Traditional Chinese Clothing in the Han Dynasty

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

When I was a young girl, my aunty lived in Shanghai, southern China. When she came home to New Zealand to visit, she brought me back a beautiful red dress called a cheongsam. It was and continues to be, the coolest piece of clothing I have ever owned. I was completely enamoured by the beautiful, silky material and the golden patterns throughout the gown.

Interestingly, there is not a single national attire that represents China. This is not only because Chinese clothing is highly diverse and differs from area to area, but also because each subsequent dynasty forgot or abandoned the clothing from the previous empire and redefined it within their own. While each dynasty was influential to China’s history, there are a few that really developed the traditional Chinese styles. The Han dynasty was the first of many that had a major influence and helped shape the fashion of ancient China.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

When I was a young girl, my aunty lived in Shanghai, southern China. When she came home to New Zealand to visit, she brought me back a beautiful red dress called a cheongsam. It was and continues to be, the coolest piece of clothing I have ever owned. I was completely enamoured by the beautiful, silky material and the golden patterns throughout the gown.

Interestingly, there is not a single national attire that represents China. This is not only because Chinese clothing is highly diverse and differs from area to area, but also because each subsequent dynasty forgot or abandoned the clothing from the previous empire and redefined it within their own. While each dynasty was influential to China’s history, there are a few that really developed the traditional Chinese styles. The Han dynasty was the first of many that had a major influence and helped shape the fashion of ancient China.

Similar throughout most of the dynasties is the shenyi clothing style, favoured in ancient China. Shenyi (深衣) translates to “deep clothing” in English, but it literally means “wrapping the body deep within the clothes” or to “wrap the body deep within cloth”. It was the favoured style of Chinese dress from the Zhou to Han dynasties and briefly made comebacks in other dynasties depending on who was ruling.

The shenyi style of clothing was based on Chinese Confucianism, a philosophy and belief system from ancient China that really laid the foundation for Chinese culture. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was a philosopher and teacher who wrote down his thoughts on ethics, good behaviour, and moral character, leading to the development of Confucianism. The golden rule of Confucianism is “Do not unto others what you would not want others to do unto you”. How Confucianism plays into clothing is in the idea of piety and modesty. Because of this, Chinese women often had to dress in simple, close wrapped, and concealing outfits that hid their figure, though this made the clothing and the women no less beautiful.

Mural from Dahuting Han Tomb of the late Eastern Han dynasty, in Henan, China

The Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 AD) was the second, most powerful and influential imperial dynasty of China that brought forth an age of economic prosperity. Because of this prosperity, and because the Han (汉族 hànzú) were the dominant ethnic group in China, Han became the label for several major aspects of Chinese culture. This means that current day Chinese characters are referred to as Han characters (汉字 hànzì), Mandarin is sometimes referred to as the Han language (汉语 hànyǔ), and traditional Chinese clothing is called Han clothing (汉服 hànfú). It was also at this time that travel via the Great Silk Road between East and West commenced, which is why trade was so prosperous.

Clothing in the beginning of the Han dynasty had no restrictions as to what the common people were permitted to wear. In the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), the emperors gave decrees on what general clothing was recommended but they were not specific enough to be restrictive – and they were not enforced all that much either. Clothing designs in the Han dynasty were similar for both men and women, though there were different colours, fabrics, and ornaments used to differentiate between genders.

 

Clothing also differed based on the seasons: blue or green for spring, red for summer, yellow for autumn, and black for winter. The Han era of clothing was well known for its dark style of dress which used black and red-coloured fabrics. Emperor Ming of Han (58-79 AD) formalised the dress code of the Han dynasty in 59 AD, stating that the emperor had to be dressed in a black-coloured upper garment and an ochre yellow lower garment.

Mawangdui Painted Figurines wearing qujupao shenyi, Han dynasty

The shenyi was popular during the Han dynasty and developed into clothing that had two different types: qujupao (曲裾袍, “curved-hem gown”) and the zhijupao (直裾袍, “straight-hem gown”). Women also had the option of wearing the ruqun 襦裙, a cross-collar wrap shirt that paired with a long skirt. The ruqun typically had wide sleeves and a loose layered look consisting of two to three garments: a loose, open cross-collar shirt, a long wrap skirt, and another open cross-collar robe used as an outer garment and wrapped around the waist. Other characteristics included square sleeves, sloping necklines, red clothes, red shoes, and cicada-like hats.

