Chinese Rank Badges
Now treasured collector’s items, Chinese civil and military rank badges (the same system was later adopted in in Vietnam and Korea) once held powerful meanings that were instantly recognized in the culture of their time.
This practice was rooted in the court attire of the Yuan period (1271-1368) but became fully fleshed out into a standardized system of identification for civil and military rankings in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when dress regulations were put in place in 1391.
Although the look of the badges varied and evolved, their use for classification remained strong for hundreds of years, continuing into the early Republic of China. Badges from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) can be recognized as differing from those of the Ming dynasty due to their smaller size and bordered compositions.
Both the military and civil categories had nine ranks, first being the highest. The civil badges were all a series of birds, while the military used a wide variety of animals, including mythological beasts.
Here is an outline of the rankings, provided by the Journal of Antiques (slightly edited):
Civil Rank Badges
1st Rank: Crane (Recognized by a red cap on head)
2nd Rank: Golden Pheasant (Recognized by two tail feathers)
3rd Rank: Peacock (Recognized by elaborate tail feathers)
4th Rank: Wild Goose (Recognized by black marks like comas)
5th Rank: Silver Pheasant (Recognized by five tail feathers)
6th Rank: Egret (Legs appear in variety of colors)
7th Rank: Mandarin Duck (Recognized by blue tail)
8th Rank: Quail (Recognized by round shape and scales)
9th Rank: Paradise Flycatcher (Recognized by two long tail feathers with single circle in each)
Military Rank Badges
1st Rank: Qi-lin, a mythological animal
2nd Rank: Lion
3rd Rank: Leopard
4th Rank: Tiger
5th Rank: Bear
6th Rank: Panther
7th Rank: Rhinoceros
8th Rank: Rhinoceros
9th Rank: Sea Horse
Society valued these rankings very highly, with boys essentially preparing for government examinations their entire childhoods—sometimes starting as early as three-years-old, depending on the standing of the family. Cornerstones of the society that remained standardized for centuries, the examinations valued rote memorization and were extremely competitive, with approximately only a 1% pass rate. Naturally, these badges were imbued with extreme levels of social power.
Due to the fact that they were a huge source of pride for the family, women also sometimes wore badges indicating their husband’s rank. These can sometimes be identified by the red sun-disk woven into most badges: the men’s badges typically have the sun-disk in the upper left corner, while the women’s would mirror them in the upper right corner.
Today, military badges are a rarer find than civil badges; when the imperial system was overthrown in 1911 to be replaced by the Republic of China, many destroyed their military badges to protect themselves from trouble with the new government. Civil rankings were merely adopted into the new Republic, so there was no reason for the civil badges to be destroyed.
Of the several weaving and embroidery techniques employed by workshops to create the badges, such as brocade, couching, and petit-point, kessi or k’o-ssu—a tapestry style meaning “cut-silk” that creates slits around interior shapes—is the most valuable. Along with their societal significance and spectacular renderings of the natural world and its creatures, the elegant mix of silk and metallic threads woven with a variety of intricate and painterly techniques is truly what makes these enduring objects for antiques enthusiasts.