 19th century ones, being overcrowded, badly composed, and tastelessly colored. (See Fig. 15). Even the simpler ones were spoiled by the still more garish hues of the 20th century aniline dyes. The complete lack of uniformity, together with a constant proliferation of more extravagant types of squares, mirrored the general decline of taste and stability in a fast-decaying dynasty. Thus, to the very end, the patterns and workmanship on the mandarin squares reflected rather accurately the spirit of the times in which they were made.


Most of the birds used as indications of rank-excepting only the Chinese phoenix-were originally drawn from nature, as were three of the animals. But during the course of centuries all these were highly conventionalized, until they became heraldic-looking creatures so far removed from the living varieties that they resembled their prototypes only remotely. The phoenix, and the rest of the animals, came from a large group of mythical creatures in traditional Chinese folklore. Even the “lion” and the “bear” as shown on the squares are fantastic creatures, born of fertile imagination.

Apart from the greater or less stylization of the birds and animals at various periods, and the gradual reduction in their size after 1700, their basic forms and shapes did not differ too greatly from the standard types, with the few exceptions that will be mentioned below. Although the conventions for coloring them did vary somewhat with changing styles and the whims of the individual designers, their forms and shapes were sufficiently consistent to make recognition fairly simple, even in the case of the squares worked primarily in gold or silver, where the bird or animal was shown in a single, untypical color.

The Chinese phoenix, or feng-huang, appeared on insignia only in the Ming dynasty, when it was confined to the Empress and highest noblewomen. The traditional emblem of the Empress during later Chinese history, it was regarded in Chinese folklore as being the chief among birds, corresponding to the Emperor’s dragon as king of animals. Therefore, just as the dragon was made up of outstanding features from several animals, the Chinese phoenix was represented with the most spectacular characteristics of several birds. It was given a cock’s comb and wattles, the golden throat feathers of a mandarin duck, the overlapping back-feathers of a peacock, two to five tail plumes ultimately derived from the peacock or the Argus pheasant, and the long legs of a crane. Examples of the phoenix are shown in Figs. l and 2.

The white crane has long enjoyed a favored place in Chinese art and folklore as a symbol of longevity. Not only was it supposed to live to a great age, but it also was associated with the Isles of the Immortals where worthy souls enjoyed eternal life. It also symbolized vast wisdom, because this went with age in Chinese thinking. All this prestige made it a natural symbol of the first civil rank. On the insignia it is shown as predominantly white, with a red crown atop its rounded bead, and sometimes black trimmings on neck, wings and tail. The back feathers overlap in scale fashion, and the bill and legs are very long. (See Fig. 9).

The Golden, or Manchurian, pheasant was considered as a symbol of the duties and obligations of civil officials since the T’ang dynasty (618-907). It is conventionalized as a brilliantly colored bird, almost as vivid as its namesake in nature. But one does not need to remember all its colors, for the two long, pointed tail plumes, lightly barred in black, are sufficient identification for this bird of rank two. (SeeFig. 10).

The peacock was a symbol of splendor in China, as in other lands, and it had figured on official robes of previous dynasties, long before the Ming. On the squares it outdoes even the Golden pheasant in magnificence, but once again the colors are unnecessary for identification. Its broad, fan-like tail is made up of many large plumes, each with a prominent “eye,” while one or more smaller feathers of the same kind jut from the crown of its head. Even when the rest of the bird and the background are worked in monochrome gold, the identifying tail and small head plume are usually done in colors. (See Fig. 8).

The wild goose, or “Cloud goose,” as the Chinese call it, was another bird chosen for the Ming badges of rank because of its long prestige. Traditionally it was a symbol of loyalty. Its very simplicity comes as something of a relief after the other highly ornamental birds. It usually appears in light tan or mustard color. The earlier ones had small, scalelike feathers, but the later examples have instead small, black comma, shaped lines, generally occurring in pairs. The simple, rounded head with a gray or black chin patch, and the tapering tail with one feather curling out beyond the others, are the chief distinguishing marks. (See Fig. 11). On many of the later examples the goose does not even have webbed feet.

The Silver pheasant was generally conventionalized as a predominantly white bird, entirely disregarding the gray and black markings of the bird in nature. Its chief identification mark is its tail, which in the Ming consisted of two to live long slender tail plumes, springing out of several shorter ones. In the Ch’ing, however, the convention changed, so the tail now had five (rarely three) widely separated, seal, loped plumes, and these five ornamental feathers are easily remembered in association with rank five. (See Fig. 13).

The egret is one of the best loved birds in China, as well as being one of the most auspicious and useful ones. The more naturalistic Ming squares appropriately showed this white, long-legged and long-billed bird among water plants. It is easily recognized by its color, its long head plumes (or solid crest) and its long, green or yellow, bill and legs. (See Figs. 6 and 12).

The small and extremely beautiful Mandarin duck has long had a prominent place in Chinese art and folklore as a wedding symbol, but it was used as a decoration on official robes centuries before the Ming for its ornamental effect. It is usually colored as brilliantly as the Golden pheasant, but even when done in monochrome it can be recognized by its pointed crest, the slender feathers on its neck, projecting scapulars, and short wedge-shaped tail. (See Figs. 7 and 14).

The quail is another of the traditional auspicious birds of Chinese folklore, but it is also one of the ugliest as it is depicted on the insignia. Its short dumpy figure does not lend itself to heraldic depiction, although it does make for ease in identification. Another basic characteristic is the arrangement of its feathers as though they were pointed scales, with each of them usually marked by a white midrib. (See Fig. 15).

The Paradise flycatcher of nature is a very small bird. However, it appears on the squares fully as large as a pheasant or peacock, because of the liberties taken in conventionalizing it. Its distinctive attribute is an extremely long and narrow tail which has caused it to be used as a decorative motif on robes since at least the Sung dynasty. In nature the bird occurs in two phases, one dark and the other light. The rarer, preponderantly white phase is the one always shown on the badges. Two long narrow tail plumes, with a spot of darker color forming an “eye” near the end of each, distinguish this bird from any of the others. (In earlier times it often had a third plume on the tail). A small head plume of the same type degenerates into a rather heavy blue crest in the late examples. (See Figs. 3 and 16).

