Traditional Chinese Clothes - Tang Suit, QIbao, Zhongshan Suit

China is among the four ancient civilized countries in the world, and its exquisite and enchanting cultural system has been formed over a period in excess of 5,000 years, of which the traditional Chinese clothes have been an enormously important part as they have reflected the great changes in different historical stages of ancient China's economy, politics and culture.

Basic Styles of the Traditional Chinese Clothes

Generally speaking, the traditional Chinese clothes have two basic styles: a top-bottom clothes style and a one-piece clothes style. As the earliest form of clothing ever recorded in Chinese documents, the top-bottom clothes can date back to the period of Huangdi's reign (2697 BC-2597 BC), which consists of 'yi' (the upper garment) and 'shang' (the lower garment). The 'yi' refers to any open cross-collar garment worn by both sexes, featuring wrapping the right border over the left, and the 'shang' refers to any skirt worn by both sexes, highlighted by a belt hanging from the side.

Also known as 'shenyi' (deep robe), the one-piece clothing can be traced back to the late Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-221 BC), and the "yi" and the "shang" are sewn as one although they are cut separately. Shenyi was widely adopted by various dynasties throughout the history of China, which was considered as grande toilette in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and it still has a great influence on modern one-piece clothing.

Development of Traditional Chinese Clothes

The traditional Chinese clothes varied from one dynasty to another, from one area to another, and even from one class to another. Almost every dynasty had its own unique clothes, some of which were really exquisite beyond compare, including Pao (a closed full-body gown) of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC), Hanfu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Shan (open cross-collar shirt or jacket worn over the yi) of the Wei (220-265) and Jin (265-420) dynasties, Beizi (similar to a modern cape) in the Song Dynasty, Magua and Qipao of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the Republic of China (1911-1949).

Clothes in the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties

The top-bottom clothes prevailed during the Xia (2070 BC-1600 BC), the Shang (1600 BC-1046 BC) and the Zhou (1046 BC-221 BC) dynasties, which were characterized by wrapping the right side over the left.
Kings of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-771 BC) set up a strict hierarchical system linked by blood lineage and ethical norms based on families, and also used clothes as a status symbol to accentuate their privileges, which had a substantial impact on clothes and ornaments owing to great differences between the nobility and the common people.

Shenyi and Mianfu (a religious court dress of ancient emperors and officials) also emerged in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-221 BC), both of which were inherited by the later dynasties.

Emergence of Hufu in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods

Great changes took place in clothes during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC), highlighted by the wide prevalence of the Shenyi and the emergence of Hufu (clothes of northern ethnic groups such as the Huns in ancient China); the long loose garment with a large girdle couldn't keep abreast of the times owing to its inconvenience in wars, leading to a great reform in clothes.
In order to improve the combat effectiveness of troops, King Wuling (340 BC-295 BC) of the Zhao State advocated dressing in Hufu, and taught people to ride horses and shoot arrows in the Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC), thus training a powerful cavalry troop and reinforcing the Zhao State. A complete Hufu is assembled from several pieces of clothing into one outfit, including a pointed cap, a tunic, trousers and leggings that are usually made from linen or goat skin. As the first reform in clothes ever recorded in Chinese history, Hufu caught on quickly owing to its practical conveniences.

Hanfu in the Qin and the Han Dynasties

Pao was highly valued in the Qin (221 BC-207 BC) and the Han (206 BC-220) dynasties. It was stipulated that the third-rank officials and above wore green silk pao and shenyi, and the common people wore white linen pao during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC).

Pao served as grande toilette in the first 400 years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), when wearing shenyi was still popular among the Han people and the Huns alike.

Hanfu evolved from Mianfu and emerged in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), and is generally composed of three layers: Xiaoyi (an undergarment much like a Western-style T-shirt and pants), Zhongyi (the main layer mostly closed at the front) and Dayi (much like an overcoat opened at the front) from inside to outside.

Hanfu features a loose yi with wide sleeves and an open-crotch shang with jade decorations hanging from the sash, which, to a large extent, is considered a symbol of the authentic Chinese culture, reflecting the Confucian scholars' aspiration to the institutionalization of rituals and music, as well as the idealist characteristics of the Confucian ideas.

Prevalence of Hufu in the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties

The second great change in ancient Chinese clothes occurred during the Wei (220-265), Jin (265-420), Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) owing to the northern ethnic groups' invasion into the Central Plain Area (the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River), when Hufu became the most commonly seen clothes with a slight change in style, featuring narrow sleeves, a close-fitting yi and a slit shang.

Clothes in the Sui and Tang Dynasties

The Sui (581-618) and the Tang (581-618) dynasties were a golden age for the development of clothes (both in design and style) due to political stability and economic prosperity, which saw the unprecedented interaction between the Han culture and the culture alien to Chinese borders.

