When Birds Were Badges of Rank In China

IMAGINE a meeting where the top honcho is a tall white crane. Around him gather a golden pheasant, peacock, goose, silver pheasant, egret, duck, quail, and paradise flycatcher. An oriole regales them with his music.

No, this is not out of a fable by Aesop. It is the order of the nine ranks of the governing bureaucrats during the Manchu Ching Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. The efficiency of their administration was probably one reason that the Ching rule lasted from 1644 until 1912.

The candidates for these ranks were required to be scholars and poets, in accordance with Confucian ideals, as well as savvy businessmen. One might guess that the poetic factor inspired them to choose birds and their symbolism rather than numbered grades or titles to designate the levels of the hierarchy.

These favored officials flaunted their rank by wearing elaborately embroidered badges sometimes called ''mandarin squares.'' The 12-inch squares of solid embroidery were worn on garments and displayed the bird appropriate to the bearer's rank.

The individual creator of these designs was usually an anonymous craftsperson, often a needlewoman who learned her skills in childhood. Therefore, we do not expect to find the subtle gradations of color of Chinese watercolors nor the bold, incisive strokes of ink drawings.

The crane -- the highest civil rank -- appears on a square of ultimate luxury from the 17th century. The gleaming bird is worked in white silk against a background of gold and silver wrapped threads, and filaments from the iridescent feathers of the peacock. The crane is held in a circle formed by its elegant white wings. The main motif is further emphasized by the stylized dark cloud shapes touched with red that are arranged around it.

For all its decorative design, however, the bird is not static but portrayed with its head, open beak, and sinuous neck faced in one direction and its legs and feet in the opposite one. This is emphasized by a firm black line such as the French painter Henri Matisse might have used.

In the egret badge (sixth rank) from the 19th century, the silken bird spreads its wings amid a colorful swirl of flowers, rocks, and symbolic forms against an intense blue background. Except for the floral border, there is no repetition nor symmetry in the arrangement. The effect is less formal and busier than the crane design.

The badges were worn on both the back and front of the official's dark blue or black coat, preventing social blunders or omissions of ceremonial protocol.

The luster of rank was extended to wives and daughters for special ceremonial occasions. The exhibit ''Rugs and Textiles of Late Imperial China'' at the Textile Museum in Washington (through April 30), presents, along with the examples of the colorful squares, a woman's long vest showing a blank space reserved for the insignia. This allowed the costly garment to remain in use as the administrator advanced in rank -- changing birds.

One side of the front of the garment displays a crane in the highest position with four other birds and the imperial dragon. These are repeated in mirror image on the other side. On the back, the golden pheasant (second rank) has the shoulder position with the remaining ranks below. The oriole, the 10th bird of rank, was named the state-appointed musician. An elaborate border finishes both front and back. A long fringe of multicolor silk tassels is added to the back.

The vest also dates from the 19th century. Its birds are depicted as about to land or fly upward. The wings are angled as the birds turn in flight. This style is considered realistic because of its animated effect.

Charming and appealing as this custom of using birds to indicate civil rank is, no doubt it did not prevent the vast apparatus of imperial government from being onerous and even oppressive for the majority of Chinese.

It might, however, lighten up our own view of officialdom to imagine, say, Secretary of State Warren Christopher as the impressive crane and his assistant secretary of state as the golden pheasant.

Or, should you need to come face to face with a bureaucrat of the Internal Revenue Service, you might like to decide what manner of bird he or she would have been.

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