Foundational Text: The Three New Meanings of Hanfu

American students paying homage to Confucius at Zhengzhou

American students paying homage to Confucius at Zhengzhou


Prepared as a speech delivered to a Hanfu enthusiast meeting in Beijing in early October 2009, a Confucian scholar by the net name Qilufeng 齐鲁风 posted this after his debut with revisions, and provides key overview on the current stage of the Hanfu revival movement by differentiating the mainstream views from 2006~2008 with the present day. This essay marks a new stage of maturity in ideological and practical development for the movement, and a convergence and agreement from previous disputes from within the circle, and bears historical significance.

Translated Document

The Kingly Way is Wide and Straight, Without Partiality and Favouritism:
The Three New Meanings of Hanfu

By: Qi Lu Feng (netname)                  Translated by: Juni Yeung

Using clothes to carry the Way (Dao), a unified Interior and Exterior

The rise of Hanfu was not under a context of a disciplined direction, but rather coupled with the revival of ethnic and tradition awareness, the rebuilding of traditional faiths and many other elements to form a social movement. Hence, from since its founding, it is coupled with issues from the expounding of this line of ideology. The several centuries of decline in Chinese civilization led to Hanfu restorers in their understanding of the object, as well as the thinking behind the actualization of the restoration to be far from the actual Huaxia tradition, and far from reaching the level of our ancestral sages who created ritual and music based on the Way of Heaven, Earth, and Man. Nor would we today have the traditional understanding of these sagely Ways as the Shi literati class would. Hanfu inherently does not possess the master-disciple relationship like guqin and many civilian traditional talents and arts. Therefore, early proponents of Hanfu have assumed the role of groundbreakers. Under this situation, the explicating and constructing of ideology for Hanfu in actuality is a process of searching the Way (Dao) to and for the Huaxia tradition. The restoration of Hanfu requires a long period of development, and what it lacks is a supporting system – academic discipline.

If we are to say that the Huaxia civilization is a great tree, the Way (道Dao), methods (術 Shu) are its trunks; rites, ritual and clothing are its branches. Although it is different from its roots, it is connectable to it. Hence we need to enter the traditional world on a spiritual domain, and equip ourselves with the holistic scope of its cultural context in order to entirely grasp the cultural meaning of Hanfu. Let us first explain the etymological context of the four characters “Huaxia Civilization (華夏文明Huaxia Wenming).”

Kong Yingda annotates The Proper Meanings of Zuo’s Annals of Spring and Autumn Period, Year 10 of Duke Ding, “The Central Kingdom has the grandeur of rites and ritual, hence called Xia 夏; it has the beauty of clothing and patterns, hence called Hua 華.” He also annotates The Proper Meanings of the Classic of History, Canon of Shun, “Marking the Heavenly Latitudes and Earthly Longitudes is called Wen 文; Presiding over the four corners [of the earth] is called Ming 明.”

Wen (文) is synonymous with “pattern” (纹). This character originally implies the inherent pattern of all things, and extends its meaning to refer to the inherent reason of things. How does Wen imply the marking of the Heaven and Earth? It is divided into the categories of Heavenly Pattern (Tian-wen天文) and Humanly Pattern (Ren-wen人文): The Tian-wen here is different from the modern technical term for “astronomy”, but refers to the inherent reasoning of the Heaven and the Earth. Humanly Pattern is the Way of how human society operates, and sages have observed this Way to teach the common people, in hopes that everyone in the world will abide by the Way and Virtue, rites and rituals. Hence, The Zhou Book of Changes says, “One observes the Patterns of Heaven to note the changes of the times; One observes the Patterns of Man and enlightens (化成) all under heaven of its transformations.” In observing the Pattern that comes from the Way of Man, which in turn abides by the Way of Heaven to enlighten “all under heaven” is called “enlightenment of Patterns” (Wen-hua文化, i.e. “culture”. This spirit of promoting the Way based on the Way to all four directions is like the shining of the Sun and Moon to all directions, hence is called Ming (明).

“The Central Kingdom has the grandeur of rites and ritual, hence called Xia; it has the beauty of clothing and patterns, hence called Hua” is an often cited phrase by fellow restorers. Why then, must we abide by the spirit of Chinese civilization, and enact it via our clothing customs, rites, and rituals in order to be called “Huaxia”? To promote the Great Way, empty talks of the Way, virtues, humaneness and honor do not give off much actual effect, and we require actual materials to act as a vessel to convey it, to make it become directly perceivable, to be able to take root in actual society and becoming a cultural form alive and graciously accepted among the people.

