Laws for hat insignia worn by the Manchu in China, date back to 1636. Numbering less than a quarter of a million, the Manchu conquered the Chinese empire, establishing the Qing dynasty by 1644. To assert authority over the Han Chinese population, the Manchu felt very strongly about having an easily visible means of identification – whether it be for the Imperial family or, Chinese nobles and officials. This prompted a dress regulation that codified dress for the Imperial family and Chinese aristocrats. It distinguished the ruling elite and government from the general population. Hats were believed to be more conspicuous than rank badges and for the next century hat laws would amend from emperor to emperor. By 1727, the Yongzheng Emperor introduced “Mandarin buttons” also known as hat spheres. They were to be worn on less formal occasions, and were easier to identify than former hat insignia. The emperor wore a twisted knob of red silk cord while noblemen and officials wore a simpler hat sphere. There were nine official ranks according to tradition, each distinguished by a different color:
- The first rank wore a precious ruby, or a transparent red stone. A Manchurian crane is embroidered on the breast and back of the robe, while the girdle clasp is jade, set in rubies.
- The second rank wore a red coral button and robe embroidered with a golden pheasant; the girdle clasp of gold set in rubies.
- The third rank wore a sapphire and a one-eyed peacock feather and robe with a peacock; the girdle clasp of worked gold.
- The fourth rank wore a lapis lazuli (a rich blue stone) or blue opaque stone and with a wild goose on the robe and a clasp of worked gold with silver button.
- The fifth rank wore a crystal button and robe with silver pheasant and clasp of plain gold with silver button.
- The sixth rank wore an opaque white shell or moonstone, an egret on the robe and clasp of mother-of-pearl.
- The seventh rank; a plain gold button, a Mandarin duck on the robe and a clasp of plain silver.
- The eighth rank; a worked gold button, a quail on the robe and a clasp of clear horn.
- The ninth rank; a worked silver button and a long-tailed jay on the robe, and a clasp of buffalo horn.
By the turn of the 19th century, Chinese communities began to incorporate the buttons into miniature bells for export. The button formed the handle above a two-inch tall porcelain-covered metal bell, which used a small glass bead on a chain as a clapper. Today both the buttons and the bells are collector's items. As a part of The George Crofts Collection, The Royal Ontario Museum has seven hat spheres on temporary display in the Herman Herzog Levy Gallery of Asian Art, level 1.
Want to make your own? See our DIY Imperial Hat activity!
Garrett, Valery M.. A collector's guide to Chinese dress accessories. Singapore: Times Editions, 1997.
L. Auman, Harold. Mandarin Hat-Button Bells., 1966.
Patt Rivers Museum. "Mandarin buttons." http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/bodyarts/index.php/body-arts-and-lifecycles/adul... (accessed February 25, 2014).