The oriole has been a symbol of music and joy since the T’ang dynasty. It is a small bird of yellow hue, as its Chinese name huang li implies. It has no other distinguishing features except a long tail, formed of several stiff feathers set close together and ending in a blunt wedge shape. In other American collections there are two examples of early Ch’ing oriole insignia dating from the brief period between 1644 and 1652, after which the oriole was no longer used to mark official rank. These show the yellow, long-tailed bird with back, wing coverts, and tail lightly marked in black. The Letcher Collection has a pair of late oriole squares from the time when this bird was used as the badge of the Imperial Musicians. (It was revived for this use in 1766). These represent the bird in a typical bright yellow color, but they differ in showing it as having blue back markings and a blue throat. (See Fig. 29).

As stated above, the animals figured on the insignia were mostly selected from a group of mythical creatures out of Chinese folklore. As an indication of this, their supernatural character was generally emphasized by wisps of flame eddying upward from their shoulders and flanks. The same flaming appendages were shown rising from various supernatural animals in Persian art after the period of Mongol domination, and this convention is often considered as “typically Persian.” However, it was already very old in China when it was carried to Iran, during the Mongol Conquest, along with the dragon and the Chinese phoenix. The flames seem to have first been used on representations of the dragon, later spreading to other dragon-like creatures, and finally to supernatural animals in general.

As the dragon was considered as a ruler among beasts, in its purest form it served as the symbol of the Emperor. At the time of our insignia, that is to say during the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, the Imperial dragon had finally evolved into a five-clawed golden creature known as a lung. (See Fig. 2). This appeared on the badges of the Emperor and his immediate family, while lesser princes and the higher nobles were supposed to use the four-clawed variety known as a mang. (See Fig. 19). The mang did not differ from the lung in any respect except for the lack of one claw; and since the Emperor could award the use of an extra claw-frequently doing so-the two types were quite often absolutely identical. Two Ch’ing emperors became annoyed about this, and ordered the deletion of the extra claws on nobles’ mang dragons. Proof that these commands were actually carried out is provided by examples in other collections which have the threads of one claw on each foot drawn out.

At least three other members of the dragon family occasionally appear on the insignia. The first was the Ming’s ying-lung, which resembled the regular five-clawed lung in every respect except for the addition of giant wings shaped like those of a bat. The Letcher Collection has a wonderful example on a medallion of imperial yellow which must have come from the robe of a Ming Emperor. (See Fig. 17). Another Ming variety was the tou-niu, which ranked below the mang, and was figured on special insignia awarded by the Emperor as a reward for merit. Its most characteristic elements were rounded, down-curving horns, three claws, and the absence of the typical flaming pearl which is always associated with the true dragons. Sometimes the tou-niu also was given an extra claw, but its down-sweeping horns always serve to distinguish it from the other types. (See Fig. 18). Lastly, there was the ch’ih, a child-dragon that had not yet developed scales. It had only one born, paw-like feet, and tail that split at the end to form two loops. A pair of these were used in the later Ch’ing, entwined in a giant shou character, to mark the robes of an emperor’s grandsons.

The ch’i-lin is one of the numerous mythical animals of Chinese art and folklore which can have no counterpart in our Western tradition, and therefore can only be called by Chinese names. It has sometimes been called the “Oriental unicorn,” but its two horns alone should be enough to show the absurdity of that name. It is a composite beast with a head like a dragon’s, the body of a stag, covered with large scales, slender legs ending in sharp, cloven hoofs, and a bushy tail like that of the conventional Chinese lion. (See Fig. 22). It had so many auspicious connotations that it was used on the robes of generals back in the T’ang dynasty, and again on the robes of Yüan Mongols; so it had long precedent for its appearance on the Ming insignia.

The pai-tse, another mythical Chinese creature with no Western counterpart, also had a long and honorable tradition, having figured on imperial banners for three dynasties before the Ming. Its description varies greatly in the old Chinese accounts, but on the Ming squares it has a dragon-like head with two large horns, a body and tail like those of a Chinese lion, and paws with claws. (See Fig. 20). The makers of the squares often enhanced its weird appearance by using different combinations of colors for its mane and bushy tail, as well as depicting clusters of rough scales on its shoulders and flanks. It dropped out completely at the end of the Ming.

The hsieh-chai, also a mythical animal, had been familiar in Chinese tradition since the Later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220) as a creature which could distinguish between good and evil. It was therefore singularly fitted to be the emblem of the Imperial Censors who were appointed to investigate and report any breach in the honesty and integrity of other members of the official hierarchy, as well as the emblem for judges. It, too, is a white lion-like creature with paws, but it differs from the hsieh-chai in having only one horn-usually very large-and no scales. (See Fig. 21).

The Chinese lion is quite unlike any real lion. It was known in China for centuries largely as a Buddhist emblem, and being a popular symbol it had undergone more and more elaboration with the passage of time, taking it ever further from its natural prototype. It is shown on the insignia as dark blue, or white, with a red chest, and a green or gold curly mane, back crest, and bushy tail. Often it has the same curly hairs trimming its front and back legs. (See Fig. 23). This animal, also, had been used on military robes since the T’ang dynasty.

The tiger and the leopard are listed together in the early Ming regulations for insignia, and they are pictured together on the same badge in the earliest known pattern book for Ming insignia (published in 1405). Later they appeared singly. Both were always shown with the same orange-yellow base color, but were distinguished by stripes and spots, respectively. In the later Ch’ing dynasty the stripes tended to become vague comma-shaped lines, and the spots faint circles. (See Figs. 24 and25). Although there have been many spirit-tigers and even magic leopards in Chinese folklore, these on the squares are two out of the three insignia animals which were obviously drawn from nature. As such, they very seldom are shown with the flame wisps springing from them. Both had appeared on T’ang robes awarded to generals, so their appearance on Ming military robes had a long precedent.

The bear (or bears) on the insignia appear as far removed from a natural prototype as the lion. Its name in the Ming was a collective term combining the names of two separate bear-like creatures, one dark and one light. The two-bear tradition lingered on into the Ch’ing, offering two alternative types to fifth rank officials, the more common one in blue, and a second in tawny white, which reappeared sporadically during the course of the dynasty. (See Fig. 26). The Letcher Collection has fine examples of both types. A passage in the T’ang laws for costume says that the bear as a fierce animal is a very suitable emblem of the military officer’s might. The Ming and early Ch’ing bears on the insignia still show that fierceness. They somewhat resemble the Chinese lion, except that their jaws and claws tend to be longer, and their scantier mane sweeps upward instead of falling into tight curls like the lion’s. On the later Ch’ing squares the resemblance between bear and lion becomes even greater. Contrary to nature, the bear on the squares has a tail of considerable length, often conventionalized like that of the Chinese lion.

