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Silk and Ancient Chinese Rites

China, as a country of ceremony and propriety, has for millenniums been attaching great importance on rites, with its origins in Confucius theory. Chinese silk, used as a way to distinguish between different people, has in some way epitomized the ancient rites.

The costumes of ancient emperors had special tags, and strictly followed the established costume customs. Every detail of the emperor's costume -- whether a string of beads, a specific pattern and color and length, or dressing material -- reflected a certain custom. The emperors' clothes were the footstone and criteria of the country's entire costume system. The standard emperor's costume first appeared in the Zhou Dynasty (11th century- 256BC).

The governors by that time had already set up very strict rules about clothes for different classes, incorporating the rules as part of the "rites." The differences among different ranks were glaringly obvious, and no violation was tolerated. The advanced textile, printing, and dyeing industries provided a solid material foundation for the entire costume system.

Twelve silk patterns were often found on the emperors' robes and were exclusively used by emperors. 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.

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.

Patches for the military officers of the Ming Dynasty were simpler. For the first- and second-rank military officers, patches with the pattern of a lion were used, while those with tiger and leopard patterns were for the third and fourth ranked officers respectively. The bear-patterned ones were for the fifth-rank officers, and those of young-tiger patterns for the sixth- and seventh-rank officers. Rhinoceros-patterned patches signaled eighth-rank officers, and hippocampus-patterned ones the ninth-rank officers.

The custom of attaching patches continued in the Qing Dynasty, but with a little difference in form and color from the previous dynasty. For example, while patches of the Ming Dynasty were in a whole piece on both the front and back of an official robe, the front patches of the Qing Dynasty were halved in the middle of the robe's front part. More over, while the former's patches were mostly light colored, with design patterns woven from golden thread against a red background, the latter's were richly colored, with the background color being either black or dark red. Also, whereas there were no floral borders around the edges of the former's patches, those of the latter were always bordered with decorative patterns.

In addition, while in the Ming Dynasty, rank patches for some civil officials (such as the fourth-, fifth-, seventh-, eighth- and ninth-rank officials) were embroidered with a pair of birds, those of the Qing Dynasty had just a single bird. Another characteristic of the Qing Dynasty that were different from the Ming Dynasty lied in the fact that patches were also attached to the robes of the women with a rank title conferred by the emperor (usually the wife or mother of a senior official), the design patterns of which depended on the son's or husband's official rank. But for the mother or wife of a military officer, the bird-patterned patches were used, rather than the beast-patterned ones. 

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