A common set of male's clothes was composed of Putou (a soft cap) or Mao (a stiff hat), Zhaoshan (a long open fronted coat) and boots, of which the Zhaoshan was slightly different from the shang of the previous dynasties. Zhaoshan featured a round collar and narrow sleeves without hems, which was a perfect combination of Hufu and Hanfu.

Females' clothes became more relaxed and revealing in the Tang Dynasty (581-618) than its counterparts of the previous dynasties owing to women being less restricted by the Confucian ethical codes, and it had a great variety of patterns, featuring a pao with narrow sleeves and a body-hugging one-piece dress.

Clothes in the Song Dynasty

The clothes of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) continued the style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) on the whole, with a slight difference in patterns and the name of clothes; they were prone to be more conservative in color under the influence of Neo-Confucianism, and the pao was replaced with a beizi (similar to a modern cape) in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The emperors and officials usually wore red garments, black guan (hats for formal headdress) and shoes in the imperial court, and the garments were often decorated with various patterns, such as dragons (only for emperors), lilies and peonies. Females' clothes featured a tight garment with narrow cuffs and a long dress in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Clothes in the Liao, Jin and Yuan Dynasties

Although it still continued the style of the Tang (581-618) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, the clothes during the Liao (916-1125), the Jin (265-420), and the Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties also had their own features. The males' clothes of the Liao (916-1125) and the Jin (265-420) dynasties featured a round collar, a zhiju (pao with slits by the two sides), trousers and boots. Men not only wore the Han-style round-collar pao and jiaolingpao (in a style of wrapping the right side over the left, or in reverse), but they wore their own national clothes, such as Zhisunfu (similar to shenyi but with a slight difference) in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Predominated by white, blue and reddish brown colors, Zhisunfu (Jisum in Mongolian) featured a yi that reached the knees with narrow sleeves and a short shang.

Clothes in the Ming and Qing Dynasties

By and large, the clothes of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) continued the styles of the Tang (581-618) and the Song (960-1279) dynasties. The clothes of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had a substantial influence on modern fashion. As a matter of fact, three types of clothes coexisted together in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911): Han traditional clothes, Mongolian clothes and half-Western-style clothes.

By combining the essences of the Han traditional clothes and the Mongolian clothes, the pao of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was tight and narrow, with a round collar and buttons typically used to secure the collar. Magua (a buttoned mandarin jacket) was native to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which was a short-sleeved, loose outer garment, and it was adopted as the standard military uniform owing to its ease to take off and wear by soldiers when riding horses. Qipao (Cheongsam) also emerged during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and it turned out to be extremely popular among women all over the world.

It was not until the introduction of Western-style clothes in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that the third great change in traditional Chinese clothes took place, and the development of Chinese clothes entered a new stage in modern times.

Highlighted Traditional Chinese Clothes

Each country has its unique traditional clothes in the world, from which you could distinguish one country from another, and so it is with China. China has 56 ethnic minority groups now, each of which has its own distinguishing traditional clothes. The highlighted traditional Chinese clothes are represented by the Tang suit, the Qipao (cheongsam) and the Zhongshan suit.

Tang Suit

The word of Tangzhuang (Tang suit) was created by the overseas Chinese people. As the most prosperous and powerful dynasty in the history of China's feudal society, the Tang Empire (581-618) was so famous in the world that foreigners call the overseas Chinese people 'the Tang people', the places where they live 'Chinatowns' (literally meaning Tang People Streets) and the clothes they wear 'Tangzhuang' (Tang suit).

Features of Tang Suit

A Tang suit (or Tangzhuang) has two varieties in Chinese culture, which are strikingly different from each other in style. One refers to the authentic Tang-era clothes evolving from Hanfu, and it features a button-less yi overlapping the right border to the left and is tied with a sash and an ankle-length shang, giving a free and easy and elegant impression.

The other refers to the Manchu male's jacket evolving from Magua of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which is made by absorbing a Western-style suit cutting method, featuring a Mandarin collar, a frog (a knob made of intricately knotted strings) and a duijin (a kind of Chinese-style jacket with buttons down the front), and it's also nowadays known as Pseudo-Tangzhuang.

Classic Design of Tang Suit

The Tang suits we see today evolved from Magua rather than Hanfu. A typical design of a Tang suit employs the Chinese characters, such as Fu (福, literally meaning happiness in Chinese) and Shou (寿, literally meaning longevity in Chinese) to express good fortune and best wishes, which is extremely popular among the Chinese people owing to its cultural connotation.

International Influence of the Tang Suit

The Tang suit has had a great influence on the clothing styles of Japan, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam in history. The Japanese kimono is made on the basis of pao of the Tang Dynasty (581-618), and it has become the national clothing of Japan. The Korean traditional dress also evolved from a combination of Hanfu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220) and pao of the Tang Dynasty (581-618).