The panther is the third and last of the animals to be taken directly from a natural prototype. It is also the first of the animals which had not appeared as a military officer’s symbol in the T’ang dynasty. However, it was obviously a fierce animal, and hence very appropriate for this purpose. Previously the panther has been miscalled a “tiger-cat” in Western writings, due to a mistranslation of its Chinese name piao; but in appearance it is a true panther. Its shape resembles the tiger and leopard, though unlike them it has no markings, except for an occasional example with a star on the forehead. It is simply a tawny yellow cat-like creature, sometimes shown with a white chest.

The rhinoceros had a reputation for ferocity in Chinese folklore, but is was better known as an auspicious beast because of the magical properties ascribed to its horn, like those attributed to the unicorn’s horn in Medieval Europe. It would seem that the form of this animal shown on the insignia was intended to stress the latter, more supernatural aspect, because it certainly does not look very fierce. It is shown as a lightly built cow-like creature, pale brown with large spots of a darker hue. It had been depicted on a banner in the Yüan, or Mongol dynasty, and it seems possible that the “auspicious ox” of the T’ang military robes may have been the same creature under a slightly different name.

A print of a horse running on water, swirled clouds in the background.

The Sea horse might be classed among the naturalistic animals as far as its form goes, since it was a perfectly recognizable figure of a horse. However, its sacred white color, and the way it was depicted bounding over the ocean waves, with flames springing from its withers and flanks, make it obvious that it was not regarded as any ordinary beast. No actual insignia with this animal are known to have survived-there are several good reasons for this rarity. Therefore, we know the Sea horse in this usage only from the official Ming and Ch’ing illustrations of insignia. However, these alone are sufficient evidence to prove that the emblem of the ninth rank was never a “seal,” as it is often falsely listed in Occidental books. This false impression seems to have arisen from a mistranslation of its Chinese name, hai ma.


During the process of cataloguing the Letcher Collection for accession in the University Museum, we found definite proof for the existence of a whole new category of Ming badges which were previously known only from allusions in the writings of Ming courtiers. These were the Festival Badges, specially made to be worn on the great occasions of the year-according to the old Chinese calendar.

There were several good reasons why the Ming Court should have emphasized the great annual festivals. In the first place, the Mongol rulers of the previous dynasty, being aliens, had not celebrated these according to the traditional Chinese customs, and during that period of foreign occupation the native Chinese had observed the festivals in their old ways in the privacy of their own homes, treasuring these occasions as an opportunity to express their own traditions in defiance of “barbarian” rule. In this way these days had taken on patriotic overtones.

Another reason for emphasizing these occasions, especially in the later Ming dynasty, was that this period was a time of great stress, with constant pressure from Mongols and Manchus on the northern frontiers, and serious rebellions within the nation. Under a constant burden of anxiety, the rulers must have welcomed regular periods of gaiety and relaxation at the seasonal celebrations. Lastly, the later Ming was one of those unfortunate periods of Chinese history when the Palace eunuchs had obtained excessive influence over the Court. The chief eunuchs had to keep the semi-captive members of the Imperial Family sufficiently interested in life so that they would not become restless and look for means to alter the situation, and at the same time they were no doubt frequently bored themselves by the deadly routine of Court ceremonial, and very glad to welcome anything that would temporarily alter its tempo. For all these reasons, the Ming Court at Peking evidently went to extraordinary lengths in celebrating these festivals, preparing symbolic decorations and hangings, symbolic foods, and especially symbolic clothing, the topic which most concerns us here.

The Letcher Collection has several examples of Ming badges which show us that the special symbols for the various festivals were not only used in the background of the regular insignia intended for use on that particular occasion, but also that special badges were made, having only the festival symbols without the marks of rank. Later research in the Chinese collections of other museums has brought to light still other examples which have proved this point beyond question.

The first of the great annual festivals of the old Chinese calendar was the New Year. This fell in January or early February of our Western calendar and marked the beginning of spring. The special symbol for this occasion was the gourd. Gourds in general were auspicious as emblems of abundance, but this was an especially lucky one, the Gourd of Great Good Fortune, distinguished from others by associated luck symbols. The Letcher Collection has a Ming Empress’s badge (Fig. 2) which has in the background small representations of this New Year’s gourd, each marked with a wealth symbol, indicating it had served as a New Year’s badge.

The next festival was the Feast of Lanterns, on the 15th of the first month. This was celebrated by setting out lanterns of every conceivable form and color. For this occasion, lanterns were figured in the back, ground of the insignia, or special lantern badges were worn. Several examples of both types have turned up in other museums.

The Tuan Yang Festival, otherwise known as the Dragon Boat Festival, was particularly rich in symbols. It was celebrated on the 5th of the fifth month, at the time of the summer solstice, when evil in, fluences were thought to be lurking about throughout the land. All its symbols were therefore especially devoted to counteracting the forces of evil. Prominent among them were spirit-tigers, leaves of artemisia-a plant noted for its exorcising powers in Asia as in Europe-and the Five Poisons. The latter were five noxious creatures chosen as symbols of evil. In Ming times they were the centipede, snake, scorpion, lizard and toad, although later the groups were often varied by the substitution of other repellent animals like the spider, wasp, frog, or bed, bug, in place of more standard ones. Traditionally these were sometimes represented as being pursued or crushed by the forces of Right, in the form of a good spirit; but they were also portrayed alone, in the belief that these beings of ill omen would ward off or discourage other evil things, as a sort of toxin-antitoxin.

One of the examples in the Letcher Collection is a Ming princess’s phoenix badge, with a pair of tigers, two clumps of artemisia plants, and the Five Poisons, along with some auspicious flowers. These symbols have been kept subordinate to the phoenixes, who naturally formed the principal subject, but they are still prominent enough to show that the badge was made for this particular occasion; while the thin gauze on which it is embroidered shows beyond doubt that it was for a summer festival. (See Fig. 1).

Two other Tuan Yang badges in the collection are examples of the type made primarily to celebrate the festival, without any indication of rank. Perhaps they were worn by Court eunuchs or Palace ladies who had power and influence without belonging to a specific rank. On these, a pair of large tigers were done in gold, with a double set of the Five Poisons and the auspicious plants. Not only are these marvels of technical skill, with several types of embroidery on each, but they are also interesting for the fact that they seem to have been done by separate artists. They clearly show how the Chinese genius can create variety even when given the same subjects with the same symbolic elements, to be done in practically the same techniques. One is shown in Fig. 4.

