Rank and Style: Power Dressing in Imperial China


Bat Bat: Called bianfu in Chinese, the second character, fu, is a homophone for good fortune (also pronounced fu); it also symbolized longevity and happiness. Red bats mean "widespread good fortune" and five bats are a wish for the Five Blessings: longevity, wealth, good health, virtue, and a peaceful death. Bats and the swastika mean "ten thousand-fold wishes for good fortune and happiness."

Chrysanthemum Chrysanthemum: Symbolic of autumn, chrysanthemum also symbolizes longevity. With orchids, plum blossoms and bamboo they form si junzi (meaning the "Four Gentleman" or "Four Noble Qualities") to represent the integrity and humility of the scholar.

Clouds Clouds:Omens of peace and symbol of the heavens.

Crane Crane:Believed to be immortal, the crane is a symbol of immortality and wisdom.

Deer Deer: Pronounced "lu" in Chinese, it is homophonous with a character meaning "wealth" and "official promotion." It is the symbol of Luxing, the God of Rank and Remuneration (payment).

Double Gourd Double Gourd: Its many seeds make the gourd a symbol of fertility. The double gourd is also associated with deities and immortals.

Douniu Douniu: Closely resembling a dragon, the douniu has two large curved horns and a fish-like tail. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) badges with the douniu were worn by noblemen equal to a marquise and were also awards of imperial favor.

Dragon Dragon: The mythical dragon can control the weather, thus assuring a bountiful harvest and protection against evil. It is a symbol of wit, intelligence, power, vitality, ambition and good fortune, making it an appropriate symbol for the emperor.

Eight Buddhist Emblems: Originally rooted in Buddhism, in the Ming and Qing dynasties they were often combined with the Eight Precious Objects and the Eight Immortals' Implements as general auspicious symbols for decorative purposes. They are the Lotus (purity), Wheel of the Law (Buddhist doctrine), Canopy or Parasol (protection and spiritual power), Paired Fish (freedom from restraint), Conch Shell (far-reaching sound of the Buddha's teaching), Victory Standard (victory of the Buddha's teachings and victory over all hindrances), Endless Knot (infinite wisdom and compassion of the Buddha), and Vase (elixir of life and container of treasures representing the granting of all wishes).
Lotus Wheel of Law Canopy or Parasol (protection and spiritual power) Paired Fish
Lotus Wheel of Law Canopy or Parasol Paired Fish
Conch Shell Victory Standard Endless Knot Vase
Conch Shell Victory Standard Endless Knot Vase

Eight Immortals’ Attributes: Each attribute is associated with one of the Eight Daoist Immortals and together signify their omnipresent power. The attributes are the fan of Zhong Liquan, the sword of Lu Dongbin, the bamboo musical instrument of Zhang Guolao, the castanets of Cao Guojiu, the double gourd of Li Tieguai, the flute of Han Xiangzi, the flower basket of Lan Caihe, and the lotus of He Xiangu.
Fan Sword Bamboo Musical Instrument Castanets
Fan Sword Bamboo Instrument Castanets
Double Gourd Flute Flower Basket Lotus
Double Gourd Flute Flower Basket Lotus

Eight Treasures: Emblems of success, status and wealth, originating in the implements used in the scholar’s studio, they therefore symbolize success in studies and officialdom. The most common Eight Treasures are double lozenges (victory), the wish-granting pearl, stone chimes (celebration; illustrated), a pair of scrolls (culture), an Artemisia leaf (protection), two books (wisdom), interlocked copper coins (wealth) and a pair of rhinoceros horns (victory). Additional emblems include the coral branch (longevity and official promotion), a silver ingot (wealth) and the wish-granting scepter (ruyi).
Double Lozenges Wish-Granting Pearls Stone Chimes Pair of Scrolls
Double Lozenges Wish-Granting Pearls Stone Chimes Pair of Scrolls
Artemisia Leaf Two Books Interlocked Copper Coins Rhinoceros Horns
Artemisia Leaf Two Books Interlocked Copper Coins Rhinoceros Horns


Feiyu: A mythical creature with a dragon’s head, carp’s body and two horns; because it can fly it was called feiyu or “flying fish.” As an insignia of imperial favor in the Ming dynasty it was bestowed by the emperor on eunuchs and other officials.

Toad Lizard Centipede Snake
Toad Lizard Centipede Snake

Five Poisons: The toad, lizard, centipede, snake, and scorpion are the most common combination. They are believed to be most potent around the summer solstice and symbolize that annual astronomical event.


Hundred Antiques Hundred Antiques: A compilation over the centuries of miscellaneous objects, from which the Eight Treasures are drawn, they symbolize refinement and sophistication. Usually fewer than one hundred are actually shown.

