Following Ming dynasty precedents, the Chinese government of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), promulgated a series of regulations in the 18th century that codified a series of insignia to be applied to an outer coat, identifying the rank and government branch of the bearer. These insignia are commonly known as “Rank Badges”. Given the small scale of these textiles (approximately 11” x 11”), and wide degree of variations due to bearer’s rank, period and mode of execution, quality and rarity, these rank badges have been avidly collected for well over 100 years, offering a window into many aspects of Chinese culture of the past 250 years.
There are three main categories of badges: those for the imperial court, the military administration, and the civil administration. Badges for the imperial court, including the Emperor and his consorts, princes and highest rank officials bear a dragon, either in a roundel for the upper ranks or a square for the lower. These dragons are differentiated by the number of claws (five or less), whether the dragon is full face or in profile, and if there are accompanying symbols. An emperor’s roundel, for example, may bear a five-clawed dragon, facing front, with a symbol of the sun above its head.
There were nine military ranks, identified by various animals, mythical and otherwise. For example, the first rank badges bear a qilin, best described as a quadruped with dragon’s head, scaled body, deer legs and flowing tail. The badges of the nine civil ranks bore various birds, the first rank bearing a Manchurian crane. In addition, there was a badge for the important position of the censor, with a lion-like quadruped with dragon’s head bearing a single horn and bushy tail.
These badges generally came in pairs, one for the divided front of the surcoat (the badge itself also divided), and one for the back of the coat. While badges are often sold separately, a pair may be considered more of a “complete set”. With regard to the emperor’s roundels, and those of his sons, a full complement would consist of four.
Badges were generally executed in needlework or tapestry weave (kesi) on a dark ground. The dragon, beast or bird would be centered, surrounded by scrollwork, clouds and/or auspicious symbols, above stylized waves and rockwork, all within a stylized border of key-fret, scrollwork or additional auspicious symbols.
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A Chinese kesi tapestry imperial five-clawed dragon (long) roundel, Yongzheng/early Qianlong period, 18th century. From the collection of Jeffrey M. Kaplan, Washington, D.C. to be offered 04/06/17