The impossible definition of the traditional Chinese dress

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What’s the traditional Chinese dress? Cheongsam (qipao) or Hanfu?

Well, the answer is not that straight forward. While many Hanfu enthusiasts would argue that Cheongsam has a Manchurian root thereby not representative of the Chinese culture, I believe that it is no less Chinese than Hanfu. Hanfu, on the other hand, faces a serious identity crisis making it impossible to define.

I know this is extremely ironic that I find it impossible to define Hanfu, though I call myself #hanfugirl.
Therefore I think it’s important to just give everyone a little overview on factors that contribute to this impossibility and also, the current Hanfu scene.

Firstly, the current Hanfu scene is generally categorised into the following categories:

  1. Cultural supremacists who think that everything starts from China, and that there are ‘Pure’ Han Chinese traditions which we ought to follow to continue this grand cultural supremacy. They thrive on pointing out the flaws of others, and ironically, don’t bother much about the hair, fabric, make-up style, and the finer things (possibly too preoccupied with ideology). Also, they feel that Han culture is basically the defining and representative culture of the Chinese.
  2. Cosplayers, teenagers who are after the novelty and aesthetics of it. They typically are involved in cosplay, anime, gaming, lolita dress, BJ dolls and take loads of pictures.
  3. Interested in what the dress can offer in terms of cultural understanding. I call this the twilight region. Can sway both ways at times, but generally quite moderate.

The reasons why it is impossible to define Hanfu, and also difficult for foreigners/outsiders to really pinpoint/identify Hanfu that easily is due to the following:

  1. What is Han culture and when did it start?
  2. Is Han culture representative of the Chinese culture as a whole?
  3. How did the Han culture evolve, and to what point do you stop considering the culture/dress as being Han?
  4. In modernising Hanfu, at which point do you stop considering it a traditional dress or do you go around calling anything with a specific trait a “Hanfu”?

On the macro level, the main problem lies in the fact that unlike the Japanese, where there is an assumption* of an ethnic/cultural homogeneity, the Chinese government of the last century has openly embraced its ethnic and cultural diversity. So it becomes difficult on the top-down level for the Chinese government to single out a particular ethnic group/majority and to promote that particular traditional dress as the national dress.

*I use the term assumption (rather loosely) because looking at the case of the Ainu people of Japan, the concept of ethnic and cultural homogeneity is likely to be politically motivated than a reality.

On a micro level, Hanfu enthusiasts have yet to agree on a particular era to take reference from. They/We just can’t decide which is the most “authentic” and “Chinese” period to take reference from. There were already non-Han influences in Han dressing from more than 2,000 years ago, and the Han Chinese has always been evolving and absorbing influences from surrounding cultures through intermarriages, through trade, through the silk road, and through war.

Image (left to right): Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Tang dynasty (618CE–907CE), Ming dynasty (1368CE–1644CE). 400 years between each of the examples below, and already the difference is huge. 

Also, because we don’t live in the past, it’s impossible to be behaving and dressing like people in those days, wearing things exactly the way they did. So if there’s any traditional dress that is to be adopted, definitely certain changes have to be made, and the Hanfu community needs to settle on just a handful of options. That’s from a communications point of view–unified understanding is important for easy and widespread adoption.

Some argue that Ming dynasty, being the last dynasty ruled by the Han Chinese would be the best reference to take before the Manchurians took over and changed everything. But Ming dynasty took quite a fair amount of influence from the Mongolians and Tang dynasty (which in turn, was greatly influenced by the Turks, Persians, Central Asians, Indians and Tibetans). So where do we stop?

And can I just say, Ming dynasty was really greedy–they took references from all the dynasties before and resulted in 100+ different styles of dresses for women alone! Some images below just to show a few styles.

If the argument is taking reference from the “last” of the traditional Chinese dress that evolved organically from thousands of years ago, then Ming dynasty as the last period doesn’t apply to the female Chinese dress. While men were forced to adopt Manchurian dressing during the Qing dynasty, in the case of the female dress, women didn’t need to. So towards late Qing dynasty, Han Chinese women and Manchurian women inter-influenced each other in their dressing, resulting in a really organic fusion of styles. Although, the Manchurians continued with their one-piece long robe, and Han Chinese women continued with their two-piece top-bottom style.

In the adoption of the Cheongsam (literally translated to mean long robe, in Cantonese), which was based on the Manchurian one-piece robe, it was an organic adoption as well with the liberation of the Chinese people from their ancient feudal system. Women were exposed to western culture, and there was a rise in feminism which propelled them to abandon their traditional Han Chinese two-piece wear, and wore the one-piece Manchurian robe which Han Chinese men were wearing at that time. At least that was how it started.

As I delve deeper into the history of the Chinese dress, I realise that the question of a traditional Chinese dress is not as simple as Cheongsam vs Hanfu.

Because of the impossible definition of Hanfu, I’m actually not very sticky about the specific era to take reference from. Rather, I think it’s more important that we don’t miss the forest for the trees. The rich and diverse culture and history behind the dress is worth delving into, and visual feasts of beautiful dresses and beautifully made up women are definitely good start!

There’s no better excuse to dress up than learning about its culture!

Here’s a quick glance at the evolution and diversity. Just in case, you know, it’s not confusing enough. 😛


3 Replies to “The impossible definition of the traditional Chinese dress”

  1. I have really complicated feelings about this issue. On one hand I wish to acknowledge the hanfu as the traditional outfit of the Chinese people; on another hand I do realise a lot of hanfu styles are based on wall paintings+statues+reinterpretations done by artists of a different dynasty+(forgive me for saying this) costumes used in movies. There’s still a lot of work to be done in this department!

    Perhaps that’s why I’m more inclined towards Ming styles, as there are many actual dresses to base historical reconstruction on. Though aesthetically speaking, Song styles appeal to me more.

    I think a fourth category should be added to the three types of hanfu enthusiasts/revivalists: the 古墓派. Or maybe they are a subset of all the three groups.


    1. Indeed. But my issue is, why Ming? Why not Qing? Cos it’s still an organic development, so it’s a little double standard isn’t it? and Cheongsam is also an organic development, so where do we stop? It’s a complex issue, I don’t think there’s a convincing argument for any style at this point which is also why nobody can agree on this matter.


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