Lantern Lantern: Made of paper or bamboo, lanterns were lit and hung everywhere for the Yuanxiao festival which falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Lanterns could be called qingfengshou, meaning good harvest and peace for all.


Lingzhi: A sacred fungus used in immortality elixirs. Resembling the shape of a ruyi scepter (wish-granting wand), the lingzhi symbolized immortality and shares the meaning of ruyi, “as you wish.”

Peach Peach: Associated with Shoulao, the God of Longevity, the peach is therefore a symbol of long life. Peach blossoms are symbols of spring and happiness.

Peony Peony: The most popular flower in Chinese art, the peony is called the "king of flowers." It is closely associated with royalty because it was grown in the imperial gardens of the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-906) dynasties. It is also called "flower of rank and honor," in which "honor" means attaining high rank, an official position or high social status.

Phoenix Phoenix: A mythical bird with the breast of a wild swan, throat of a swallow, bill of a rooster, forehead of a Manchurian crane, crest of a mandarin duck, the neck of a snake and the tail of a fish. The male phoenix is feng and the female huang; a pair symbolizes marital happiness. The five colors of the phoenix's tail feathers represent benevolence, righteousness, propriety, knowledge and sincerity. It is also the emblem of the empress of China. The phoenix is popularly believed to appear only in times of peace and prosperity.

Plum Blossom Plum Blossom: A symbol of winter because it blossoms in the cold. Along with bamboo and pine, the plum is one of the "Three Friends of Winter," a popular motif symbolizing longevity and resistance to the elements-the pine and bamboo are evergreens and pine and plum trees are long-lived.

Qilin Qilin: A mythical composite animal with a scaly body, hooves, a cow's tail, and a single, fleshy horn (sometimes depicted with two horns). The qilin is a symbol of virtue and perfection. In the Qing dynasty it was the emblem of a first rank military officer.

Shou Character Shou Character: This character often appears in medallion form in Chinese art. The character means longevity and has become a decorative symbol for longevity as well.

Sun Disk Sun Disk: Said to represent the emperor. All creatures faced or turned toward the sun on rank badges as a symbol of loyalty to the throne. The sun disk was introduced on civil rank badges in the late seventeenth century; much later on military badges.

Swastika Swastika: A good luck symbol introduced into China from India with Buddhism. In 693 the Empress Wu declared the swastika as the source of all good fortune and called it wan, which is the same sound as the Chinese word for "ten thousand" or "infinity." The addition of the swastika to a symbolic wish multiplies that wish 10,000 times.

Taihu rock Taihu Rock: Limestone rocks dredged from Lake Tai (Taihu) in Jiangsu province near Hangzhou and Suzhou were especially popular landscape elements in scholar's gardens, although ordinary rocks were also carved with cavities in imitation of Taihu rocks. They are often referred to as "Scholar's Rocks" and are a symbol of longevity.

Twelve Imperial Symbols: A group of twelve emblems symbolizing the emperor"s power and authority. Found on ritual attire since the later Han dynasty (23-220), they are often claimed to date from the third millennium bce. Only in the Ming and Qing dynasties do all twelve symbols appear on the daily court robes of the emperor.
Axe Constellation Flames Fu symbol
Axe Constellation Flames Fu symbol
Libation cups Millet Moon Mountains
Libation cups Millet Moon Mountains
Pair of Dragons Pheasant Sun Water Weed
Pair of Dragons Pheasant Sun Water Weed

Waves, Mountains, Rocks Waves, Mountains, Rocks: Stylized elements usually shown at the cuffs and/or hem of robes and on rank badges. Generally symbolizing the oceans, land and mountains, the combination suggests peace and harmony in the country (and by extension, the universe), presided over by the emperor. Diagonal lines representing water first appeared on robes in the early Qing period and were incorporated into rank badge design around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Xiezhi Xiezhi: A deer-like mythical creature with a single horn (sometimes with two horns) believed to be able to tell good from evil and use its horn to prod dishonest persons into changing their behavior. Consequently, the xiezhi became the insignia of the court censors who were charged with discovering corrupt officials.

Drawn from Asian Civilisations Museum, Power Dressing: Textiles for Rulers and Priests from the Chris Hall Collection, 2006; Terese T. Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, 2006; C.A.S. Williams, Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, 3rd revised edition, Shanghai, 1941 (Taiwan, 1972); John E. Vollmer, Ruling from the Dragon Throne, 2002. All images courtesy Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

Return to HTML Index


RANK AND STYLE: POWER DRESSING IN IMPERIAL CHINA is only available as an online exhibit
RANK AND STYLE HomeHTML IndexFlash Index
copyright © 2008, the Pacific Asia Museum 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101 All rights reserved.
Terms of Use     Comments? rankstyle@pacificasiamuseum.org

This module is supported in part by a generous grant from
the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Washington Mutual
IMLS    wamu