Home Chinese Culture Traditional Chinese Clothes History of Traditional Chinese Clothes

History 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.