On the 7th of the seventh month, the Ming Court observed a festival which had its basis in a romantic folktale. This was the legendary meeting of the Oxherd and the Spinning Maiden, who had been condemned by the latter’s angry father to live forever in the sky as separate constellations (Aquila and Lyra in our Western astronomy), but were permitted to meet each other on this one night each year. It was said that they crossed the Heavenly River (Milky Way) by means of a bridge formed for them by hundreds of magpies, the traditional symbols of marriage and happiness. The memoirs left by late Ming courtiers tell us that a representation of the Magpie Bridge was figured on the insignia of the courtiers for the first two weeks of the seventh month, but thus far, no complete example has turned up.

The Mid-Autumn Festival on the 8th of the eighth month had special importance as the traditional Moon Festival, otherwise known as the Feast of Mooncakes. The special symbol for this occasion was the white moon rabbit. We know from literary references and actual textile fragments that this rabbit was figured on the robes of Court ladies and eunuchs (it was considered bad luck and bad form for men to wear this symbol); but whether or not it was ever used on the actual insignia we cannot say, unless an example comes to light to prove it.

On the 9th of the ninth month, the Ch’ung Yang Festival was especially celebrated by a huge display of chrysanthemums before the Emperor . For this special day the Palace courtiers and eunuchs wore chrysanthemums on their insignia, or chrysanthemum badges. The Metropolitan Museum has a beautiful example of a dragon insignia with these particular flowers in the background, evidently made for that occasion.

Lastly, the winter solstice in the eleventh month was marked by a special ceremony at the Ming Court, to celebrate the change in the length of days and the imminent return of the sun from the far south. The special symbol for this day was the plum blossom, the flower of winter. The Letcher Collection has a badge with this symbol, the Empress’s insignia (Fig. 2), which was already mentioned in connection with the New Year because it also has the New Year symbol of the lucky gourd. This doubling of symbols brings up an interesting point. The insignia with Festival symbols and the Festival badges per se were generally only suitable for use on one occasion, the festival which they symbolized. Therefore we frequently find two symbols on one badge so that it may appropriately be used for two festivals held dose together, provided the symbols are not incompatible. For example, the cherry blossom as a happy flower would not be out of place at New Year’s, and the lucky gourd would be an auspicious symbol at any time, although it was particularly appropriate for the New Year. A more common combination is found on badges for the Feast of Lanterns, of which there are several examples in other collections. On these the New Year’s gourd doubles as a lantern by the addition of an ornamental canopy, so that the single badge can be used for both the New Year’s Festival and the Feast of Lanterns, held fifteen days later.

When the Manchus came down into China, they did not continue the custom of using festival emblems. One late Ch’ing Manchu antiquarian explained this by saying that his dynasty, with its august frugality, considered the custom too frivolous. However, the native Chinese in the capital and elsewhere continued to celebrate the festivals as before, and it is possible that they treasured the old festival insignia of their ancestors as ornaments to be displayed on those special days. This would help to account for the preservation of the examples now in our museums.


The Ming official robes with bird and animal badges spread far beyond the borders of China, finding their way to distant lands. This was partly the result of the Ming tribute system, through which such robes were often sent to the rulers of other countries in return for their gifts to the Chinese Emperor. The Okinawan kings, East Indian rajahs, and Central Asian sultans who received the animal-figured robes probably wore them as handsome pieces of clothing, but aside from a few definite exceptions, we have little evidence to show that the- patterns had any particular influence on the culture of these other nations.

There is seemingly one exception in the case of Persia. There the nobles and officials did wear bird and animal patterns on their robes in the period contemporary with the Ming dynasty, as shown in the Persian miniature paintings. However, their custom was apparently not really due to Ming influence. It would seem that the Persians were merely continuing a tradition of decorative robe patterns which they had received from their Mongol conquerors in the 14th century, along with the other elements of Mongol costume, such as hats with jewelled knobs and ornamental belt plaques. Whereas the Ming Chinese had inherited similar bird and animal patterns from the Mongols and had modified them to serve a new purpose as marks of rank, the Persians seem to have kept them purely for ornament and, as far as we can tell, never used them for insignia.

A much clearer case of a positive influence from the Ming official badges is provided by Korea. In 1454 the Koreans took over the system of using birds and animal patterns to indicate rank, but being a characteristically independent-minded nation, they introduced a few modifications.

At first they seem to have used the same birds and animals that the Ming used, in a slightly different order. But sometime before the mid-19th century the Koreans had devised a system of their own. This required that the first three ranks of civil officials wear badges with two cranes, and the last six ranks, one; while the first three ranks of military officers wore a pair of tigers, and the last six ranks wore one. The two cranes and two tigers of the upper rank Korean squares were composed like the paired bird and paired animal badges of the early Ming in China, and perhaps this represents a survival of earlier Chinese elements into 19th century Korea. Certainly the background of the square in Fig. 27 recalls Ming prototypes. This, however, is not a very typical one, as most of the later Korean badges had more formalized backgrounds. Generally they show a stylized rock among waves at bottom center, and two more columnar rocks at each side, with spray dashing up from them, the rest of the square representing a cloud-filled sky, against which the tigers crouch or the cranes soar, as shown in Fig. 28.

The “tigers” on the Korean squares look more like leopards, as their clustered markings suggest spots rather than stripes. They are also much whiter than the tigers or leopards on Chinese squares. Other differences on the Korean badges should make it easy to distinguish them from the Chinese variety, particularly in later times. For instance, the 19th century Korean badges were more oblong than square, being a little higher than they were wide, and they were very small compared to contemporary Chinese insignia. Also, they seldom were figured with lucky symbols, but made up for this by having backgrounds of blue-green damask patterned with symbols from the “Eight Jewels” group. Lastly, they never had sun discs. This tradition of cloth badges on the ordinary robes of Korean officials lasted until 1894, when the squares were limited to ceremonial dress. Soon after, the old costume was discarded entirely in favor of Western-style uniforms.

The Kingdom of Annam in Indo-China also took over the custom of wearing bird and animal badges to designate rank. But this was not done until 1744, some three hundred and fifty years after the Chinese had invented it. However, the Annamese squares persisted longer. Even under French domination in the 20th century, the puppet courtiers of Annam, in their old capital at Hue, have been donning their traditional robes with squares for the various annual ceremonies of the Court.

