The Chinese Longevity Banner

by Frank Zijie Wang

Figure 1 (above). The Longevity Banner in red silk with gold embroidery. Mid to Late Qing Dynasty (dates) Su Song Region, China. Asian Ethnology. Thayer Collection. UMMAA 3000-2-50.

The Longevity Banner in the UMMAA collection is a silk banner made during the Qing Dynasty in China (Figure 1). Mrs. Thayer, wife of Rufus H. Thayer (an alumnus of the University of Michigan), donated it to U-M following her husband’s death. Mr. Thayer served as the judge of the United States Court for China in Shanghai from 1909 to 1913, and this is presumably when the banner was collected.

The banner measures an impressive 180 feet in length and 62 feet in width. The main body of the banner is red, divided into three sections by gold embroidery decoration around the edges: the right edge, the main body, and the left edge. All elements on the banner are adorned with gold thread, presenting a striking contrast between red and yellow. The banner is made of two layers of silk, with the bottom layer being lighter in color, used for the banner’s protection. There are six bronze rings (Figure 2) at the top and another six rings at the bottom of the underlayer, used to hang the banner on the wall. Unfortunately, two additional bronze rings have been lost. Overall, the banner is well-preserved, and most of the decorative and textual elements' stitches remain secure. 

The banner contains 126 traditional Chinese characters: 98 in the main body, 16 on the right edge, and 12 on the left edge. The text utilizes two fonts: Regular Script (Kaishu), which is used on the right and left edges, and Seal Script (Zhuanshu), which is used in the main body. In line with Chinese cultural traditions, a complete banner is typically written and read from right to left. The right edge usually presents the title or theme of the banner, the central part comprises the content, and the left edge often features the creator’s signature. Consequently, the analysis of the text’s meaning will start from the right edge. The content of the right edge of the banner translates to “Respectfully presented to the Glorious Grand Master, Grand Coordinator, and Provincial Governor, Celebrating Your Seventieth Birthday.” This phrase acknowledges the recipient’s position and title, signifying a second-rank official in the Qing Dynasty, the highest level among local officials. Notably, the banner does not explicitly mention the official’s name, which is a departure from traditional Chinese gift customs and relates to the content on the left edge of the banner. 

The main body comprises 98 Seal Script characters for “longevity,” celebrating the recipient’s long and healthy life. Seal Script is traditionally employed in rituals, religion, or when addressing ancestors in China, symbolizing a link between humans and the divine. Here, Seal Script is used to pray that the recipient may receive protection and blessings from the deities, thus achieving longevity and health. 

Traditionally, the left edge of the banner includes the creator’s signature and title. The translated content reads, “Chen Xu, Commander-in-chief of the army and navy in the Su Song Region, deeply bows and offers my sincere wishes.” This reveals the banner’s creator, Chen Xu, as not only the highest military official in the province but also a second-rank official. The Su Song Region (Suzhou-Songjiang), encompassing present-day Shanghai and Zhejiang Province, was a critical economic center and port during the Qing Dynasty, as well as the mouth of the Yangtze River, bearing significant economic relevance to the Qing Dynasty. Records indicate the naval and army forces in the Su Song Region totaled around 12,000. Chen Xu’s duties extended beyond protecting the region’s coastline to defending against harassment from pirates and other invaders. To fulfill these responsibilities, Chen Xu needed to maintain good relations with the local governor. 

In the bureaucratic system of the Qing Dynasty, civilian and military officials belonged to two separate hierarchies. The emperor, as the highest authority, had the exclusive power to appoint officials within both the civilian and military ranks. Civilian and military officials were prohibited from directly appointing or communicating with each other. However, this restriction did not curtail the emperor’s ability to make “cross-appointments.” This policy underscored the principle that all official authority emanated from the emperor. Simultaneously, the delineation between civilian and military systems mirrored the emperor’s intent to prevent direct liaisons between provincial governors and military officials, thereby averting the risk of local warlordism or insurrection. To ensure the autonomy of local administrations and the military, the emperor dispatched inspectors to oversee these regions. This political framework within the Qing Dynasty also elucidates why the governor mentioned in the banner was not named. On one hand, Chen Xu specifically cited the governor’s 70th birthday, signaling a particular individual as the recipient of his gift. On the other hand, he intentionally omitted the governor’s name to evade scrutiny by the emperor’s inspectors regarding his association with the governor, prompted by the gifting action. Chen Xu aimed to convert his personal friendship with the governor into a “public affair,” essentially upholding the regular and necessary cooperation between local military commanders and civilian officials without forming any alliances that could potentially challenge the emperor’s supremacy. 

This subtle expression reflects the political environment of the late Qing Dynasty. In practice, local officials needed to maintain good relations with their local military commanders, but they also needed to keep a certain distance to avoid arousing the suspicion of the sensitive emperor. The banner demonstrates how officials during the Qing period navigated “taboo” issues while also showcasing the flexibility people exhibit in the face of societal rules. 


Dai, Yingcong. Qing Military Institutions and Their Effects on Government, Economy, and Society, 1640–1800.” Journal of Chinese History 1, no. 2 (2017): 329–352. 

McCord, Edward A. The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1993. p. 20. 

Yao, Yongfa. Qing Dynasty Stationed in Chong.” Shanghai Chongming District People’s Government. May 15, 2019. Accessed February 23, 2024. 

Figure 2. One of the twelve bronze rings on the underlayer of the banner. The rings were used to hang the banner on the wall.