First Rank Civil Official Rank Badge, buzi, China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644); silk, gilded paper; H x W: 34 x 31.1 cm (13 3/8 x 12 1/4 in.); Gift of John Pierpont Morgan; 1902-1-433. Cooper Hewitt Museum.

This rare Ming dynasty rank badge would have been worn by a first rank civil official, woven into or appliquéd to a long, full-skirted red robe accompanied by a gem-inset hoop belt and black gauze winged hat. Square badges with birds or animals can be found in Yuan period (1271-1368) court clothing, but it was not until the Ming dress regulations of 1391 that animals and birds were systematically corresponded to civil and military ranks, and the term “rank badge” (bu zi) appeared. The rank badge system proved both enduring and influential. It continued through the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and into the early Republic of China, and was adopted by neighboring vassal countries like Korea and Annam (central Vietnam). This elegant example shows a pair of white cranes circling each other in flight, set against the clouds rippling in broad bands of warm colors. In Chinese culture, the crane is a symbol of longevity, and is often seen in Daoist imagery transporting immortals to mystical islands. Flying cranes came to allude to a rise in rank, in this case indicating a first-rank official.