Mandarin rank badge

Sorry for the long silence. It’s been a very busy period for markets in the run-up to Christmas, most of which have been very successful I’m happy to say. Then just as I finished those I had a couple of sales on Etsy. But now things seem to be quietening down.

In the middle of all this I managed to get to an auction preview at Rosebery’s in West Norwood. The sale included lots of Asian art, with some very interesting textile items, including an embroidered felt Sufi hat and six enormous embroidered Islamic panels, each one more than 2 metres high.

sufi hatislamic panel


I also loved this Japanese boxwood rat catcher carved from boxwood – we left a bid on it but it went for more than we could pay.

rat catcher

However, we were successful with a bid for a Chinese embroidered rank badge from the Qing dynasty (late 19th century). These rank badges, sewn onto the front and back of the coats of officials in imperial China, used animals or birds to indicate the status of the wearer.

Qing_Dynasty_Mandarin

Rank badges had been around a while. They were introduced in 1391, during the Ming dynasty, when they were usually woven in silk, a technique known as kossu. This was a very labour-intensive form of weaving, where the different colours of the design are woven in blocks, resulting in slits between each colour, giving the effect of carving or engraving.

In the Qing period rank badges were mostly embroidered, and the high proportion of metallic threads used in this one (as well as other features) suggests it dates from the turn of the century.

rank badge1

There were two types of badges, civil and military, each one with nine ranks. The civil ranks featured birds, while the military ranks used animals, some real, some mythological. This one being a bird, it was civil, but I’m having problems determining which bird it represents. The auction catalogue described it as a phoenix, which is not in the list of the nine birds used. From highest rank to lowest, these were crane, golden pheasant, peacock, wild goose, silver pheasant, egret, mandarin duck, quail and paradise flycatcher.

rank badge 2

The descriptions I’ve come across of how to distinguish the different birds focus on colour – for example, the crane has a red cap on its head, while the golden pheasant has a blue crest and wing covers, yellow head and neck, and two tail feathers. The bird on my panel is done entirely in couched silver and gold thread, so colours are of little help. However, this may be deliberate, as I’ve also been told that sometimes they made the type of bird ambiguous so they could be mistaken for a higher rank!

Another interesting feature is that the bird is actually a separate piece of appliqué. Apparently in the late Qing period this was quite common, as it was easier to get promotion by paying for it rather than having to pass the arduous civil service examinations. So many people used appliqué birds that they could replace as they got promoted, rather than having to pay for a whole new square!

The advantage of this for me is that you can see here from the colour of the thread beneath the appliqué how much the embroidery has faded over time. It must have been very bright originally!

rank badge 8

In addition to the bird, the square includes the eight Buddhist symbols: the fish, conch, vase, endless knot, wheel, lotus, royal canopy and state umbrella. The first two are in the golden waves of the sea, and the others are in the sky around the bird.

rank badge 3

There is also a border of bats and the “shou” symbol meaning longevity.

rank badge 6

As you can see from the close-ups, the cloth it’s stitched on is a fairly loose plain weave, and the stitch is mostly couching and Florentine.

The wives of Qing officials were also required to wear ceremonial robes showing their husband’s rank, but the bird or animal faced in the opposite direction so that when they sat together in state (woman on the right, or low status side, of the man) the birds or animals faced each other. So this square belonged to a woman!

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4 thoughts on “Mandarin rank badge”

  1. Really interesting – what a lot of couching! I have limited stamina for couching myself, too fiddly, or maybe I have not got a good technique going when I’ve been using that stitch. I love the little strip of bright colour exposed under the applique. Beautiful!

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