The 13-lot selection of rank badges presented in Day 1 of The Traditional Collector sale come from The Collection of David Hugus. These indicate a progression of change of shape of the rank badges, as well as other elements reflecting the waning influence of the incarcerated Guangxu emperor.

A group of five Chinese rank badges, $2,000-3,000

The previous Tongzhi emperor (r. 1862-74) was six when he first occupied the Dragon Throne, essentially took no role in the rule of China. His mother, the dowager empress Cixi, was one of his regents, and allegedly encouraged him to lead a life of “dissipation and excess” and may have had a hand in his mysterious death at the age of eighteen, afraid that he would begin to assert his right to rule independently when he reached the age of majority.

“The new Guangxu emperor (r. 1875-1908) realized that Grand Dowager Empress Cixi was conservative and had the backing of many court officials. Reform would be impossible if Cixi and her base of support remained in place. The emperor undertook two initiatives in 1898 to address these issues. He started an extensive reform of the Chinese government and the examination process and began to plot with a local military commander to place Cixi under arrest. His reforms lasted about one hundred days. On the night before the move against Cixi was planned, the military commander betrayed his emperor to Cixi’s military advisor, and the emperor was put under house arrest until he was murdered in 1908, probably around the time Cixi died.”

A Chinese rank badge, $2,000-3,000

“The incarceration of the emperor had a profound effect on the design of rank badges after his house arrest. Clearly, with the emperor in detention, there was no one to constrain officials from debasing one of the longest-standing traditions in Chinese society: that circles represented the sun and heavens and were reserved for the emperor and his family. In spite of his apparent helplessness, the emperor remained the emperor with the theoretical authority to sentence officials who displeased him to a most unpleasant death. So even when breaking with such an entrenched tradition was theoretically possible, people proceeded with caution to ensure that they did not overestimate the emperor’s impotence. The usurpation of the imperial shape started innocently, with small flowers placed in the corners of a badge.”

A pair of Chinese rank badges, $800-1,200

“So even when breaking with such an entrenched tradition was theoretically possible, people proceeded with caution to ensure that they did not overestimate the emperor's impotence. ”
Stephen Markel

“When there was no obvious response to this innovation, the corners of the badges started to expand, along with the flowers, to give the interior of the badge a slightly rounded shape. This can be seen in the appliqué silver pheasant [Lot 1082]. The next step in this process was to augment the corners even more and make the interior of the badge even more circular. This development is displayed in the appliqué, counted-stitch-on-gauze silver pheasant [Lot 1084]. The process continued with the corners and ancillary design elements forming a clear circle within the badge, as seen in the silver pheasant [Lot 1074]. The penultimate step was the creation of an unambiguous, well-defined, and undeniable circle within the badge, as the peacock in [Lot 1074] demonstrates.”

A Chinese rank badge, $400-600

“Ultimately, all pretense of maintaining the traditional shape of the ordinary officials’ badges was dropped. The [round] crane badge in [Lot 1075] shows the use of lavish materials that sometimes accompanied the rejection of the emperor’s power and desire for reform. The [round] goose badge in [Lot 1074] exemplifies the continued use of aniline dyes. And the very intriguing badge in [Lot 1076] is a quintessential example of a mixed message. The plain design indicates support for the emperor’s reform process, while its circular shape proclaims the wearer’s disdain for the emperor’s power.”

Source: David Hugus, PhD, “Chinese Rank Badges: Symbols of Power, Wealth, and Intellect in the Ming and Qing Dynasties” (Hong Kong: OM Publishing, 2021), 112-116.

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