2 Essays from Minghua Tang Blog

2009040102110638661786377In this post are the translations of two essays, titled:

“The Particular Nature of “National clothing” in China, and its Relations with the Han Chinese” (国服在中国的特殊表现,及其与汉族的关系), and:
“The Formation Period of Han Chinese Ethnic Clothing, and the Archaeological Barriers to Clothing in Historical Dramas” (汉族民族服饰的形成期 与 历史剧服饰的考古屏障)

Both by Zhong Yi, Founder and President of Ming Hua Tang Clothing, a subdivision of Eurasia (H.K) Ltd.

Editor’s note: As one of the leading researchers and makers of authentic Hanfu, Mr. Zhong’s take on the rise of the Hanfu movement and redefining “Chinese” culture is clear-minded, as he takes a cold, clean separation from “Han=China” which has dominated the stream of academic thought to this day. His perspective brings out the question of redefining the scope of “Chinese” studies and the cultural domain and rights of the people.


Essay 1: “The Particular Nature of “National clothing” in China, and its Relations with the Han Chinese”

This essay attempts to bring out several points:

  1. In most countries and ethnicities, “National clothing (guofu)” and its ethnic clothing are the same concept.
  2. “National Clothing” has the possibilities of cultural expression and political expression; while ethnic clothing is an expression of culture, but not that of a political one.
  3. A “National Clothing” produced solely out of political means is not sustainable in the long run in the cultural scope.
  4. The rise of the issue of “National Clothing” primarily originates from the prolonged period of loss and void of the ethnic clothing of the main ethnicity – the Han Chinese in this case.


The issue of “National clothing” has been brought up again and again in these few years, and have sparked great debate. In actuality, it may be nothing new, as the issue recycled itself continually in modern Chinese history. It seems to have a direct relation with the general well-being of the country, going up and down like a tide, and it is directly linked with the pride of the Chinese citizen and the embarassment and shame of the Han people.

Jiang Qing Dress, worn by the (purported) designer herself, left.

Jiang Qing Dress, worn by the (purported) designer herself, left.

Since the end of the Qing dynasty, China for the past century has been unceasingly searching for its own “national clothing”: From Zhongshan suits (Mao suits) to the Jiang Qing dress, to the 2002 Shanghai APEC “Tangzhuang”, and now the series of debates for “national dress” just before the Beijing Olympics.

The cry for establishing “national dress” has been going on and off in China for over a century, and if you observe carefully, you will notice a special phenomenon unique to the Chinese culture: Say if the Orient is analogous to the Japanese and Korean nations, and its unique ethnic clothing have presents to the world a scene of beauty, then the phenomenon of the Chinese “trying to establish a national clothing” would be a presenting to the world a large question mark.

The term “national clothing” carries a lot of weight: it represents the collective expression of an ethnic group’s clothing, and is the expression of an ethnic group’s collective will.

In most countries and nations, there is no particular deliberate need to establish a “national clothing”, nor can anyone establish it based on their own subjective preference without the approval of the ethnicity’s cultural practices and approval. Therefore in most countries, ethnic clothing and “national clothing” are the same, and ethnic clothing is “national clothing”. Ethnic clothing itself reflects the collective identity of the nation, and there is no need to separately establish or emphasize the concept of “national clothing”, as the two are the same. In China, however, “national clothing” and “ethnic clothing” cannot possibly be equated.

China is a multi-ethnic nation, and 56 ethnicities form our Chinese nation (Zhonghua Minzu) and our country. “National clothing” is merely one type of clothing, and cannot encompass the ethnic clothing of the other 55 ethnicities. Why do you say that it is 55 ethnicities? The situation further complicates itself, as within the 56 ethnicities of the Chinese nation, only the “majority ethnicity” of the Hans have no traditional ethnic clothing, but the other 55 ethnicities continue their own traditional clothing culture.

Hence, the fallacy is born: Because the Han Chinese do not have their own ethnic clothing, most Chinese people do not have their own ethnic clothing, and hence their wish to establish their own ethnic clothing has a firm sense of reason and ubiquity of society. At the same time, since the Han is the main population, culturally and politically they have absolute representation of the country. This is is the internal reason as to why the Han Chinese repeatedly propose that their ethnic clothing be equated with “national clothing”. Yet, since the other 55 ethnicities have their own ethnic clothing, the suggestion of “national clothing” to them holds no ground of representation for them culturally.

“National clothing” has cultural and political aspects of representation.
On the cultural side, a “Chinese National Clothing” that can represent the Han and the other 55 minorities simultaneously cannot possibly be designed.
On the political side, rather than having the continual appearances of various manipulations of culture past and present, free form and synthesis, and concocting all kinds of strange “national clothing”, it may be better if we just made a piece of clothing directly from the Five-Star flag, just to tell the world “we are Chinese”.

Ethnic clothing should be a representation of culture, and not politics.  

The phenomenon of the “national clothing” originates from the Han majority lacking their own ethnic clothing for a prolonged period of time, and not that of a request along with the request of other ethnic minorities. Rather than empty proposals  by the Chinese for a “national clothing” from a political standpoint, it is better to return to a cultural level and research the history of the Han Chinese and continue the traditional artisanry and aesthetics of our ancestors.

As a part of the Chinese Nation, the Han culture of ethnic clothing and dress should and must be reorganized and passed to future generations, but there is no deliberate necessity to be raised to the status of “national clothing”.


