Chinese fashion revival from a few thousand years ago – Hanfu is back!

In fashion, you have a lot of revivals. Think about the 80’s, 90’s and so on. At some point, it seems everything comes back in some way or another.

In today’s China, you will see a lot of Western influence as well but I also think there are regional differences. In general, I’d say Chinese fashion is a lot more modest and, in some sense, ‘elegant’ but of course this is also changing. And change usually comes fast in China.

Chinese fashionWhen you come to China to teach English, you might see what I mean (regarding the Chinese fashion style). A few years back you could only spot a few ‘differently’ styled people, mostly girls wearing kind of ancient-looking dresses. They looked like going to the carnival as princesses. I was intrigued and of course asked around, ‘what the heck is that?’ Somebody told me eventually this is ‘Hanfu’. Nowadays you see more and more young people dressed like ancient princesses and princes. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see someone wearing this kind of costume at a Chinese government office anymore. So in this post we talk about Chinese fashion – What is Hanfu?

On the street, young, fashion-aware girls and boys wearing Hanfu, look rather poised and confident in their elegant ancient clothes.

Hanfu revivalRevival of Chinese fashion – Hanfu

The Chinese characters “汉服” for ‘Hanfu’, can be found in ancient books. It has been later summarized and interpreted as a general term for the traditional Chinese Han clothing system.

A guy called ‘Wang Letian’, an electricity worker in Zhengzhou / Henan province started the fashion craze apparently around 2003, as he was wearing homemade Hanfu on the street. After that, I found more and more admirers. They found a common forum with around 2004. And although it has become a common sight nowadays, you probably would exaggerate when you’d say ‘Hanfu-fashion’ exploded on the scene. It took more than a decade to grow and still is considered a niche pursuit. Here at TeachDiscoverChina, everyone denies wearing it but you never know what everyone is wearing at home. I wouldn’t be surprised to see director Elvin and her family fully dressed in Hanfu on a Sunday afternoon stroll at Taikooli in Chengdu.Tongpao

Tongpao – the one wearing Hanfu

Hanfu enthusiasts call each other ‘Tongpao’ (“同袍”) – the ones wearing Hanfu’ and like most other sub-cultures they use the internet to exchange ideas, upcoming events and so on. On platforms like Baidu’s Hanfu Bar, an online Hanfu community with 1.1 million followers, you can find more information about Hanfu. For a lot of people, it was an epiphany that the Chinese traditionally wore those kinds of clothes. The majority of Chinese today identify as Han-people, though the actual Han dynasty and their traditional dresses are a few thousand years old. Tongpao across the country used the web to deepen their knowledge and bond between same-minded people. Some of them dug deep into ancient garb, and constantly share and update information concerning Hanfu, based on historical materials and cultural relics. Many of them took Han Chinese clothing as a breakthrough point in a bid to learn more about Chinese traditional culture.

Chengdu – the Hanfu capital

The fashion wasn’t just limited on the internet platforms. Early Hanfu groups in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu were relatively active and organized activities. Most activities were to celebrate traditional festivals or to popularize traditional etiquette and customs voluntarily. In 2010, the first official Hanfu festival took place in Jinli Street, Chengdu. The event hosted in the Living Water Park of Chengdu attracted more than 200 participants.

These kinds of events, help Hanfu-enthusiast to learn more about traditional clothing. Here, as well as on the internet, they can share information, research ancient books, and records to revive traditional rituals and festival customs.

Reasons for Tongpao’s, to learn more about Hanfu are manifold, curiosity, attracted by its beautiful garments, enthusiasts of history, Chinese ancient civilization or traditional culture. No matter the reason, those Hanfu festivals, brings the Tongpao community together to learn more about Hanfu, and traditional Chinese fashion and customs. It brings not only a deeper understanding of Chinese history, better than most school lessons, but it’s also fun and brings a sense of belonging.

How to wear Hanfu

During the summer, girlsHow to dress in Hanfu usually wear Qixiong Ruqun (a gown with waistband above the chest), which is as simple as modern clothing. In winter, they typically wear a Chinese garb of the Ming Dynasty. It can be worn with an undergarment, a petticoat, a skirt, a long coat, a cloak, and a headband. Some people even wear Hanfu on a daily basis. For them, modern clothes, are the exception.

In the early days, it took some courage to go out in Hanfu. A lot of people still didn’t know what the traditional Han garb was. Now more and more enthusiasts wear Hanfu daily. And they are on a mission: To educate people about the traditional clothing style of the Han.

Online retail consumer report about Chinese fashion – Hanfu

Tmall, the Chinese online retail giant, published a Hanfu Consumer Report in 2018. According to the report, people buying Hanfu are growing by 92% per year. Young people born after 1995 accounted for 48% of customers, and Chengdu takes the top spot for buying Hanfu clothing in the whole of China. In the early days, most Hanfu were custom made pieces. Today it is as easy as ordering a pair of the latest Nike trainers. In 2006, the country’s first store of Hanfu opened in Chengdu. The makers behind the store are now planning a nationwide expansion in the coming years. If you are teaching English in China, especially Chengdu, and you are interested in Hanfu, you have to visit the Hanfu street at Xiangbin Plaza.

More and more Hanfu retailers are also improving the design of dresses in recent years. Some of them design their own patterns, and some restore actual ancient patterns. More garment factories focussing their production now on Hanfu than anything else.

Controversy about Hanfu

The history of China and its various dynasties is long and impressive. Each dynasty had its own variety of different colored and shaped costumes with their own particular features. Have a look here about the history of imperial China (Ancient China: Qin- and Han).

That’s why the Hanfu revival, comes also with a bit of controversy. One of the main questions is: whether to stick to tradition or allow changes to accommodate more modern fashion.

The conservative faction insists on restoring the authentic Hanfu with a relatively strict set of ‘allowed’ shape and structure details. The more relaxed party, on the other side, and I’d say the majority, simply uses some Hanfu elements and mix it with modern dresses. An absolute sacrilege for traditionalists, which for them shouldn’t be called Hanfu at all but rather “Han elemental clothing”.

Traditional Hanfu enthusiasts, see it not only as yet another fashion but Hanfu and other related activities should be more standardized. In their view, Hanfu is only the beginning of a wider revival of Han culture in general, including forgotten customs, and traditional culture behind the clothing. Some might argue this is not just a discussion about fashion but increasingly includes views of how Chinese should dress based on their own tradition, somehow in opposition to modern ‘Western’ style.Chinese minority fashion

Some argue that Hanfu focusses only on the majority Han-Chinese and does not include other ethnic Chinese minorities and should therefore not nationally endorsed at all (Wikipedia). But for the vast majority of Hanfu enthusiast, it is just a fun way to express their fashion sense and bonding with other like-minded friends to have fun.

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