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Patches on Ancient Official Robes

Patches, or Buzi in Chinese, were always found on both the front and back of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing's official robes, indicating civilian or military rank. The official costumes, therefore, were often referred to as "patched robes".

The tradition of stitching patches on official costumes dates back to as early as in the reign of Shun Emperor (a legendary sage monarch in ancient China) when twelve silk patterns were often found on the emperors' robes. The patterns included figures of the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the dragons, the birds, the rite vessels, the aquatic plants, the fire, the rice, the axes, and the double-backed bows.

In the ancient times, the typical and the earliest emperor's robe was usually decorated with twelve imperial patterns, symbolizing the emperor's sovereign power; only the emperor was entitled to wear these patterns.

By the Zhou Dynasty (1027-777BC), dukes and court officials could also wear the imperial patterns, only not the same number. Usually, the lower the rank, the fewer the imperial patterns on the robes. For example, while twelve patterns were used on the emperor's robe, nine, seven, and five patterns were used for dukes, marquises (noblemen ranking between dukes and counts) and earls respectively. These imperial patterns were believed to be the origin of the patches of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Veiled design patterns were used on most official robes of the early Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, when Wu Zetian, China's first and only empress, came to power, she designated a new type of official clothing named "embroidered robe". Various design patterns were embroidered onto the robes of different official ranks. Usually, birds were embroidered on the civil officials'robes and beasts on those of military officers.

These patterns, which were used to signal official ranks, were later developed into patches by the Ming and Qing dynasties. Patches embroidered or woven with spun gold and colored threads were attached to the front and back parts of the official robes, which would enable others to know the wearers' rank at first sight. Ming Dynasty's patches were about 40centimeter(cm)2 while those of the Qing Dynasty were only 30 cm2.

Beginning in 1393 of the Ming Dynasty (the 26th year of the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor), all court officials and officers, regardless of their ranks, had to dress themselves in costumes with patches on their chests and backs, which indicated their official court ranks. Borrowing from the Tang Dynasty, patches with patterns of birds were used on the civil officials' robes, while those with patterns of beasts were employed on military officers' robes. Such patch has been considered the most characteristic of the Ming's official clothing.

Concerning civil officials of the Ming Dynasty, the patches patterned with red-crowned cranes, golden pheasants, peacocks, geese, silver pheasants, egrets, water birds (resembling mandarin ducks or drakes), yellow rocs (a legendary and huge bird in the East), quails, and long-tailed fly catchers were used on the robes of first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and below-ninth-rank officials, respectively. As for judges, their robes were often embroidered with patches with the pattern of ancient goats that reputedly would gore a guilty person in court.

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