People loved to accessorise during the Han dynasty. Ornaments and jewellery like rings, bracelets, necklaces, hair pins, and hair sticks – ji – were common. The first hair sticks developed and evolved into zanzi (簪子) with more decorations. The new type of women’s hair ornament invented in the Han dynasty was the buyao (步摇, “the dangling hair stick”) which was zanzi-modified to have dangling decorations. These decorations would sway when women walked and were a completely unique feature of the Han Chinese couture.

The backbone of Chinese traditional clothing is silk. China is the world’s largest and earliest silk producer. Legend has it that silk was accidentally discovered by an ancient Chinese empress in 2700 BC. When Chinese Empress Leizu, also known as Xi Ling Shi, was having a hot cup of tea, she was surprised to see a silkworm cocoon drop into her cup. Hot water softens the fibres comprising the cocoon, so when it dropped into her hot tea, it started to unravel. When Leizu lifted the unravelled cocoon from her teacup, she noticed it was made out of one long strand of silk. So, she decided to weave it into a piece of fabric.

When Leizu took this discovery to her husband, Yellow Emperor Huangdi, he encouraged her to observe the life of a silkworm. Bombyx mori, or the domestic silk moth, are native to China and are commonly found in mulberry trees since its leaves are their main source of food. Leizu persuaded Huangdi to buy her a grove of mulberry trees so she could farm silkworm caterpillars. As she observed more of the larvae, she learned, and eventually taught her attendants how to farm and raise silkworms. It is believed that Empress Leizu also invented the silk reel – a device used to spin the silk fibres from a group of cocoons into one thread, and the silk loom – a tool to weave silk.

Empress Leizu’s creation of silk is said to be the start of sericulture – the process of farming silkworms to create fabric – which became an extremely profitable industry in China. Since Empress Leizu was the first to weave silk, the practice remained restricted to women for a long period of time. Women were in charge of everything from raising the silkworms to harvesting the fibres and weaving them into fabric.

It was not too long after silk was discovered that it became a status symbol. Because making silk needs a lot of labour and resources, it became a precious and highly valuable commodity. Initially, the emperor, his close family, and highest-ranking military officials were the only ones allowed to wear silk clothing. The rules were relaxed in the Qing dynasty, and anyone was allowed to wear silk even though it was so expensive that commoners were unlikely to buy any.

Because of its value, silk was also used as currency in ancient China. During the Han dynasty, government employees were paid their wages in silk. Farmers had to pay their taxes in grain and silk, and monks who broke their monastery’s rules had to pay in silk. In that time, prices could be described through lengths of silk as a unit of measurement. Foreign countries also saw the value of the material, so the emperor and government used silk as diplomatic gifts.

It is well known that silk is one of nature’s strongest natural fibres, which made it useful for other things besides fabric, too. The thread was used for musical instrument strings, bow strings, and fishing lines. Before paper was invented, the Chinese also used silk to write on.

The Han dynasty set the basis for the rest of China’s clothing of choice, or at least the clothing of the Chinese Han peoples. Characterised by layer upon layer, long, flowing robes, accessories, silk, and modesty, it was a style that has recently seen a revival. Though there are generations of ancient Chinese clothing that differ from the Han dynasty hanfu, there is a growing trend called the Hanfu Movement – part of a major traditional Han clothing revival started in the early 2000s. About three-quarters of traditional Hanfu clothing customers are between 16 and 24 years old, which just shows that young Chinese people are looking to reconnect and re-establish their national pride and cultural identity.

Young people wearing Han clothing: In recent years, young Chinese are trying to revive traditional Han Chinese clothing (汉服运动, or Hanfu Movement) using internet-based forums. A few Han Chinese clothing gatherings both within China and overseas were organized. Han clothing was lost for 267 years as a result of the Manchu subjugation of China, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.
Source: Wikimedia commons

 

Sources: 1. Introduction to traditional Chinese clothing | Chinese language institute, studycli.org 2: Where was silk invented? The history of silk, Lalouettesilk.com 3. Ethnic dress in the United States : a cultural encyclopedia 4. Confucianism, nationalgeographic.org 5. Hanfu, Wikipedia

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