We do not yet know precisely why the rulers of Annam gave up the distinctive national dress of Indo-China in 1744, and adopted an official costume based on that of Ming China before the Manchu Conquest. It seems probable that they wanted to take over Chinese traditions, and realizing that the Manchu costume was alien to China, had sought in the costume of the Ming a more purely Chinese form of dress. When it came to the squares, it would seem that they first followed the Ming rules for the specific types of birds and animals-which they could have discovered in any of several books which would have been available to them; but as all memory of the form of the Ming squares and their characteristically large dimensions had been forgotten, they must have used as models the small squares of their contemporaries in 18th century China.

The influence of Ch’ing models was no doubt reinforced in 1790, when the Manchu Emperor presented the Crown Prince of Annam with a p’u-fu jacket of the second rank, having Golden pheasant squares, and gave the five emissaries who had come with him jackets with hsieh-chai squares. Annamite costume did not permit the wearing of these Manchu-style jackets as such, but the squares could have served as patterns for those of succeeding generations. In fact, 20th century French photographs of court ceremonies at Hue show the Annamese officials wearing squares of the approximate size and superficial appearance of those worn in late 18th century China, except that the front square is never split, because the breast of the robe extends straight across the chest in the old Ming style.

The first listing of Annamese insignia for specific ranks that I have been able to find dates from 1806, soon after the founding of the last dynasty. By that time, the Annamese had already departed considerably from any Chinese regulations. Although the civil officials used the same birds as their contemporaries in Ch’ing dynasty China, in the same order, they broke the sequence by having the first two ranks share the crane, which meant that the officials of each succeeding rank were one step behind their Chinese counterparts. Meanwhile, the military officials used the Ming pai-tse, as well as the ch’i-lin and all the other creatures used on the Ch’ing military squares, but they had arranged these animals in a new and arbitrary order which did not correspond to the Chinese series of either the Ming or the Ch’ing. Another difference was that the usual Annamese insignia were worked on a red background, to contrast with the blue robes on which they were worn, while the contemporary Chinese squares were worked on blue-black cloth. No American collection bas squares which are definitely known to be Annamese, so the subject is still at a pioneer stage.

Even though no other nations except Korea and Annam took over the Chinese institution of using mandarin squares, some of the Ming insignia traveled thousands of miles and found interesting uses in other lands. One of the chief reasons for this was the dispersal of Ming uniforms with the flight of former officials at the coming of the Manchus.

When the Manchus entered Peking in 1644 and proceeded to take over China, many loyal Ming officials fled from the country, taking their families to Japan or to Manila. Some of them seem to have taken their robes with patterns of rank along with them, and then when it became clear that they could never return home or resume office, they disposed of them. Some fine Ming badges that apparently reached Japan in that way have been preserved until modern times in Japanese collections, as examples of fine Chinese embroidery or silk tapestry, and such examples helped to influence the development of Japanese textile techniques.

Some of the Ming badges that got to Manila evidently traveled on a good deal further. A dealer in New York recently had some fragments of Ming pai-tse and lion squares in silk tapestry which had been found in Spain, where they had formed part of the decoration on old ecclesiastical vestments belonging to Spanish priests.

Still other Ming badges seem to have reached Peru sometime in the 17th century, probably by way of the Acapulco galleon which brought Filipino products to the New World every three years. We can tell this by examining some of the fine wool tapestries made in Colonial Peru during the 17th and 18th centuries, examples of which can be seen in the Brooklyn Museum and the Textile Museum of Washington, D.C. Among a great variety of eclectic motifs on these-including Peruvian parrots and monkeys, Hapsburg double-headed eagles, and crowned lions from European heraldry-it is possible to find two animals which have clearly been derived from the hsieh-chai and the “bear” as found on the Ming badges. (See Fig. 31). The borrowed animals even have the traditional flames springing from their shoulders and flanks, although these seem to have been misunderstood so that the shoulder ones have been changed to look more like wings. Since neither of these animals occurred on other Chinese textiles of the Ming period, as far as we know, and since the details are so closely followed that they must have been copied, it seems clear that some Ming badges reached Peru. This would probably also account for the birds on the same class of Colonial Peruvian textiles which have such a marked resemblance to the Chinese phoenix, and which-like the latter-are usually shown in association with peony-like plants. Since the Spanish rulers in Colonial Peru were accustomed to the tapestries of very high quality produced by their Peruvian weavers, it is only natural that they would have greatly admired and valued the even more delicate workmanship in the silk tapestries of Ming China. Perhaps actual examples of the old Ming badges may still be preserved in Peruvian church treasuries.

The mandarin squares also exerted a strong influence in Ch’ing dynasty China, outside the official circles in which they were regularly worn as insignia of rank. This is particularly seen in the shape and decoration of other types of badges, which were obviously copied from the squares. Perhaps the most obvious were the badges on the robes of three groups of men, most of whom had no official rank, who were required to attend various state ceremonies, particularly the great annual sacrifices. Lesser members of the Department of Sacred Music, including the “civil posturers” who performed slow rhythmic dances at the chief festivals, had to wear squares embroidered with golden mallow Bowers, while officers of the Board of Music and the imperial musicians themselves wore the oriole squares previously mentioned. (See Fig. 29). Finally the “Officials who accompanied the plough” in the annual ceremony at the Temple of Agriculture had to wear squares depicting the sun among clouds over a triple mountain.

Still further removed from the official squares in appearance, and yet sometimes worn by officials, were two types of squares inscribed with Chinese characters. They resembled the regular insignia only by their shape and similar outer borders. The first type had on them four large characters expressing some variation of the formula, “Conferred by Imperial Grace.” Portraits in which badges of this type were shown almost always represent very elderly men of no official rank, and it seems probable that they were conferred by the later Ch’ing emperors on worthy elders who merited special honors because of their great age. The Ch’ing dynastic records have numerous references to imperial gifts made to aged citizens, but they seldom specify what was presented.

The second type of four-character square was a presentation badge of quite another kind. In fact, they were almost directly opposite to the preceding type, since they were intended for presentation to superiors. These were the silk plaques which were given to worthy officials on the occasion of their leaving a post, presented by their former subjects as a token of gratitude for wise and considerate rule. The Letcher Collection has a pair of these. (See Fig. 30). The front one is inscribed, “The Living Buddha of ten thousand families,” a compliment to the late magistrate’s mercy and compassion; while the rear one says, “May your entire journey be under a lucky star,” to speed him on his way. Smaller characters record the recipient’s name and the year of presentation, 1909. The official must have actually worn them on his jacket as he left the district he had been governing, because the front one is badly stained from rain or parting tears.

