The unusual animal on this rank badge is an alternative representation of the qilin, an auspicious mythological beast that is said to appear in the reign of a virtuous ruler. In the Ming dynasty, qilin badges were worn as the insignia of nobles. The qilin seen here is similar to one on a badge excavated from the tomb of Duke Xu Fu, who died in 1517. The animal in Xu Fu's badge has a slightly longer neck, but its coat has a similar hexagonal pattern. That pattern is also found on a painted giraffe exhibited nearby. A gift of this exotic beast to the Yongle emperor in 1414 occasioned many flattering comments among senior officials that a qilin had appeared, implying that the Yongle emperor, a usurper, was the rightful ruler. This occurrence must have been the beginning of the conflation of giraffe and qilin.
Fitchburg Art Museum. "Costumes from the Forbidden City," May 15, 1989–August 31, 1989.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Arts of the Ming Dynasty: China's Age of Brilliance," January 23, 2009–September 13, 2009.