Originally submitted to the Anthropology Department, University of Toronto for ANT322H1 (Anthropology of Youth Culture), taught by Dr. Marcel Danesi, on April 4, 2012.
The Counter-Culturing of Tradition: The Struggle of Representation in the Han Chinese Clothing Revival Movement
By: Juni L. Yeung, University of Toronto
An Alien on Home Turf
On the evening of March 19, a message titled “A time-travelling girl shockingly appeared in Lizhou High School” was posted on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), along with a picture of HU Shen walking down a school hallway, clad in a short-Quju robe and skirt while holding in both hands typical breakfast – a glass of soy milk and a zongzi (steamed rice wrapped in lotus leaf). Described as “a typical quiet Gr.12 student, with good marks and behaviour” in a private-run Zhejiang Province high school, she acted cool and unfazed as classmates and faculty alike went ballistic in reaction to her clothes.
When a Zhejiang Daily reporter tried to contact her by noon, the school authorities replied that Hu has been “invited away to lunch by the faculty”, and 10 minutes later received a text message from Hu herself: “I’m already on route home, the teacher has driven me home to change my clothes, and for certain reasons I cannot speak with you. My apologies.” Hu then refused to receive calls all afternoon, except for one text message from another local newspaper reporter, where she said she was “advised not to return to school for the day; and scared being home alone, will wander in town and probably stay at a relative’s place for the night.”
Various levels of authorities displayed signs of deniability on the subject. Some staff from the school commented to the media, “Perhaps the school couldn’t accept a student dressed like this all of a sudden, and we need to have more communication.” Another faculty was quoted, “If other students came in dressed like Shi Huangdi (the First Emperor of China), you’d think that’d be weird, too.” The Zhejiang Ministry of Education stated in response, “I have never heard of situations where students wear Hanfu to school before. While many schools have set rules to forbid students from wearing strange and outlandish clothing, whether Hanfu counts as such is still up for debate.”
Chinese netizens responded with outrage to the authorities’ attitude on the matter. A commenter from Shaanxi wrote, “As a Han Chinese, why can’t they wear their own traditional Han clothing? The school is mentally deranged to do this to the girl!” Another from Jiangsu wrote, “Ethnic minorities can wear their own [traditional] costumes out, so why not the Han, as long as they’re not interfering other people.” A Fujian commenter lamented, “This is how Chinese culture gets extinguished.”
Hu’s actions were hardly random or uncommon. Since 2006, Chinese netizens have taken to the streets dressed in self-made or independently-produced Han robes, its designs dating prior to the Manchu Qing invasion of China in 1644. Their mission was to remind and convince the Chinese public to question their own perceptions and values tradition from an authenticity perspective, but have often been responded to with various degrees of resistance, mockery, and violence. The roots of this antagonism against practicing tradition stretch back to over a century ago, but the casus belli of the people taking direct action against the mainstream took place at the crossroads of China’s recent modernization program.
China’s Search for the “Panacea of National Salvation”
Chinese sociologists argue that Western labels such as Generation Y are not applicable to the mainland country’s context due to the rapid socio-economic changes after Mao’s death, and require more precise labels by decade of birth, such as “post-80’s” and “post-90’s”. Whereas gradual transitions or syntheses in popular culture of the West as witnessed in the mid-20th century, such as the evolution of rock music as a device of ‘counterculture’ against the establishment and metal music as its spiritual successor over the timespan of two to three decades, the Chinese decade generation gap is marked by transformative views on consumerism and sharp countercultures against all aspects of belief in the previous decade. Its causes can be described as post-traumatic responses to major events in recent history, which has so far been all conveniently situated near the end of each decade.
Two of such events which shaped the players in the recent Hu Shen hanfu incident are: Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Reforms” in the 1980’s, ending China’s seclusion with the outside world since the Mao era, which overwhelmed the mainland with four decades of ‘lost time’ with the Western cultural hemisphere. Young Chinese students wolfed down “modern Western culture” with gusto – from democracy to disco, rock and roll from the 1950’s to pop in then-present 80’s, under a general state-sponsored opinion of “Ocean philosophy”, essentialized in the documentary film He-Shang (River Elegy) sponsored by then-Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. In contrast to the “dusty, old and yellow” culture of China analogized as a “river”, Western culture was seen as a “clear, youthful blue” ocean of compassionate, progressive universalism. For older students whose education was cut off by the Cultural Revolution and now sharing a cohort with younger college graduates (the Pre-60’s and Post-70’s), this set a fierce drive for Westernization and embracing ‘universal values’ as means to achieving modernization and consequently ‘salvation of the nation.’