The remaining types of squares were completely unconnected with official life. During the Ch’ing dynasty, and on into the 1940’s in remoter parts of China, elderly people of no official rank were permitted to be buried in Ming-style funeral robes bearing squares with cranes-the crane being a symbol of eternal life-provided these squares did not resemble the badges for the first-rank officials. They were generally done on red backgrounds, not only because red is the most auspicious yang color but also to distinguish them from the official badges which were worked on blue-black silk. Chinese brides during the Ch’ing were permitted to wear similar squares with phoenixes on the outer robes of their wedding attire. Since the Chinese phoenix was not used on Ch’ing insignia and there was no chance of mistaking these, they often had dark backgrounds.

With this general group of false squares also belong the ones made for actors representing officials. The actors’ squares were not permitted to resemble the official badges too closely, either. If birds or animals were used, they were grotesque ones which did not match those that properly indicated rank, and they were done on red backgrounds. Even the latter could not be used until the last years of the Ch’ing dynasty, or perhaps even after its fall, for in those days of dynastic strength it would have been considered disrespectful for an actor to resemble an official too closely. Earlier, the actors wore simple square patches depicting popular folk motifs, instead.

Equally unofficial, but easier to identify at a glance, are the rectangular patches in the general form of mandarin squares which were used to decorate the robes of Buddhist or Taoist priests. Often they were made singly. Although their shape recalls the old official squares, the subject matter of their designs was generally drawn from ancient Chinese folklore or religious symbolism. Occasionally, however, the pattern also will be partially derived from the mandarin squares, as in the case of one in the Letcher Collection. This shows a very stylized Buddha seated on a rock above a strip of the deep-sea water convention, like the bird or animal on a late Ch’ing official’s square, but it, too, has the plebeian red background.

Even the custom of using these pseudo-squares is now dead in China-with the possible exception of the theatrical type for use in propaganda plays to ridicule the old regime. The Revolution of 1911, followed by some twenty-five years of civil wars, the Japanese invasion, and the ultimate degeneration into Communism, have completely destroyed the old Chinese culture in all its most characteristic expressions. Therefore, we are especially fortunate in having examples of even the aberrent types of squares in the Letcher Collection, so that our supply of potential study material for future students of the Old China is that much more complete.


In addition to the mandarin squares which we have been discussing, the Manchus had several other features in the costumes of their nobles and officials which served to designate their rank, notably the different hat and belt ornaments. Like the squares, these too underwent certain changes, and a knowledge of their development is equally useful for such things as dating and identifying Ch’ing ancestral portraits.

We have already seen that the Manchus first used only the hat and belt ornaments to designate ranks, until they came down into China and adopted the Ming institution of bird and animal patterns. It was nothing new in China to designate rank by forms of hats and the ornamentation on belts. However, the kinds of hats and belts which the Manchus used were totally unlike anything previously worn by the Chinese. It is possible that they ultimately derived from those that had been used by the Mongols of the Yüan dynasty, to judge by the very similar-looking hats and belts shown in the Persian miniatures from the time when the Mongol khans ruled Persia as well. In fact, the Manchu hats were as alien to China as the queues which they introduced and imposed on the Chinese as a mark of subjection.

The Manchu cold-weather hats resembled in shape those worn by the Mongols (both those of the Yuan, and their own contemporaries). They were rather close-fitting, with a low rounded crown and a sharply upturned brim. But unlike the Mongol variety, the Manchu hats had a stiffer brim, which could not be snapped up and down, and the outside of this brim was faced with black velvet for spring or fall and with fur for winter. Also, the Manchus fastened a heavy fringe of red silk or horsehair to the apex of the crown extending down as far as the brim.

The Manchu summer hat was quite different. A comparatively recent innovation, it was unlike anything the Mongols had had. A slave war captive had invented it for the Manchus in 1623, receiving an ox for it, as a reward for his ingenuity. Made of finely split bamboo or dried grasses covered with thin white silk, it was essentially a broad flat tone, resting on a circular band which fitted on to the bead. This hat, too, had a thick red fringe which hung down from the apex and extended almost to the outer edge of the rim.

Both forms of hats were fitted with ceremonial hatspikes for very special occasions, and it was these which played such an important part in indicating rank. They were held upright on the apex of the crown by a long metal screw, which passed through a hole left for this purpose at the center of the red fringe. The official’s hatspike was made of gold or gilded metal, in two tiers. First came a flaring base, resembling a small inverted cup; then, above this, was a spherical section, from the top of which projected a set of prongs to hold a vertical jewel. The tall jewel, together with small pearls or little round gems, set into the spherical part of the spike, proclaimed the rank of the wearer. The first regulations for these were issued in 1635, at the time of the traditional founding of the dynasty, when the Manchus had completed the conquest and consolidation of their first empire in Manchuria. By these laws, the Emperor’s spike held several pearls, while those of the nobles had a ruby, with small pearls in descending numbers, according to their rank. There were four different kinds for the officials (both civil and military), who were divided into five groups. The officials in the first group were required to wear a ruby hatspike as the nobles did, the second group had a sapphire, the third, a crystal, and the fourth and fifth spikes of gold. The same rules applied to the wives of the Manchu officials, because, in total departure from any costume tradition previously known in China, officials’ wives had to wear the same kinds of hats and robes as their husbands when they appeared together on formal occasions.

The long gem stones worn atop the hatspikes were almost always cut in the round (en cabochon), without facets. In the first place, faceted stones were practically unknown in China until the 19th century, when Chinese technical methods and standards of taste were forcibly revised under the impact of strong Western influence. Secondly, the use of gems for their rich colors rather than for a flashing play of light is characteristic of old Oriental jewelry in general, and here it was especially necessary to produce the maximum effect of coloring, since the colors were so important for indicating the differences in rank.

The choice of the four particular colors for the officials’ hat jewels-red, blue, white, and yellow-was by no means merely an arbitrary one. These already had special significance for the Manchus, as illustrated by earlier uses of them. In particular, when the Manchu Army was formally organized in 1601, its four chief divisions were called “Banners,” and each operated under a banner or standard of special color, from which it took its name. Thus they had the Red, the Blue, the White, and the Yellow Banners, each under the command of a prince of the royal family. The four colors may have had still further symbolic connotations which had led them to be used for the standards in the first place, but in any case, this military usage kept them constantly in the minds of the highly nationalistic Manchu people. The tradition was so strong that, when the Army was further divided into eight Banners in 1615 in the interests of greater efficiency, the original Banner colors were retained. The four new divisions were simply given flags of the same color with broad edgings of a contrasting hue, and called the Bordered Red, Bordered Blue, Bordered White, and Bordered Yellow Banners.

