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Mandarin Square

Symbolism in Chinese embroidery

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.


The central motif of this Mandarin square is the white crane. According to the costume regulations of the Qing imperial court, this pair of squares would have been used on the robes worn by a first rank civil official. The upper part of the square is embroidered with the sun, stylised clouds and bats. The lower part of the square is embroidered with waves, symbolising the sea, and mountains, symbolising the earth, on which flowers and linzhi (sacred fungus, a symbol of longevity) grow.


The symbolism of the Crane

The Crane is legendary in China for being the prince of all feathered creatures on earth. After the Phoenix, the Crane is the favourite of all Chinese bird symbols. It is the ancient symbol for longevity because of its exceptionally long life span. In many legends, the spirits ride on cranes, said to bear the souls of the departed to the heavens.


This particular square was made in the early 19th Century Chinese Qing Dynasty, and collected in the 1930s by the retired Head of the Department of Textile Industries at the University of Leeds, Professor Aldred Barker.

The whole garment
This vest which includes mandarin squares was designed to be worn over the top of other garments by a court official’s wife. It is loose fitting and sleeveless with a front fastening and tapes at each side to secure front and back together. The tapestry woven patterning is comprised of two side facing, five clawed dragons flying above the wave pattern woven at the hem. Carp jump out of the waves. Bats fly amongst the clouds alongside cranes, golden pheasants, peacocks, silver pheasants, wild geese and egrets. All of these birds were used as symbols for civil officials. A pair of embroidered mandarin squares are attached, one at centre front and another at the centre back. The motif on these squares is the silver pheasant, the symbol of the fifth rank civil official. The wives of civil officials wore the same official emblems as those worn by their husbands to indicate rank. The embroidery technique used is couching stitch using gold coloured metallic thread. There are tassels along the lower hem of the vest. The colours used for these have been carefully matched with those used elsewhere in the weaving of the garment.

Curriculum Links:

Art and Design - Creative textiles, Pattern
Geography - Comparing cultures and countries, Maps and local area
History - Peoples' live and backgrounds
English - Storytelling, Travel journals
Maths - Tessellations, Number patterns

Discussion Ideas:

  • What is a name we use these days to describe clothing that has 'costume regulations'?
  • Where on this type of clothing is rank usually demonstrated today?
  • What sports today use colours to 'rank' how high people have achieved in those sports?
  • We may not use the same motifs as the Qing Imperial court in clothing, but can you think of something equivalent to a motif that is very important to some people in the way they dress these days?
  • Can you think of other birds that have symbolic meaning in particular countries?

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