Culture

This style of clothing nearly disappeared after the Ming Dynasty. Now, it's making a comeback.

Nov 08, 2018

In the past few years, traditional Chinese clothing, or hanfu (漢服), has had something of a revival, with many young people wearing it as cosplay and some diehard fans making it their everyday attire. One college student made headlines last year for dressing in it for more than 300 days.

But the style has also been wrapped up in issues of race and nationality.

Wang Tingting, a hanfu enthusiast, makes tea in her silk dress.
Wang Tingting, a hanfu enthusiast, makes tea in her silk dress. / Photo: Wang Tingting

Before the Qing Dynasty, the majority of Chinese people, who are ethnically Han, typically wore long robes with wide sleeves and crossed collars. This is what’s become known as hanfu.

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: the changshan (長衫) for men and the qipao (旗袍) for women. Throughout the 20th century and to this day, that aesthetic has been most associated with traditional Chinese fashion, at least in the West.

The qipao, as worn here by Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, is most commonly associated with traditional Chinese fashion.
The qipao, as worn here by Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, is most commonly associated with traditional Chinese fashion. / Photo: Kenneth Chan/SCMP

Now, after 400 years, hanfu is making a comeback, with an increasing number of Chinese people arguing that it should have greater cultural relevance, similar to the kimono in Japan and hanbok in Korea.

“I feel a strong sense of affection and belonging,” says Luo Zhenchen, a design student at Guangzhou University who is part of his school’s Hanfu Society. Its members celebrate traditional Chinese festivals clad in hanfu and give lectures about the clothing’s history.

Luo Zhenchen says he feels a “a strong sense of affection and belonging” wearing hanfu.
Luo Zhenchen says he feels a “a strong sense of affection and belonging” wearing hanfu. / Photo: Luo Zhenchen

Hard-core enthusiasts go beyond the clothing and accessorize for historical accuracy. The college student who wore hanfu for a year, for example, also carried an umbrella made with oil paper.

Gao Zhiluo, a photographer in Luoyang who has worn hanfu almost daily since 2014, says she takes an hour every day to select her outfit, put on makeup and comb her hair in traditional Chinese style.

Association with extremists

Hanfu is not without controversy. Because it is associated with the ethnic majority and there are 55 other ethnic groups in China, hanfu has been linked to ethnic nationalist movements that advocate “Han supremacy.” They have even called for making hanfu China’s national dress.

But most enthusiasts say they wear the style to show their appreciation for Chinese culture or just for fashion, without caring about the ethnocentrism publicized by some leaders of the hanfu movement.

“It’s just clothing. Why bother politicizing it?”

“It’s just clothing,” Gao says. “Why bother politicizing it?”

Even some of its most ardent fans have rejected calls to elevate it to China’s national dress, citing potential conflict with other ethnic groups.

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Nonetheless, clubs promoting the attire have sprung up at every major university and created new demand for it.

Just 10 years ago, there were barely a handful of clothing brands specializing in hanfu. Now, there are hundreds.

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.