An equally ingenious system for subdividing the four colors was devised to create new types of hatspikes in 1645, the year after the conquest of China. Extra ones were needed then, because, when the Manchus took over the old Ming system of nine official ranks, for greater ease in governing their vast new empire, they needed an increased number of insignia to distinguish them. The same colored gems were used for the jewels proper at the top of the spike, but subdivisions were marked by differing varieties of small stones set into the spherical section below them. For example, the first rank’s spike had a large ruby at the top, with a small pearl inset below; while the second rank had a ruby with a much smaller ruby, and the third rank had a ruby with a small sapphire.

Apparently this system for subdividing the hatspikes did not turn out to be too satisfactory for precise identification of ranks, so in 1730 a new method was devised. This kept the same colors for the jewels, but introduced variety by choosing contrasting substances for each color. For example, new gems were chosen for their opaque quality to contrast with the clear types exclusively used before. Thus, for red, they took ruby and coral; for blue, sapphire and lapis lazuli; and for white, crystal and moonstone; while for the gold, a distinction was created by using engraved metal as opposed to the plain. For a time the tradition of four colors was partially interrupted by assigning silver to the ninth-rank officials, but by 1800 the latter had resumed wearing gold, distinguishing their badges from those of the two previous ranks by a small design embossed in gold. (Full details for the changes in hat jewels are given in the table following this section).

As already stated, the jeweled hatspikes were purely for ceremonial use, to be worn only on state occasions. The rest of the time the hats were simply worn without them, the red fringe forming sufficient decoration. This rather informal practice proved unsatisfactory, however, in a social system which put so much stress on rank as a criterion for establishing one’s place in society. Especially in the early part of the dynasty, the outer p’u-fu jackets with the squares were not always worn, particularly in winter when many of the officials wore fur jackets instead; and, lacking distinguishing hat ornaments or jacket badges, with the belt jewels often hidden, it was impossible to recognize the grade of an official quickly and easily. This led to embarrassing errors in protocol, an unthinkable situation in a nation as rank-conscious as China. In the l 720’s, a shocked Emperor (Yung-cheng) wrote several edicts on the current laxity in wearing of official insignia, and in 1727 the Court announced that simpler hat ornaments must be worn on all semi-formal or ordinary occasions when the ceremonial hatspike was not suitable. This ordinary hat badge was much lower than the hatspike, and consisted of a somewhat plainer rounded base, supporting a shallow star-shaped cup, in which rested a round jewel. The latter was pierced so that a long screw passed right through it, fastening it securely to both the base and the hat. These badges were what the foreign residents in 19th century China came to call “mandarin buttons.” However, that is a somewhat inappropriate term, since they were not confined to the mandarins (officials), but were worn by nobles and certain distinguished commoners as well-nor were they buttons, in the usual sense of that word. “Hat knobs” would seem a more suitable expression.

By the laws of 1727 the highest nobles wore a ruby for their ordinary hat jewels, lesser nobles and first-rank officials wore coral, the second and third ranks had engraved coral, the fourth rank lapis lazuli, and the seventh to ninth ranks gold. By “engraved coral” they meant that the usual coral knob was incised with a circular shou character, symbol of long life. (The same applies to the “engraved gold” knobs used later).

This system also appeared to allow too much latitude. Therefore, with the idea of providing still more precise marks of rank for daily use, a new set of regulations for the ordinary hat knobs was issued in 1730, along with the more elaborate laws for hatspikes. As in the case of the latter, each color was subdivided on the principle of “pure and clouded,” or clear and opaque, as indicated in the list which follows this section.

The lawmakers of 1730 clearly recognized the financial problems involved in trying to obtain such a great number of the required gems of sufficiently large size, and the dangers in exposing valuable stones to the chances of damage or theft. Accordingly, they carefully noted that in place of the actual jewels for both kinds of hat badges, glass of the proper colors and consistencies could be used. Thus, clear blue glass could replace the sapphire, and opaque blue glass the lapis; while clear and opaque white glass could substitute for the crystal and the moonstone. The descent from sapphire to glass might seem a big one, but actually glass was considered almost as a gemstone in China at that period, because of the difficulty of cutting and shaping it by semi, primitive methods. In fact glass was usually handled by the same lapidaries who carved jade, crystal, and other very hard stones, and they used the same techniques to work it.

For the belt insignia, the story begins in much the same way as the one for the hat badges. Five types of belt ornaments, for five groups of officials, were established by law in 1635, and these, too, were expanded to nine, ten years later, after the Manchus had entered China and taken over the Ming system of nine official ranks. However, the tale ends there; there were no more changes in them, and the regulations regarding them remained the same until the dynasty collapsed in 1911. Perhaps this was because the belt ornaments ceased to be very important as designators of rank after the Manchus took to wearing p’u-fu jackets with squares, or the winter fur ones, either of which came down so far that they bid the belt completely.

The belt ornaments were not merely buckles, as they have usually been described. They consisted of four circular, or rectangular, plaques, their shape being as much a distinction of rank as their substance and settings. They were worn like the similar fittings on the belts of the Yuan Mongols, from which they seem to have ultimately derived. One served as the buckle proper at the front of the belt, one decorated each side, and the fourth marked the middle of the back. As a Manchu in, novation, the side plaques were also functional, having pendant loops from which hung small purses, called ho-pao, long kerchiefs, knife sets, fan, or spectacle-cases, or even swords. (The Manchu costume did not have any kind of pockets). When the jackets were used, they had long slits at the side from waist to hem, so that all the paraphernalia which hung from the sides of the belt could be easily accessible.

The “court belts” on which these ornamental plaques were worn were woven of silk, usually in a strong, fairly coarse weave. Those of the officials were colored blue, blue, black, or other somber tones, and they had no distinction by rank; but at the Court, a belt’s color was very significant. The Emperor’s court belt was woven of bright yellow silk, while the highest princes and members of the Imperial clan bad golden yellow, and the class of nobles called Gioro (cousins of the Imperial Family through collateral lines) wore red. This is only one example of the far greater elaboration of insignia laws for the nobility which has prevented us from detailing their hat and belt ornaments along with those of the officials.

