With a splendid and profound history of clothing, China is crowned as the “Kingdom of Apparel”. In the past over 5,000 years, it has created plentiful traditional costumes in its different periods. These colorful costumes, showing exquisiteness and elegance beyond compare, are regarded as precious cultural treasures.
In a Chinese myth, it was Leizu, the concubine of China’s first emperor Huangdi (Yellow Emperor), that invented Hanfu, the historical dress of the Han Chinese. Being an indispensable part of Chinese etiquette culture, it embodies the national characteristic and belief of Han Chinese.
With the coming of various dynasties, Hanfu underwent a lot of modifications. They reflect the social systems, economic life, folk customs as well as people’s ideology and aesthetic values of the day. By walking into the treasure house of those traditional costumes, you may appreciate their long-lasting beauty.
Basic Traits of Hanfu
The fundamentals of Hanfu were developed in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1000 BC). And the following dynasty, the Western Zhou Dynasty managed to enforce a social system in clothing, which was displayed by the complexity in outfits -- the higher the rank, the more flamboyant and ornate their attire. This included the color of the clothes, length of a skirt, the wideness of a sleeve and the degree of ornamentation.
Basically, a complete set of Hanfu includes three lays of clothes with a “y”-shaped collar – undergarment, inside garment and outerwear. As far as the dressing style is concerned, there are types like yi-shang, shenyi and ruqun etc.
Hanfu in Qin and Han Dynasties
The Qin and Han dynasties mark an important stage of Chinese clothing. It is by the Han Dynasty that a complete dressing norm was formed. People in these two dynasties generally wore shenyi (In Chinese, “shen” means deep and “yi” means clothes), which is so named because it wraps the body deeply. It is a full-length, one-piece robe which falls into two types – zhiju and quju, the former featured by straight cut while the latter with curved cut. They are worn by both men and women.
The Emperor of Qin, who was influenced by the concept of Yin and Yang as well as the theory of the Five Elements (gold, wood, water, fire, earth reinforce and counteract each other), believed that the Qin Dynasty would subdue the Zhou Dynasty like water extinguishes fire. Since the Zhou Dynasty is represented by “fire”, the color of red, Qin people adores black which is associated with water. Thus, in the Qin Dynasty, black was the superior color worn by people of high ranks.
Hanfu in Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty represents a golden age in China's history, where arts, science and economy were thriving. Fashion during this period was influenced by its cosmopolitan culture and arts. Female dress and personal adornments in particular reflected the new visions of this era. While previously Chinese women had been restricted by the old Confucian code to closely wrapped concealing outfits, female dress in the Tang Dynasty gradually became more relaxed, less constricting and even more revealing. Clothes in this period represent the most luxuriant chapter in Chinese clothing history.
In this period, clothes feature round-collar robe worn by men and ruqun, a top garment with a separate lower skirt worn by women. The top garment is usually waist-long and covered by the lower skirt which can be waist-high or breast-high. The collar of the top garment is generally y-shaped or paralleled and the sleeves are either narrow or wide. The narrow ones are worn by women of lower class and the wide ones by the imperial family and the nobility.
Various colors are adopted in clothes during this period, and the most favorite is garnet. The patterns on garments are on longer affected by the thought of “talent is given by god”, and began to adopt living creatures like flowers, birds and fish although traditional patterns of phoenix and dragon are not abandoned, which is influenced by the idea of “the imperial power is given by god”. With the emphasis on freedom and chubbiness, clothes become looser and much more revealing than that of other dynasties, especially in the late Tang Dynasty. And the higher the rank, the more revealing the clothes are. This shows the open-mindedness of people at that time.
Song Dynasty Hanfu
Clothes in the Song Dynasty follow the old system of Tang Dynasty. However, due to domestic strife and foreign aggression as well as the influence of Neo-Confucianism, clothes in this period are more simple, unadorned and reserved.
They are quietly elegant and more concealing, which is reflected in the top garment and beizi, a long parallel-collared robe to both men and women, similar to a cloak. It is most popular during the Song Dynasty and Ming Dynasty. Wide-sleeved beizi are considered formal wear for women while narrow-sleeved ones are casual wear for women. Both wide and narrow- sleeved beizi are used as casual wear for men. They are generally worn by people of all classes.