Chinese Mandarin Squares

illustrated landscape with a bird, building, and statue


history icon

Officials during the Mongol, Ming, and Qing dynasties wore mandarin squares on their robes to indicate social and military rank. During the occupation of China by Khubilai Khan and his successors in the Mongol dynasty (1280–1368), high officials and nobles wore patterns of birds or animals on their mandarin squares. Following a revolution in the 14th century, the Ming dynasty was established. The new court continued to wear mandarin squares, this time on the chest and back of their robes. Mandarins were educated government officials who had to pass difficult examinations to achieve their status. Because they were highly regarded, military officers also wore mandarin squares on their robes to distinguish rank.

In 1391, new Ming dynasty laws were adopted which standardized the use of mandarin squares by nobles and public officials, and reserved certain square designs for particular ranks. Throughout the dynasties, these rules were slightly altered by imperial decrees. Traditionally, the Emperor bestowed the right to wear mandarin square patterns.

In 1644, Peking, the capital of China, was taken over by Li Tzu-ch'eng, a powerful rebel leader. Chinese officials called upon the neighboring Manchu for aid; after toppling the invader, the Manchu seized power and established their own dynasty (called the Qing). In 1654, the Manchu began to instate clothing regulations among their ranking officials that standardized the adornment of a jacket called a p'u-fu. The p'u-fu contained square plaques with pictures of birds and animals that designated official rank similarly to the Ming system. The Qing dynasty referred to their mandarin squares as p'u fang (squares of rank).

The Qing dynasty's mandarin squares were more lavish than those of the Ming dynasty. These squares also included new designs, using colored silk threads in both the front and back and sometimes incorporating gold that shone in sunlight. During the Yung-Cheng period (1723–1735), the pictures on the squares started to look more realistic and natural. Some squares even sported the Eight Jewels (symbols of wealth such as scroll paintings, ivory tusks, pearls, etc.) in their design. Near the end of K'ang-hsi reign, the border dimensions of the squares were also reduced in size to fine lines of colored threads and gold. The Qing dynasty's mandarin squares featured natural backgrounds, clouds, flowers, messages, stones, and lucky symbols, each with symbolic significance. Pines, cypress, evergreen bamboo, and fungus symbolized long life; peonies, riches and honors; roses, eternal youth.

Other nations in Asia also took to using similar symbols to differentiate rank. During this period, nobles and high officials in Persia and Korea wore bird and animal patterns on their robes, likely due to contact with the Mongol and Ming cultures.

By the 19th century, the design and use of mandarin squares had begun to change significantly: new symbols were introduced, and some married officials even had mandarin squares made for the robes of their wives. Wives' squares bore the image of a half-sun on one corner and birds or animals facing each half. When the couples sat side by side, the images symmetrically faced one another and completed the image of the sun disk. The Qing dynasty's mandarin square designs continued to change following the succession of new emperors.

Finally, political unrest in China during the period caused the major population to lose trust in the existing imperial regime. Most people started to rely on good luck charms and lucky emblems. These social and political changes are reflected in the mandarin squares of that period, as civil and military officials began to include emblems of luck and good fortune into their mandarin squares. New emblems of luck and prosperity include the 8 Buddhist emblems, the 8 Immortals, and the 8 Taoist symbols.