Mandarin chinois, 1843.
The word “Mandarin” is not of Chinese but of Malay-Portuguese origin and is a Western term for the high state officials in Imperial China during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
In Western usage, a mandarin is a civilian official who worked in the administration of the state during the Chinese Empire, especially during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Occasionally, officers of the imperial military are also referred to by this term.
Mandarins were scholars, judges and civil servants who served in all areas of the Chinese administration. Their office and the titles and ranks associated with it were awarded to them after years of elite training. They were subjected to a rigorous selection and examination system that was intended to guarantee that the administration of the country was carried out only by the most learned and capable minds.
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Each mandarin’s performance of his or her duties and qualifications was strictly controlled on a regular basis. In the lowest rank they worked as teachers in schools, in the highest ranks they were influential and much respected administrators, advisors and scholars, but also heralds and diplomats in the name and on behalf of the emperor.
Mandarins are still known today for their silk, splendid court costumes, embroidered with heraldic animals and decorated in strictly prescribed colours, thus indicating rank and position at court. Traditional patriarchy shaped both office and family life; women were not allowed to hold the office of mandarin. The power and influence of the mandarins and their strict and rigorous administrative system formed the backbone of the Chinese empire, which grew and prospered with this institution for more than five centuries.
Source: Asian costumes by Auguste Wahlen. Manners, customs and costumes of all peoples of the world.