The Zhou Book of Changes writes, “Huang Di, Yao, and Shun [the Legendary Kings of early China] draped in Yi and Shang, and all under heaven was under rule.” Our clothing and headgears in its origins were tools made by our ancient Sage Kings to educate and enlighten the world, and embodies the benevolent virtues of a human being. Rites and rituals is the method of in practice: Coming-of-age, marriage, funeral, sacrificial homage, and many other kinds of rites all carry the function of teaching ethics and virtues.

Clothing and headgears, rites and rituals are used to carry the Great Way. Hanfu – is it just an outer layer of skin? Seeing Hanfu as a superficial phenomenon, to dispute its cultural connotations and relations, or to an even farther extent, incessantly dispute whether Hanfu itself or its cultural connotations is more important, can only explain the lack of understanding towards the thing which we call Hanfu.

The New Definition of the Three Meanings of Hanfu

According to the development of the Hanfu Restoration Movement in the past few years, the author has suggested that Hanfu groups will fall into generally three categories: those who focus on the ethnic context, those who focus on the rituals and customs, and those who pursue and display it for its beauty. They target three unique traits of Hanfu: Ethnic properties, ritual customs, and aesthetics. There is already discussion on this in my previous essays “Aesthetics, Symbology and Ritual Methods – Understanding the Layers of Hanfu《审美、象征与礼法——认识汉服的层面》” and “The Light after Darkness, A Sign of Restart – The Process of The Rise of Hanfu and Projections《否极泰来、重开气象——汉服兴起历程及展望》”, and interested readers can read that for more detail. This essay attempts to further explicate the three meanings in a deeper and broader scope.

Deducing the original spirit of Hanfu by taking these three characteristics through the study of ritual helps us surpass the meaningless disputes, and attain a broader scope. Xunzi’s work Discussions of Ritual suggested that “Ritual has three origins”, and describes as such:

“Rites have three origins: The Heaven and Earth are the origins of life; Ancestors are the origins of classifications; The Ruler and Teacher are the origins of governance. Without Heaven and Earth, what can be created? Without ancestors, what can be born? Without rulers and teachers, how can anything be governed? If any of these three are deviant or lost, how can a person be at peace? Hence rites serve the Heavens above and the Earth below, respect the ancestors, and glorify the ruler and teacher. These are the three origins of rites. “(Xunzi, XIX, 5)

Rites serve three purposes: Heaven and Earth is the base for creating civilization, ancestors are the base of an ethnicity’s continuity, and the guidance of rulers and teachers are the basis of a regulated society. Without Heaven and Earth, how can civilization (ie. Recognizing patterns and projecting that understanding) be born? Without ancestors, where would ethnicity (ie. The People and the Tribe) come from? Without the Way of rulers and teachers, how can society be organized? If any of these three factors are even partially lost, there wouldn’t be a peaceful population, hence ritual serves Heaven above, Earth below, respect ancestors and promote the ways taught by rulers and teachers. This is the basis of rites.

First, “The Heaven and Earth are the origins of life”: The design standard, aesthetic style and even its incumbent symbology and connotations originate from the Heavens and Earth. Mankind is a creation of Heaven and Earth, and human civilization is also so. Human aesthetic perceptions and virtues originate from the understanding of this Heaven and Earth.

Design: Rounded sleeve cuffs to match the circle compass, the crossed-collar to match the square ruler, broad sleeves and crossed-collar is taken from the ancestor’s understanding of the Round Heaven and Square Earth concept. The patterns and colours used on Hanfu are also based on nature.

Aesthetics: Because Huaxia tradition follows the basic concept of “Humanity and Heaven as one”, the aesthetic concept of the people also originates from here. There is a emotive preference for things that are related with nature, Heaven, and Earth, and the beauty from the elements found on Hanfu is the key reason why many approve of it.

Morality: The understanding of Round Heaven and Square Earth is not an ancient misperception, and we are not respecting it simply because it is our tradition. The Book of Rites, under the chapter Shenyi describes the rounded sleeve cuff ends, crossed-collar and the central meridian back seam as follows:
In this way through the rounded sleeves the arms could be lifted up in walking (for the purpose of salutation) in the most elegant form. The cord-like seam of the back and the square-shaped collar about the neck in front, served to admonish (the wearer) how his government should be correct and his righteousness on the square. It is said in the Yi, ‘The movement indicated by the second line in Kun, divided, is “from the straight (line) to the square.[1]” (Liji XXXIX, 3)
From this we can see Hanfu is a derivation of the structure from nature, and encompasses the virtues of Heaven and Earth that each person should actualize – with a round exterior and square interior, rounded but strong, just and solemn. This is the Way which Hanfu carries.

