On The Square

Collecting Chinese Rank Badges

By Phyllis Kao, Director, Asian Works of Art

Sep 16,2014 | 15:00 EDT

Rank badges, Buzi (補子), sometimes referred to as ‘Mandarin squares,’ are Chinese dynastical textiles that have survived in surprising numbers. Their preservation is due in large part to the Western collectors that cherished them and gave them their alternate name. These embroidered panels lend themselves easily to different representations, and their custodians proved creative—I have seen them mounted in wood serving trays, repurposed as a lady’s handbag (perhaps a little too creative), and simply framed behind glass as a decorative work of art. Many admirers and collectors do not realize that they were made as functional clothing elements of an official nature.

Although Ming and Qing dynasty courtiers wore these insignia badges, the strict regulation and systemization of their design and use only came about when the Manchus began their rule in the 17th century. Badges were incorporated on the front and back of the official’s robe. As robes opened at the center front, one of a pair of badges will always be split in two to accommodate the opening. The animal depicted in the badge indicates the wearer’s rank, and the shape (square or circular) is indicative as well.

Late Qing civil officials wore rank badges with the following birds:

  • Crane (1st rank)
  • Golden Pheasant (2nd rank)
  • Peacock (3rd rank)
  • Wild Goose (4th rank)
  • Silver Pheasant (5th rank)
  • Egret (6th rank)
  • Mandarin Duck (7th rank)
  • Quail (8th rank)
  • Paradise Flycatcher (9th rank)

Military officers sported these animals on their badges:

  • Qilin (1st rank)
  • Lion (2nd rank)
  • Leopard (3rd rank)
  • Tiger (4th rank)
  • Bear (5th rank)
  • Panther/Rhinoceros (7th rank)
  • Rhinoceros (8th rank)
  • Sea Horse (9th rank)

A Pair of Chinese Civil Official Rank Badges, depicting a golden pheasant for an official of the second rank, the bird depicted alighting on a rock emerging from crashing waves beneath a sky of ruyi clouds and a red sun. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers

A Group of Four Pairs of Chinese Embroidered Silk Civil Rank Badges. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers

Rank badges are often depicted in paintings. Chinese paintings commonly described as ‘ancestor portraits’ typically depict a courtier and his wife. Wives and children of officials also wore the official’s rank badge, although this practice was not regulated or strictly required. Lot 219 in the sale Asian Works of Art from the Collection of Phillip and Kay Cha, depicts the wife of a civil official during the Qing dynasty.

Typically made of silk and embroidered in many colors, many Rank Badges include cherished silver and gilt-wrapped threads. The thoughtfully-designed poses and orientations of the animals and the iconography present within the badge changed with the times. These embroidered squares are appreciated by collectors of Chinese works of art and textile enthusiasts alike. Like all works of art, the value of a rank badge depends upon its rarity (examples with four-legged creatures are seldom seen), condition, age and provenance. Once official status symbols, today they are regarded by many as simply decorative items. Hopefully we will continue to preserve, value and research rank badges, as they hold historical significance in Chinas dynastically past.

A Chinese Ancestor Portrait, depicting the wife of a civil official. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers

A Chinese Ancestor Portrait of a Civil Officials Wife. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers