Chinese people are called “hua ren” (華人), but do you know that the word “hua” (華) was derived from the beautiful clothing worn by the Han Chinese?
Many people assume qipao (cheongsam) to be the quintessence of traditional Chinese dressing, but qipao is actually the traditional clothing of the Manchus, not the Chinese.
The Han Chinese – the largest ethnic group in China – had their own traditional clothing for more than 3,000 years, and that was called “Hanfu”.
However, Hanfu had been lost among the Chinese for over 300 years after ethnic Manchu invaders conquered China in 1644. During the Qing dynasty, Hanfu was officially banned by the Manchurians to sever Han Chinese from their own cultural identity, so as to consolidate Manchurian dominance over China.
That’s why Mr Michael Jow, the acting president of the Han Cultural Society (Singapore), aspires to revive Hanfu as a part of Han Chinese identity.
When Ms Cheong Su Yee, a member of the Han Cultural Society (Singapore), demonstrates to the Epoch Times reporter how to wear a classic dress of Tang Dynasty called “Qi Xiong Ru Qun”(齊胸襦裙), her tone carries a measure of cultural pride.
“Qi Xiong Ru Qun”, in which the short shirt jacket is tucked inside the skirt, and the skirt is tied very high up on the chest and under the armpits, is undeniably charming.
“Qi Xiong Ru Qun”, in which the short shirt jacket is tucked inside the skirt, and the skirt is tied very high up on the chest and under the armpits
“I feel elegant wearing this dress. The dress is flowy and drapes loosely and gracefully,” Ms Cheong beams excitedly.
Ms Cheong learned about Hanfu from Mr Michael Jow, who is a personal friend of hers.
“He always carries around many pieces of Hanfu in his big suitcase (pointing to his suitcase). And he lent me his Hanfu for one of the events,” she says.
Since then, she would often wear Hanfu when attending activities organised by the Han Cultural Society. The cultural activities include tea-drinking at Tea Chapter, cultural talks, organising celebration rituals and culture camps.
Han Cultural Society (Singapore), which comprises Hanfu enthusiasts, was initiated in 2007 on the internet.
The interest in Hanfu began in 2003, when Wang Letian publicly wore Hanfu on the street of Zhengzhou. This caught the attention of many Chinese, and later sparked the Hanfu movement on the internet.
This Hanfu movement, which aims to revive and preserve the Han Chinese identity, is very popular in China and its popularity has since spread to Taiwan and Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia.
Hanfu – The Nucleus of Traditional Chinese Culture
“We should go back to the origin. This is the root of Chinese identity,” says Ms Cheong.
Mr Lee Chun Hoe, another member of the Society, concurs. He reasons that the essence of Japanese and Korean culture is actually influenced by Chinese culture, and finds it a pity that Japanese and Korean people can preserve their culture while the Chinese cannot.
“We can start by reviving Hanfu, as without the clothing, we will lose our identity,” he says.
In explaining why Hanfu should be revived as a part of Chinese culture, Mr Jow, who hails from Taiwan, says that the significance of Hanfu can be found in the words “華夏”(Huaxia). Huaxia is a historical concept indicating the Chinese nation and its civilisation.
China was said to be “the prime nation for garments and hats and the land of ceremony and proprieties”.
As mentioned in ‘Zuo Zhuan’ (左傳), one of the most important works for covering the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 B.C.), xia (夏) has the meaning of “grand”, and was used to denote the ceremonial etiquette of China, while hua (華), which means “illustrious”, was used to refer to the beautiful clothing that the Han Chinese wore (中國有禮儀之大，故稱夏；有服章之美，謂之華).
In other words, both the ancient Hanfu dressing culture and its etiquette system form the nucleus of traditional Chinese culture. Without either of these, the “Chinese nation” will lose its meaning.
“Chinese people are called “hua ren” (華人) based on this phrase in ‘Zuo Zhuan’. The word “hua” (華) was derived from the beautiful Chinese Han couture. Hence, without Hanfu, this external appearance, how can we be called Chinese?” stresses Mr Jow, a Chinese culture aficionado.
To Mr Jow, dressing culture is a form of cultural identity.
“We have the internal aspect of the culture, which include Confucius, Buddhist, Taoist philosophies, but dressing culture (Hanfu) is the outer appearance that defines us as Chinese,” Mr Jow attests.
The History of Chinese Han Couture
Dating back to the beginning of its history, it is said that Hanfu was the clothing of the legendary Yellow Emperor, a great sage king of ancient China.
According to a Chinese legend, Hanfu was contrived by the Yellow Emperor’s consort, Leizu – the “mother of Chinese dressing”. She discovered sericulture and silk to produce clothes.
By the Shang Dynasty, China’s second dynasty (1675 B.C. to 1035 B.C.), the Chinese developed the rudiments of Hanfu, which consisted of a yi (a narrow-cuffed, knee-length tunic tied with a sash) and a chang (narrow, ankle-length skirt) worn with a bixi (a length of fabric that reached the knees).
A social system in the ancient Chinese clothing was enforced by the Western Zhou Dynasty. People of a higher social status had more complex and flamboyant garments, and more ornaments were also displayed in their attire.
In addition, scholars and officials wore high hats, their sleeves were wider and the yi was fastened with a wide belt adorned with jade ornaments.
Dynasty after dynasty, modifications were made in the clothing styles for three thousand years until the end of Ming Dynasty.
Basic Style of Hanfu
Chinese Han Couture consists of hundreds of variations, but though each dynasty had its unique styles, its basic style and characteristics remained the same.
The garments are generally characterised by loose gowns, wide sleeves, and flat, left lapel covered over the right lapel to form a V-shape collar (交領右衽 Jiao Ling You Ren).
As stated on the New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD) Han Couture Competition website, the basic and most popular style throughout the dynasties is the ‘dress jacket’ – a long skirt with waist ties and big sleeves connected to the shirt jacket.
The first mention of the dress jacket first appeared during the Spring-Autumn Warring States Period (770-221 BC).
“It includes a jacket for the upper garment (上衣) and an ankle-length skirt for the lower garment (下裳),” Mr Jow says.
The upper short shirt jacket is tucked inside the ankle-length skirt and tied around the waist with a long silk belt or sash belt, accompanied by a piece of jade.
By the Han dynasty, before pre-Qin, they started to sew these two-piece garments together as a long full-body garment – Shenyi (深衣).
“By around Han dynasty, they had Zhiju (直裾 straight lapels) and Quju (曲裾 diagonal body wrapping),” he explains.
The Deeper Meaning Behind Hanfu
Beyond its aesthetic beauty, each part of the Hanfu embodies something deeper in meaning.
For example, all cuts should be made round to connote harmony, and some dresses consisted of 12 pieces, symbolising the 12 months in a year.
The left lapel covered over the right lapel (Jiao Ling You Ren 交領右衽) implies that the Yang (positive force) should always be over the Yin (negative force), Mr Jow elucidates.
“In traditional Chinese cosmic philosophy, we have the Yin and Yang. Wearing Hanfu reminds us to balance these forces to maintain harmony with the universe,” he unravels.
Likewise, Mr Lee thinks that the flat, left lapel covered over the right lapel to form a V-shape collar (Jiao Ling You Ren 交領右衽), signifies being outwardly gentle but inwardly stern.
“This Y-cross collar inside looks squarish, right? And the collar folded and crossed over to the right looks round, right (外圓內方)?” he reasons.
According to an NTD video, “the large circular cuffs represents round heavenly path”, while the straight seam in the middle of the back of the dress signifies “humans walking between heaven and earth” or “righteousness”, and the tied waistband “is a symbol of humans being tied to the heavenly rules”.
In a report by pureinsight.org, the ancient Chinese hanged a piece of jade on their belt not merely for decoration, but to remind them to behave properly like pure jade.
Other than being a paragon of virtue, Hanfu also exudes an air of refinement and dignity in the wearer.
“In ancient Chinese culture, the higher the social status, the more elaborate and cumbersome is the clothing style. For instance, the Emperor’s flamboyant attire restricted his actions, and he would be more refined compared to normal people,” explains Mr Lee.
Does wearing Hanfu make Mr Lee feel more gentlemanly and refined?
“Yes,” he says with a giggle.
Is the Chinese or Taiwanese Government Reviving Hanfu?
The Chinese government is neither “crushing” nor “promoting” the Hanfu movement enthusiastically, Mr Jow says.
He thinks that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fears that if the identity of Han Chinese becomes very strong, it will become a threat to their ideology and power.
However, if they were to “crush” it, they will be accused of destroying the Chinese culture. As a result, they try to support it by promoting Hanfu through CCTV.
“But the problem with the CCP is that they place too much ideological control, such as controlling people’s thinking. There’s too much censorship,” he says.
And the CCP has destroyed the tangible cultural assets, religious values, and customs during the Cultural Revolution, as well as the inner bearing of the Chinese culture.
“Obviously, now, the CCP is trying to repair the ‘soft power’; however, the authentic meanings behind the culture are not there,” Mr Jow opines.
Speaking as a Taiwanese, Mr Jow observes the Taiwanese being quite aware of the Hanfu movement, but as most Taiwan media outlets “tend to sensualise to complete on viewership”, topics like the “Hanfu movement” are not reported as it will not attract much viewership.
However, Taiwan is more liberal as a result of “democracy”.
“The Taiwanese government promotes a more diverse kind of multicultural society, where you can have Chinese cultural identity and Taiwanese identity,” shares Mr Jow, who is interested in Hanfu due to his family background.
Mr Jow’s parents were brought up under Chiang Kai-shek’s education system.
When Mao Zedong tried to destroy the Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China, Chiang Kai-shek was preserving the best of Chinese culture in Taiwan. This cultural revival movement helped to raise the Taiwanese people’s cultural awareness and social etiquette.
For this reason, people in Taiwan are more refined as compared to those in Mainland China, Mr Jow opines.
“And during the Cultural Revolution, a lot of Chinese did not attend school, and they picked up all the bad habits (from the party culture) in political study sessions,” he adds, speaking from experience after interacting with many Chinese while he was in China.
“Many Chinese cultures are preserved in Taiwan, overseas, and even in Singapore,” Mr Jow avows.