Symbols of Military Rank

The people of Ancient China left a system of easily identifiable military rank for historians to follow. Western armies have badges, different hats, and colours to distinguish the general from the common soldier. So it was with the armies of ancient China. There were animals and positions of those animals worn on armour to indicate rank. The art of China portrays rank by size, regardless of true perspective. Even the colour of studs in armour was significant.

Ancient China - Dragon Flag

Chinese Symbols: The Dragon and Phoenix

Dragon iconology featured strongly in military rank. It signified Yang - the male half of the universe. To the Chinese mind, this brought up the concepts of growth, light, water, clouds and rain, fertility,and forcefulness. The Qing Emporerer used paired dragons as one of his twelve main symbols.

Imperial Family:
Dragons were used on Chinese armour in these ways:

  • The Emporer - 5 clawed dragon face on.
  • First Ranked Prince - 5 clawed dragon face on, on the chest; 5 clawed dragons in profile eleswhere.
  • Second Ranked Prince - All 5 clawed dragons were side on.
  • Third Ranked Prince - 4 clawed dragons face on
  • The Empress - Phoenix

Chinese Symbology: Birds

Ancient-China-mandarin Duck badgeScholar Officials:
  • First Rank - Manchurian Crane.
  • Second Rank - Golden Pheasant
  • Third Rank - Peacock.
  • Fourth Rank - Wild Goose.
  • Fifth Rank - Silver Pheasant.
  • Sixth Rank - Lesser Egret
  • Seventh Rank - Mandarin Duck.
  • Eighth Rank - Quail.
  • Ninth Rank - Paradise Flycatcher.

Chinese Symbols: Animals and Mythical Creatures

Ancient China lion badgeMilitary Ranks
Military ranks were not considered as important or prestigious as civilian scholar ranks. Soldiers also had to pass exams to advance, although many advanced simply through family connections. The first exam was in archery, mounted and on foot, and in swordsmanship. Second degree qualifications were examined by the provincial governor. Third degree exams - the ones everyone wanted to pass because of their guarantee to a position in the military, were tested in Beijing.
  • First Rank - Quilin.
  • Second Rank - Lion.
  • Third Rank - Leopard.
  • Fourth Rank - Tiger.
  • Fifth Rank - Bear.
  • Sixth Rank - Panther.
  • Seventh Rank - Rhinoceros.
  • Eighth Rank - Rhinocerous.
  • Ninth Rank - Sea Horse

Chinese Symbology: Hats

Ancient China officers helmetHats and Helmets
These were symbols to distinguish rank in ancient China. Rank was established by the type of fur on the winter hat, or by the finial (helmet spike). For example:
  • Sable trim - only worn by the Emporer.

  • Pearls and precious stones - Emporer and Empress.

  • Semi-precious stones and Peking glass together with distinguishing colours - Civil and Military Officials.

  • Peacock feather with 3 eyes - Distinguished Princes.

  • Peacock feathers with 1 or 2 eyes - Distinguished Court Officials with lesser rank than Prince.

Rivet Colours in the Armour of Ancient China

Even the colours of the studs or rivets in the armour were badges of rank in ancient China. We still have a parallel of this in the colours of medals won for sporting competitions. It is, of course, higher honour according to the value of the metal.
  • Gold - Emporer and princes of Aixing Juleo Clan and the Dutang of the Eight banners.
  • Silver - Fu Dutangs and the highest war leaders such as guardian colonels.
  • Bronze - Everyone else.

All of this is very helpful if you want to work out who owned a piece of Chinese armour. Was it a common soldier, or some sort of official? If it was an official, you can tell which level he was. If the piece of Chinese armour is specific to a certain time in history, you have a chance of identifying who it was actually made for. The lower the rank, the more difficult specifics become. Chinese period artworks are also interesting. You can tell, by examining armour and dress, which time the art was from and even the ranks of people in the paintings. Another interesting note is that people of higher rank were made larger than others in the same artwork.

But see also, Peter Dekker's note about being wary of taking this beyond imperial dress More historical dragon insight.

To an Australian, distinction of rank and social status is quite foreign. But to understand the history of ancine China, we need to realise this was one of the ways they established their value and identity. Unfortunately some of this rank consciousness carries over into chinese martial arts - not in Australia, but in other countries. In our country people are valued by character (being a nice person), and by skill, not by title, their perceived social standing, or who their family was. We Aussies have to be careful not to tread on the toes of others who count such customs as important.

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