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Through its long history the Chinese state relied on extensive administration. Even if it was not always fully competent, a high standard of knowledge and skills was always required to enter the ranks of administration officials known as the mandarins.

The state bureaucrats were selected by a process of extensive examination. It was Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (141 - 87 BC) who put in place the imperial examinations. From the candidates who successfully passed the exams – then based on the Confucian classics – he would select officials to serve in his administration.

In theory anyone could attempt an examination, and this system allowed for orderly social mobility from lower to higher status, even if relatively small number of commoners could ever attempt these exams. Members of the lower classes such as prostitutes, clowns and musicians were prohibited from taking the examination.

It’s not surprising that the new position achieved via hard work and intellectual attainment required public recognition. Thus, emblems known as mandarin squares were used to indicate the rank of bureaucrats. Mandarin squares are woven or embroidered plaques which served as badges of rank on the robes of Chinese officials from the early Ming dynasty to the end of the Ch’ing (Qing) Dynasty (1391-1912).

Embroidery standard pair, 1 piece, 2 panels joined. Image: Abram Powell

The mandarin squares show nine ranks which are all represented by birds: White crane, Golden pheasant, Peacock, Wild goose, Silver pheasant, Egret, Mandarin duck, Quail and Paradise flycatcher. The birds symbolise virtues such as longevity, wisdom, courage, beauty, dignity, loyalty, happiness, courage, and good fortune.

Since 1652, the wives of Ch’ing officials were also required to wear squares of their husband’s rank. At first the women’s squares were exactly like those of their husbands’, but from the middle of the 18th century, the bird on the wife’s badge faced in the opposite direction. In this way, when they sat together during state ceremonies – the wife on her husband’s left – the birds would be facing each other.

Researched by Libai Li