As popular pleas and protest for liberal democracy and transparent government was violently cracked down on June 4, 1989 in Tian’anmen Square, Chinese thinkers interpreted that as the bankruptcy of Western political ideologies’ credibility to being able to ‘save the country’, which led them to seek answers in traditional Chinese ideologies. However, this has not stopped the people or the institution to continue adopting Westernization as a means of integrating with the world economy and international society, while carefully filtering elements deemed to be subversive to Party control of the state. The reacquisition of Hong Kong and Macao, as well as the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the latter half of the 1990’s made nationalism and Chinese pride the theme of the decade, to which the Communist Party bolstered and supported to rally popular support and enforce its legitimacy as responsible rulers of the state. As such, the Post-80’s group are disillusioned from Western culture as the infallible solution to a modern and strong China, but studiously acquire foreign methods and technologies on the notion of ‘understanding the enemy’ for the good of “the Chinese fatherland.” Culturally, this group is preoccupied with the assertion of the Chinese identity in all encountered forms of expression, and more fundamental divisions of this (such as the Hanfu Movement) challenge the authenticity of passed-down Chinese tradition, analyzing it for “corruption” from foreign elements and taking direct action to present an alternative.
The Biggest Enemy is One’s Own Kind
As the Internet began to spread beyond Chinese university labs and into the general public in the 1990’s, the generational discourse conflicted boundlessly in the early BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems), perceived as a digital successor of Democracy Walls often found on Chinese university campuses. The first discussions of the possibility of wearing what we now call hanfu rather than the Manchu-inspired qipao and magua took place in military history discussion boards of the early BBSs, and later in offshoot forums specifically catering to the interests of ethnic Han Chinese. The raison d’être of these offshoots was due to severe disagreements with other (often also Han) Chinese on the early BBSs on the treatment of the Mongol and Manchu periods in China as Chinese dynasties, which quickly expanded into questions of ethnic propriety, national unity, and legitimacy of the current sovereignty.
As most Chinese celebrated the tangzhuang jacket as the “new Chinese” dress worn by international dignitaries during Shanghai APEC 2001, the sartorial debate was given a newfound sense of immediacy as members from Hanwang (then haanen.cn, later hanminzu.com) wrote a fiery essay “A Lost Civilization: Han Ethnic Dress” describing the Queue Order of 1644 as a Holocaust and the reason for the traditional robe’s sudden disappearance. Soon its core members planned to take to the streets in the clothes by sharing clothing patterns based from historical records and photos of their replicas taken from their own rooms. The decisive breakthrough came on Saturday, November 29, 2003, when the Singaporean Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao wrote a half-page article about Wang Letian, a Zhengzhou electrician, wearing hanfu in public a week ago. The news attained viral popularity as it was reposted on all major Chinese news portal sites and many discussion forums, and membership for Hanwang grew by the tens of thousands from Chinese netizens all around the world. Real-life based interest groups were formed on a regional basis over the next few years in and outside of China, and several prominent Chinese provincial and national congress members proposed to adopt hanfu as official academic clothing and the ceremonial garb in the Beijing Olympics 2008.
Mainstream media and general scholarship viewed the movement with skepticism and caution, and a bitter dialectic struggle persisted from 2005 to after Shanghai Expo 2009, and still lingers in the present day. Scholars both East and West interpret the clothing revival movement as a materialization of the Post-80’s and 90’s desire for “root-seeking”, but the underlying philosophy of Han Benwei-Zhuyi, translated as “Han departmentalism” or “Han centrism” were deemed as ultranationalist or reminiscent of Nazism. Australian scholar James Leibold writes, “In its more virulent articulation, Han ethnocentrism advocates the forced assimilation or even extermination of all non-Han elements in China…like Hitler, some Hanists call for the preservation of superior Han blood from barbarian contamination.” Communist Youth Cadre professor Zhang Xian writes, “In other words, hanfu by itself does not encumber any actual meaning, it is only a spiritual symbol of ‘rectifying origins’, a virtual totem for ‘restoring proper lineage’. Asides from that, it is nothing.”
The Pit-Brawl of Words and Fists
This rhetoric has caused more than simple outrage and verbal and written responses online. In 2006, several citizens accused a Beijing digital company of libel by spreading an altered report on a photo article by Jinghua Shibao which originally read “Hanfu Gathering” in the title to “Joss Clothing Takes to the Streets.” On October 5 2008, after numerous verbal confrontations from various occasions, 30-year old hanfu activist and amateur historian Huang Haiqing slapped 74-year old Manchu history scholar Yan Chongnian in the face during a book-signing session, denouncing Yan for whitewashing Manchu conquest and genocide of Chinese people with the term “a case of ‘cultural fusion’,” resulting in Huang receiving maximum sentence of a 1,000 Yuan fine and 15 days in detention. On October 16 2010, a mob of over 1,000 young Chinese protesters demonstrating anti-Japanese occupation of the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands mistook Chinese hanfu for the Japanese kimono, whom then forced the innocent Chinese woman to strip all of her “Japanese” garb and burned it in public, causing international outrage and ridicule at the ignorance of the Chinese general public towards their own traditional culture.