Essay 2: The Formation Period of Han Chinese Ethnic Clothing, and the Archaeological Barriers to Clothing in Historical Dramas”


Culture and social development are intertwined. Drawing by Zhong Yi.

Culture and social development are intertwined. Drawing by Zhong Yi.

The formation of ethnic clothing and commodity development levels have a close and inseparable relationship. Different countries with different ethnicities have variant speed and levels in development, but recent times is the formation period of various ethnic clothing around the world. This is decided by internal and external factors.

From external conditions, most countries and their ethnicities remain in relatively closed states in premodern times, causing the markets to remain well within the ethnicity in a country, and is beneficial to the individual formation and development of an ethnic style.

From internal factors, the creation of ethnic clothing has a direct relation with the social standards of commerce and production, and is interconnected with the perfection of ethnic clothing design, material and production artisanship. The development of production power and commercial society leads to increased specialization of the people; Not only the clothing itself has become a kind of product, but going down to the fabric and materials, and the artisan skill level required in producing the said clothing has become a commercial product of value.

The fabric materials is the medium of the art of clothing. Along with the development of commodity development comes industrialization and economies of scale from fabric pattern design to its manufacturing and retail. The fabric itself has become a professional, industrialized commodity, and this situation existed in the textile industry of Ming Dynasty China in a large scale. Along with the development of commodity developments, the sale of fabric and materials have traversed provincial, regional, and even national boundaries. Various patterns and design styles have been invested into an ethnic market and undergoes the process of competition and elimination, with the market demand preserving the desired and accepted fabrics, and the unacceptable or unpopular designs rendered obsolete. This in practice has created a process of aesthetic selection through an ethnic market, and under the long-term effects of the market, the fabric and design has established a shared style and tradition of an ethnicity.

Fabric materials need to be tailored, sewn, and undergo various kinds of artisan processing before it is made into what we call clothing. With commercial development, this stage also undergoes social specialization, and a group of specialized tailors have made a living off of this way, hence creating the tailoring trade. Professional tailors have created a trade of technical skill, and competition among tailors have created constant advancement and improvement on the artisanship of clothesmaking. Advanced cutting and tailoring techniques would be referenced and promoted, while backward production methods would be rendered obsolete. Advanced formulae would first become the personal experience of individual professionals, and become the technical standard in the trade through competition. The structure of the clothing becomes increasingly stable and reasonable, and through this long process there is a standardization, which hastens the process to become an appearance and unique trait of the dress shared by an ethnicity.

A set of clothing that was created through the self-determined development and mutual interchange with others of its kind and beyond, and has shared features and style is the clothing of an ethnicity. Ethnic clothing is a collective expression, and contains broad representation, broad approval, and continuity of its culture. The formation of ethnic clothing is the product of production and commodity development. The formation period of the ethnic dress and its representative traits is determined by the level of production and developmental standards, and different countries and ethnicities are unequal in this process.

A textile mill owner shows his ambitions to his wife. Drawing by Zhong Yi.

A textile mill owner shows his ambitions to his wife. Drawing by Zhong Yi.

In the context of Chinese history, the situations of ethnic diversity, splitting of various regimes and the country has repeated throughout numerous times. In the history of conflict between different ethnic countries (nation-states) and the history of struggle between regimes, the concept of “our country’s clothes” is a long-standing one, and is constantly related politically to form a method of governance for the country. This objectively encouraged the formation of various countries and various ethnicities’ clothing styles to form (including that of the Hans).

From the economic coverage, along with the size of the country’s borders on the political level, we can see that the Han Chinese have created a new peak in ethnic clothing development during the Ming Dynasty, as to the degree where during the the Han-Manchu struggle in its last days the clothing of the Han has become an iconic symbol of being conquered by another ethnicity. At the end of the Ming, massive amounts of Han Chinese chose the latter in the Queue Order, which goes: “preserve your hair and not preserve your head, and those who wear the clothes of the previous dynasty will be killed”, going as far as losing their lives to preserve the aesthetic values and tradition of Han Chinese society. This phenomenon is the real attitude of the objective truth in each and all social strata in Han society towards their own clothing and culture.


The Archaeological Barrier  to Clothing in Historical Dramas

From the perspective of temporal barriers in archaeology, we can see that for historical dramas of more distant pasts lack archaeological evidence in restoring and proving its clothing designs. The fortuitousness of archaeological discoveries has caused historical dramas to have an impassable barrier in accurate portrayals of life (including clothing). It is impossible to have in large amounts unearthed artefacts from distant eras, such as items, portraits, works of fiction and personal accounts, rules and regulations etc. for reference. For dramas involving with eras where its clothing cannot be accurately researched, the costumes in its place do not carry sufficient objective restoration and recreation, and can only be created through artistic procession or assisted by individual subjective impressions. This type of costume naturally then do not carry the objective nature of the period depicted, and can only have the style and impression of their own time.

Hence the historical drama can objectively recreate the ethnic clothing of its time can only be set in the timeframe within the ability of archaeological research, or more concretely – at least from the 14th century onwards. This timeline is concurrent with the archaeological standards of the historical drama of Japan, Korea, and European countries, and has a broad meaning. As for the historical dramas beyond the scope of archaeological evidence, we have to persist in the merging of our knowledge in the traditional standards and archaeological evidence, know our limit in knowledge, and show responsibility to it. In this way, even if the archaeological barrier cannot be overcome, and many details of clothing and its systems can still not be entirely objectively recreated, at least we can to the greatest degree display the uniqueness and impression of the era. 

—  钟毅 (Zhong Yi)

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