Sixth Rank Civil Official Rank Badge, China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644); silk, metallic yarns; H x W: 34.3 x 39.4 cm (13 1/2 x 15 1/2 in.); Gift of John Pierpont Morgan; 1902-1-432. Cooper Hewitt Museum.

This rare Ming dynasty rank badge would have been worn by a sixth 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” (buzi) 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 egrets circling each other in flight, set against the clouds rippling in broad bands of warm colors.