Asides fearing from daily harassment and potential violence on a personal level, hanfu activists are particularly frustrated at mainland mainstream media warping virtually all reports of their activities as “antiquarian revivalism” and “time-travel fetish.” Whereas media transcripts prepared by the movement’s activists read “restoring Huaxia culture in a cultural Renaissance,” mainstream media often reported as “time-warping back to the Han Dynasty to experience the antiquated culture and refinement.” Proponents and activists for the movement address themselves as “tongpao (lit. “same-robes”, or comrades-in-arms)”, “(ethnic) Han cultural revivalists/vanguards”, or simply “a typical Han Chinese citizen,” but the media deliberately avoids usage of all of these terms and any implied reference to an “ethnic Han (hanzu)”, instead developing its own vocabulary: from the semantically ambiguous “Han-you (Han-friends)”, to the outright misnomer “Han (dynasty/era) culture/clothing amateurs”, “ancient hanfu culture lovers” and so on. Even the word “hanfu” itself is systematically put into quotation marks on all mainstream press articles and editorials, emphasizing it and exoticizing the concept as a novelty or invention. Mainland activists look on with a mix of envy and solace from Chinese-language media published outside the borders of the People’s Republic, as such restrictions are absent and articles from Malaysian and Canadian publications explicitly relate hanfu with Chinese ethnic heritage.
Hu Shen: Another Name On the List, or A Turning Point?
One and a half months prior to Hu Shen’s encounter with the school authorities, Netease published an influential photo essay attacking the Hanfu Movement and other displays involving pre-20th century, non-Western garb in today’s context. Titled ‘Awkward “Time-Travel?”’, the captioned 18-picture article attempted to highlight ‘inconsistencies’ among modern replicas of “ancient dress” since 2005, such as exposed hand-decorated sneakers under a robe, makeshift guan coronets traditionally reserved for nobility made from Styrofoam cups and disposable chopsticks, simply making funny poses for the camera. The reader comments section went ablaze as tens of thousands of responses took sides in attack or defense of the article, claiming that it is a denigration of tradition and genuine efforts to revive its practice. Hence, when news commentators fell mostly in favor of Hu as the victim after news of her being sent home spread across the Internet, many considered it to be a surprising (but welcome) change.
Hu’s incident was comparatively mundane to previous incidents where hanfu wearers were harassed, with the most significant difference being the harasser being ‘the institution’ of a school body rather than an individual, private firm, or independent scholar. The media left no quarter in pummelling the education ministry with the harshest choice of words. “We always talk about our Chinese nation of 56 ethnicities having five thousand years of magnificent culture, but how much of it gets passed down? It is the fault of our propaganda and education systems, which has caused our angel of Chinese cultural promotion to be asked to return home and change clothes.” “If we set our sights on other ethnic minority representatives, Mongol, Tibetan, Manchu, Hui, or Korean, any one of those would recommend wearing their own ethnic dress to the Two Meetings, [but] the Han would only have the Mao suit and qipao. When even these two become “rare sights”, they are left with only Western suits, leather boots, and dresses. Aside from these “mainstream goods”, are there any authentic goods that can still represent the Han? Then, when a high school student wears Hanfu to school, why do we still have to ‘oust’ her back home?”
Unlike subcultures of previous decades where followers consciously attempt to remove formal identities from mainstream society in favor of a fantastical construction, the Hanfu Movement actively seeks out for the self – which ironically, as semiotician Marcel Danesi observed, is a characteristic of modern subcultures, “in parallel with the mainstream, not apart from it.”On the surface, the Hanfu Movement is where the young utilize images of the ‘traditional’ to rebel against the ‘anti-traditional’ Mao generation parents, but a detailed analysis of the Movement’s members defy any age or era categorization. Although its most vocal contingent present themselves as a young generation of educated middle-class, the fiercest opposing voice presents itself as the exact same demographic. While age, sex, and social class are temporarily shrouded under the thin guise of quasi-anonymity and tunneled attention towards the debate at hand, when these debates materialize into the physical realm they become part of the discrimination and violent harassment which time and again has caused international outcry. Nonetheless, movement pundits look on with optimism, believing that when the previous generation’s time has come and past, mutual respect for the history and cultural pluralism under the pretext of ethnic self-confidence will dawn upon this brave new world.
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