Tang Suit Rush in Modern Times

The Western-style clothes and the Chinese attire were compassable at the turn of the 19th century and the 20th century, during which Hong Kong and Macau compatriots distinguished the Western toilette from the Chinese toilette according to the differences between the Western-style suit and the Tang suit. The host, Jiang Zemin (the former Chairman of the PRC), presented silk-embroidered Tang suits to the heads of foreign countries at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai in 2011, setting off a rush to wear Tang suits across the world.

As an integral part of traditional Chinese culture, Tang suits are worn by overseas Chinese people during the Spring Festival each year, attracting many foreigners to wear them out of curiosity. More and more young Chinese people are inclined to wear Tang suits instead of Western-style suits and dresses on their big days. The Chinese TV presenters also prefer wearing Tang suits during emceeing TV shows, especially at Spring Festival Galas.

Cheongsam

Cheongsam (Qipao) evolved from the Manchu female's changpao (long gown) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Manchu ethnic people were also called the Qi people (the banner people) by the Han people in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), hence the name of their long gown, Qipao.

Popularity of Cheongsam

Cheongsam has been continuously developed from the Republic of China (1911-1949) until now; it became a hit in Shanghai and has since prevailed among women all over the world. The reason for its popularity is that it's not only suitable for the old and the young to wear throughout the year, but it also fully shows the beautiful posture and curves of females, giving an elegant and graceful impression. The Kuomintang government even considered cheongsam as the quintessence of China during the Republic of China (1911-1949), when Soong May-Ling (1897-2003, the first lady of the Republic of China), often wore it to meet foreign envoys together with Chiang Kai-shek who frequently wore the Zhongshan suit, and it is considered to be classic clothing that best represents the characteristics of traditional Chinese clothing.

Characteristics of Cheongsam

Cheongsam is a body-hugging one-piece female dress, which features a frog (a knob made of intricately knotted strings) and two big openings at either side of the hems for convenient movement, and it is often buttoned on the right side. Cheongsam has various styles based on differences in the shapes of collars, the length of openings, the width of sleeves and even the positions of Kaijin (a type of Chinese-style garment which buttons down the front or on the right).

Beijing-Style Cheongsam Versus Shanghai-Style Cheongsam

The modern cheongsam is highlighted by the Beijing-style cheongsam and the Shanghai-style cheongsam, which are sharply different from each other in their designs and colors owing to historical reasons, fully reflecting the artistic and cultural differences between North China and South China. The Beijing-style cheongsam is characterized by red-tapism, which seems much more reserved and concise, and the most famous female who often wore it was Soong May-Ling (1897-2003).

By absorbing the Western-style suit cutting methods, the Shanghai-style cheongsam is fashionable and flexible and has a strong commercial atmosphere; the most famous female who often wore it was Eileen Chang (1920-1995), a famous writer from Shanghai, who said that life was a beautiful cheongsam and every woman lived in her own cheongsam.

Zhongshan Suit

The Zhongshan suit was designed by Sun Zhongshan (or Sun Yat-sen) by combining the Western-style suit and Chinese clothes, which has become extremely popular among the Chinese people since its inception, especially during the Republic of China (1911-1949), and it features four pockets, five bigger central buttons in the front and three smaller cuff-buttons on either sleeve.

Symbolic Meanings of the Zhongshan Suit

The Zhongshan suit has strong symbolic meanings according to Sun Zhongshan's design concept of the Republic of China. The four pockets represent four virtues (benevolence, loyalty, probity and shame), the five bigger buttons symbolize the separation of five powers (administration, legislation, jurisdiction, examination and supervision), the three smaller cuff-buttons on either sleeve represent “the Three People's Principles” (Nationalism, Democracy and the People's Livelihood, as put forward by Sun Yat-sen), the two inverted pen-rack-shaped pocket flaps symbolize flourishing the state with culture rather than with military power, the turn-down closed collar represents the meticulous attitude towards managing state affairs, and the one-piece suit represents the unity of China.

Future of the Zhongshan Suit

The Zhongshan suit was also called Mao Suit Mao because Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic of China (PRC), frequently wore it on important occasions such as the founding ceremony of the PRC and inspecting troops, and almost every Chinese male adult wore it in the 1960s and 1970s. It has become a tradition for following chairmen of the central military committee of the PRC (such as Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao) to wear it when inspecting troops.

It seems that the Zhongshan suit has stepped down from the historical stage since the opening up of China and its reform in 1978, because more and more Chinese people prefer wearing the Western-style suits, however, it has found a new way in movies and TV plays, and many movie stars such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen wear Zhongshan suits in their works. A number of versions of Zhongshan suits have been launched by the world of Chinese fashion in recent years, which are embroidered with various patterns, including dragons, phoenixes, plum blossoms, orchids, bamboos and chrysanthemums, and they're favored by the Chinese and foreigners alike.

Hi, I'm Michael Yang
I updated this article on November 1, 2013
See all my travel articles
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