Han follow suit in cultural renaissance
By Stephen Wong
SHANGHAI - Despite the fact that China's economy and way of living have become
increasingly integrated with the international community, as the Middle
Kingdom's economic muscles grow, a new trend that some call "a cultural
renaissance" has appeared to restore certain Chinese traditions.
This is certainly true of clothing, with some people now trying to bring back hanfu,
the ancient costumes worn by Han Chinese
until 360 years ago.
The Han is the largest of China's 56 ethnic groups, accounting for more than
90% of the Chinese population today. The Han-style dress was the clothing of
Han people for three millennia, until the Manchurians came to power in 1644.
During the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Han were forced to wear
Manchu-style clothes. Following the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, Han men
switched to Western dress, and the women adapted Manchu-style clothes - the cheongsam.
In communist China, blue and grey Mao suits and dark-green People's Liberation
Army (PLA) uniforms dominated the country until the late 1970s. Over past two
decades, with the country's doors thrown wide open, fashions in China have
fallen in line with world trends.
Until very recently hanfu was confined to kung fu or historical movies.
Now it is making a comeback into the lives of some Chinese people..
In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, it has been the everyday wear of
51-year-old Liu Hehua for two years. Every day this Hakka woman can be seen in
wide-sleeved, loose and layered robes at home, on the bus, and even at her
workplace, attracting strange looks from all who see her.
However, those looks are getting less strange as more and more people,
especially those born in the late 1970s, take to proudly and publicly wearing hanfu,
even though the loose, long attire seems to be a bit inconvenient and
inefficient for life in a modern society.
The revival of hanfu reflects a search for a new fashion but it is also
an effort by some Han people to find their cultural roots and identity.
"The Japanese have the kimono and the Koreans also have their
traditional.clothing. But not the Han people, although they represent the
largest of China's 56 ethnic groups," said Liu, who actively promotes cuture.
With the start of the 21st century, as the Chinese began to take pride in their
own culture following the country's rapid economic growth, other elements of
traditional Chinese culture are also making a comeback, forming a so-called "hanfu
The movement climaxed at this year's Qixi festival, a traditional Han festival
falling on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. In big
cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Qingdao, Ningbo and Nanjing, hanfu
aficionados found themselves in the media spotlight when they appeared in
streets or gathered in parks or in bars.
It is not exactly clear how this movement started, but a young man in the
northern Chinese city of Zhengzhou, provincial capital of Henan, has played a
key role. Wang Letian, a worker at a state-owned power company, is generally
regarded as the first person to wear hanfu in public in the modern era.
His stroll in 2003 inspired others to follow suit. It does take some courage in
a traditionally conservative nation to be different from others.
A website, huaxia-han.com, was established by five Han culture lovers in 2003
and it now has over 30,000 registered members. Tianhanwang (tianhan.net), a
similar website launched two years ago, has over 10,000 members. Both often
hold public functions to promote hanfu.
Ye Mao, a PhD candidate in politics and public affairs management at Wuhan
University even proposed replacing the current graduation gowns with hanfu,
a suggestion unlikely to be adopted by China's Ministry of Education.
Discussions about hanfu started in 2001 after China hosted the APEC
summit in Shanghai, where each participant was presented with a tangzhuang,
a Tang-style suit. The clothing gained such publicity at the event that it was
soon widely recognized as China's national costume.
But hanfu lovers do not agree. They say tangzhuang is not the
costume of the Han-dominated Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), as its name suggests.
Rather it's a variety of the costume of the Manchurians, who forced the Han
people to wear it over 300 years ago.
Most hanfu aficionados are white-collar workers or college students born
in the late 1970s. "These young people are the beneficiaries of reform and
opening up, but they have not forgotten the humiliation the Chinese suffered in
the past 100 years … They want to find something to regain ethnic pride," said
Bao Mingxin, a professor at Shanghai-based Donghua University's fashion school.
The 1970s generation has gone beyond merely wearing hanfu. They are
sending their children to private schools to receive education in traditional
etiquette and literature. Such a school for children was opened in Wuhan in
early August, with 45 pupils aged between four and six. The pupils are required
to wear hanfu, learn ancient classics, and pay tribute to Confucius,
whose thought dominated China for thousands of years until the 20th century.
The part-time school was opened after Shanghai's education authority closed a
full-time private school of a similar nature, on the grounds that it was
Despite the growing interest in hanfu, ordinary people's knowledge of
these ancient clothes is very limited. Last month, a couple in Dalian city in
north China wore hanfu for their wedding, but the bridegroom's dress was
in the style used to dress dead people. In hanfu, there is a slight
difference in the collars worn by the living and the dead.
Many hanfu wearers have seen their clothes being mistaken for Japanese
of Korean dress, and they have responded by promoting the style. Chen Yi'an, a
young man working for a Taiwanese-invested company in Shenzhen, walks up to
people who stare at him and explains the origin of hanfu.
Unlike most social movements in China's history, the hanfu movement has
not touched the grass roots. The government has adopted a "let it be" attitude.
Some scholars, however, have warned of extreme nationalism behind the hanfu
movement. The hanfu websites contain many postings claiming that Han
culture is the best in the world. "If the advocates of Han culture start to
repulse other cultures, it will be very harmful," said Professor Cao Zhenglu of
Shenzhen University's school of arts.
Stephen Wong is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.