In 2010, a young woman in Chengdu was attacked by a group of college students because she was wearing traditional Chinese robes.
The students thought her dress was a Japanese kimono, forced her to take it off, and burned it in public.
“I realized people didn’t know what hanfu [traditional Chinese clothing] was,” says Zhang Qinglin, a college student in Chengdu who started wearing the dress after hearing the story. “I wanted people to know more about these clothes and our history.”
In the past 15 years, the garment has seen a renaissance in China. Philip Jun Fang, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Northwestern University who studies Chinese visual culture, considers this part of a rising trend of “self-exploration through looking inward.”
That means rediscovering ancient culture and traditions, in contrast to the past four decades of looking outward for foreign influences.
“Hanfu is not an ancient dress, but the national dress of the Han people,” says Chen Lijun, a high school student in Chengdu. “They’re just clothes. There’s no need to separate hanfu and modern life.”
Before the Qing Dynasty, the majority of Chinese people, who are ethnically Han, typically wore long robes with wide sleeves and crossed collars. This style became known as hanfu (汉服).
After the Manchus came to power and established the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, they mandated a different type of dress that was native to their ethnic group, and hanfu all but disappeared.
But now, it’s making a comeback, fueled by online communities dedicated to hanfu and stories of people wearing it in daily life.
The internet was where Chen first discovered hanfu six years ago, and now, she runs a hanfu enthusiasts’ club at her school.
“There’s a sense of belonging,” Chen says, “like you’ve been away for many years and finally returned home.”
“Those who can’t understand why I wear hanfu might think I’m weird and look at me like I’m crazy,” says Mo Hang, who has been wearing hanfu for just over a year.
When he first saw a group of teenagers wearing the robes, he instantly felt an affinity toward the style.
“There was a feeling in my blood that made me think, ‘This is what we Han Chinese should look like,’” he says.
Some scholars, such as Kevin Carrico at Macquarie University in Australia, have interpreted the hanfu trend as nationalistic.
And a few enthusiasts might be, says Fang of Northwestern, but equating a resurgence of hanfu to a rise in nationalism is far too generalizing.
It fails to consider the different reasons why individuals might enter hanfu, Fang says, including the influence of pop culture and cosplay, desire for community, and interest in ancient culture and traditions.
Shi Qian, president of Sichuan Hanfu, a two-year-old nonprofit that promotes the clothing as a subject of academic study and mainstream fashion, discovered hanfu through her interest in classical Chinese poetry.
“It has always been in our hearts and minds,” she says. “It is a portal through which we can learn more about our ancient culture and traditions.”
In 2010, Shi was part of a fledgling community of enthusiasts and has watched it grow since then, mostly led by millennials. Sichuan Hanfu now has more than 300 members and 10,000 online followers.
“People used to think it was strange but less so now in Chengdu,” says Wang Lin, who works at a call center and has more than three suitcases full of dresses.
Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, has a reputation for being more open and culturally liberal than other parts of the country. Some of the most well-known Chinese hip-hop groups, for example, hail from Chengdu.
Naturally, the city has become a breeding ground for hanfu pop-up shops and events, where enthusiasts gather to socialize and buy accessories.
“It’s mostly accepted,” says Xu Ping, who discovered hanfu six months ago after spending a year in military service. “None of my friends or family have a problem with it.”
For Xu, there’s something deeper in the robes than fashion. “It is a way to express spiritual needs,” he says. “Hanfu makes you feel dignified.”
There is a standard style of hanfu for each dynasty, and shops nowadays carry both formal and informal wear. Contemporary designs are inspired by ancient Chinese poetry, literature, and paintings, and they can represent a wearer’s social status.
“Many designs have interesting meanings,” says Zhang. “Some sleeves are very large, and if they’re empty and breezy, it suggests the person is of high status and upstanding.”
“It’s beautiful,” says Wang. “We are Chinese. Why shouldn’t we be proud of it?”
When she posts pictures or videos of herself wearing hanfu every day, a single post can get almost 500 likes on TikTok, China’s version of Snapchat.
With few physical stores, hanfu thrives through its strong online presence. In the past few years, e-commerce stores selling hanfu with contemporary designs have multiplied.
The 10 most popular hanfu stores on Taobao, China’s Amazon, made an estimated 20 million yuan ($3 million) in sales in April 2018, triple the figure in April 2016.
The community has also helped people make friends. Xu and You Huang met through an online hanfu forum, and now, they often go out for dinner, drinks, and karaoke with other hanfu enthusiasts, “doing normal things that most people our age will do,” he says.
“Because we are Han Chinese, and we are modern people, we are the ones who need to show hanfu’s essence and traditions,” Xu says.
Photographs by Christine Schindler, with additional reporting by Yu Shimin.