Among the many confused items of misinformation about Chinese costume given by past writers was the frequently repeated statement that Ch’ing dynasty officials also wore peacock plumes on their hats to designate their ranks. The actual facts are somewhat different. The first dynastic laws of the Manchus in 1735 said that the highest princes and certain officers of the Imperial Guards could wear feathers on their hats according to their degree: three-eyed, double-eyed, or single-eyed peacock plumes, or egret plumes dyed blue with indigo. Later, the privilege of wearing the single-eyed peacock feather or the blue plume came to be conferred on other military officers-or even civil officials-as a reward for merit, like a medal of honor in our Western culture. Finally, in the period of decline after 1800, when the Ch’ing dynasty was on the down grade, officials could easily purchase the privilege of wearing a peacock plume. Even for the nobles, the wearing of plumes was more of a privilege of rank than a mark of it, because they too were rewarded for special services by the right to wear plumes of a higher type. Thus, in analyzing Ch’ing ancestral portraits, it is impossible to tell from the plume alone what the subject’s rank must have been.

A number of irresponsible statements have also been made regarding the Court beads worn by the Manchu officials and their wives. It has been said that these, too, were marks of rank and that the actual official grade could be told by the substance used to make the beads. Again, the true story is quite different. The early Manchu emperors were fairly devout Buddhists-partly for political ends, to impress their Mongol subjects-and they lavishly entertained the highest Lamas of Tibet, who came to visit them before and after the Conquest. One of the Dalai Lamas brought as a present to his Manchu host a Tibetan Buddhist rosary of 108 beads. Probably as a result of this gift, it became the custom for the Manchu Emperor and his highest courtiers to carry or wear Tibetan Buddhist rosaries, first as a mark of piety, then as an ornament of dress.

In 1664 the custom received official sanction when it was decreed that any official above the fourth rank could wear such a rosary. Later the privilege was extended to civil officials of the fifth rank, and to certain still lower officials who had special functions at the great ceremonies, providing that they only wore them on ceremonial occasions. There was a rigid law that the cords on which they were strung had to be of special colors (the same as those for the court belts); but aside from the restriction that only the Emperor’s court beads could be made of large Korean pearls, there were no regulations about the kind of sub- stances used to make them. Any official entitled to wear Court beads at all could choose his own substance. Some were made of precious stones like the bat jewels, some of ivory-from both elephant tusk and walrus tooth-some of coral or amber, and others of rare woods, or pressed incense mixed with ambergris to preserve the scent; and naturally there were many of glass.

In the course of time, the simple Tibetan rosary form became considerably elaborated. In addition to the 108 counting beads, there were four much larger ornamental ones, called “Buddha’s head beads,” which were placed equidistantly (twenty-seven counting beads apart); next there were three short pendant strings, each having eight very small beads, which were used to record the number of times the entire rosary had been said; finally there was a long pendant cord with an ornamental plaque and a fancy end-pendant. The last-named pendant cord hung down the wearer’s back when the beads were worn, since the Manchus adopted the strange custom of wearing the Buddhist rosary upside down-by Tibetan standards.

In short, the Court beads may serve as a final example of the way in which the Manchu costume borrowed items from other peoples-Yuan Mongols, contemporary Mongols, Ming Chinese, Koreans, and finally Tibetans-but in each case modified them somewhat to suit their own ends. In the Ch’ing dynasty, as in the Ming before it, the costume tradition in China was anything but conservative or stagnant. We now know that the old idea of an unchanging China with a uniform culture is just another myth.


A. Ceremonial Hatspikes
Rank 1645-1730 1730-1911
First Ruby, small pearl. Ruby or clear red glass, small pearl.
Second Ruby, small ruby. Engraved coral, small ruby.
Third Ruby, small safphire. Sapphire or clear blue glass, small ruby.
Fourth Sapphire, smal sapphire. Lapis lazuli or opaque blue glass, small sapphire.
Fifth Crystal, small sapphire. Crystal or clear white glass, small sapphire.
Sixth Crystal. Moonstone or opaque white glass, small sapphire.
Seventh Engraved gold, small sapphire. Plain gold, small crystal.
Eighth Engraved gold. Engraved gold.
Ninth Engraved silver. Engraved silver. After 1800, embossed gold.
B. Ordinary Hat Jewels
Rank 1727-1730 1730-1911
First Coral. Coral.
Second Engraved coral. Engraved coral.
Third ” “ Sapphire, or clear blue glass.
Fourth Lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli or opaque blue glass.
Fifth ” “ Crystal or clear white glass.
Sixth Crystal Moonstone, or opaque white glass.
Seventh Gold (1728, engraved crystal). Plain gold.
Eighth Gold Engraved gold.
Ninth Gold (1728, engraved gold) Silver. After 1800, embossed gold.
C. Formal Belt Fittings – 1645-1911
First Four jade rectangular plaques mounted in gold each set with one ruby.
Second Four engraved gold circular plaques each set with one ruby.
Third Four engraved gold circular plaques.
Fourth Four engraved gold circular plaques mounted in silver.
Fifth Four plain gold circular plaques mounted in silver.
Sixth Four tortoiseshell circular plaques mounted in gold.
Seventh Four plain silver circular plaques.
Eighth Four clear ram’s horn circular plaques mounted in silver.
Ninth Four black horn circular plaques mounted in silver.


A. Civil Officials
Rank Early Ming Dynasty (1391-1527) Later Min (1527-1644) Ch’ing (Manchu) Dynasty (1625-1911)
First Crane or Golden pheasant Crane Crane
Second Golden pheasant Golden pheasant
Third Peacock or Wild goose Peacock Peacock
Fourth Wild goose Wild goose
Fifth Silver pheasant Silver pheasant Silver pheasant
Sixth Egret or Mandarin duck Egret Egret
Seventh Mandarin duck Mandarin duck
Eighth Oriole or Quail or Paradise flycatcher Oriole Quail
Ninth Quail Paradise flycatcher
Unclassed officials Paradise flycatcher Paradise flycatcher
A. Civil Officials
Rank Ming Dynasty (1391-1644) Early Ch’ing (laws of 1652) Later Ch’ing (to 1911)
First Lion Lion Ch’i-lin (after 1662)
Second Lion
Third Tiger and/or leopard Tiger Leopard (after 1664)
Fourth ” ” “ Leopard Tiger (after 1664)
Fifth Bear Bear Bear
Sixth Panther Panther Panther
Seventh Rhinoceros (after 1766)
Eighth Rhinoceros Rhinoceros
Ninth Sea horse Sea horse Sea horse

Cite This Article

Cammann, Schuyler. "I. Chinese Mandarin Squares." Museum Bulletin XVII, no. 3 (June, 1953): 5-44. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/3673/

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