Second, “The Ruler and Teacher are the origins of governance.” The sages have created rites to pacify all under heaven. The sages have observed the Great Way of Heaven, Earth, and Mankind, and in order to promote it, they created clothing and headwear as a vessel for the Way, and taken rites and rituals as a method of promoting this Way. Only with proper clothes and headwear can rites and rituals be organized. When the people understand and approve of the clothing and headwear, can rites and rituals come from the human heart, organize interpersonal relationships, and enact its effect to “merge Heaven and Mankind as one”.

Third, “Ancestors are the origins of classifications”: This origin of the three origins of the study of rites is one of taxonomy. When applied to Hanfu, it refers to the unique ethnic properties of the clothing.

Its basis is in ethnicity: In the history of reviving Hanfu, its ethnic properties have played a relatively more important role throughout. For many partners in the movement, this can be said as the original driving force for taking part in the initiative.

Entry-point at the culture: Hanfu, along with its deep history and culture have combined its heritage and its individual vitality through the method of rites and ritual. Hanfu is the second layer of skin of Han Chinese, it gives us unique appearances and mannerisms, and defines us from other ethnicities.

Connecting far and wide: The ancients speak of the Hua-Yi distinction, which is the belief that Huaxia is a people of virtues and morals, while the Yi-Di are barbarians beyond the education and enlightenment of these virtues and morals. Huaxia is a people created higher than that of Yi-Di, and bear an inherent task of enlightening other tribes, and are not of the same nature as the other ethnicities. The reason why the Hua-Yi distinction is misinterpreted as racism is because when the Western concept of nationalism was passed into China [ie. Mid-19th century], the country did not have the stature to enlighten all under heaven – Huaxia did not exist by then, and China has become no more than a blank geographic and political concept. The Han people are but another label for a group of people, not much different from Manchus and Mongols.

Admitting to the ethnic properties of being Han does not imply the universal values of Han civilization or its promulgation. Neither does it imply the denial of ethnic properties of the Han Chinese people. Different ethnic groups create different cultures, and each culture is branded along with its original tribe, meaning that there is no culture without an ethnic property. Take Buddhism for example, which has spread into China for almost two millennia. It has greatly absorbed knowledge from Confucianism and Daoism, becoming (Han) Chinese Buddhism, but retaining Indian traits such as Karma and reincarnation. Or for example Christianity, despite it becoming a global religion today, it is still a continuation of the commandments of monotheism and the Original Sin as created by the Jewish people. They too, in the same sense, do not have a culture that is lacking in ethnic traits. There is no ethnicity in the world that can persist without a unique sense of humanity; neither can its ethnic uniqueness be discussed without it. When we talk about a certain culture, it immediately implies an ethnic aspect, and when we talk about an ethnicity, we also must point at a respective cultural spirit.

The restoration of Huaxia is based upon ethnicity, entering at culture, and connects towards far and wide, in order to let the vigorous and broad Huaxia traditional spirit reappear.

The Relations between the Three Meanings of Hanfu

In my previous account, I have explained the three meanings of Hanfu as its aesthetic, ethnic, and customary attributes, and explained that the restoration of Hanfu requires an equal concentration on all three, but provided no description on how to equally focus, and from which perspective does one need to stand in order to do so. In order to respond to the inquiries of some of our fellow comrades, I will try to further explicate the three meanings of Hanfu into the Way amongst Heaven, Earth, and Mankind, and explain the reasoning of Hanfu from the basis of Huaxia.

The Heaven and Earth are the origins of life.” In this meaning, it refers to Hanfu taking its standards from Heaven and Earth, sense of beauty, the Way, and its virtues. The Round Heaven explains that Man’s actions are as round and transparent but without losing its strength. The Square Earth explains Man’s morals are as all-encompassing as the great land. Hence The Book of Changes says, “Heaven, in its motion, (gives the idea of) strength. The superior man, in accordance with this, nerves himself to ceaseless activity.[2]” “The (capacity and sustaining) power of the earth is what is denoted by Kun. The superior man, in accordance with this, with his large virtue supports (men and) things.[3]” With the round Heaven and Square Earth, the all-penetrating circle and Proper Square are not simple concepts of geometry, but the Way of Heaven and Earth for Hanfu.

The Ruler and Teacher are the origins of governance.” This refers to our ancestors sage kings and teachers creating our clothing and headwear, rites and rituals as methods to govern the world. This is the Way of Mankind for Hanfu.

Ancestors are the origins of classifications.” This meaning, standing on the basis as a race, extended into an ethnic culture, is further evolved into an ideal for the Huaxia culture. The ethnic awareness of the Han people, speaking from an ethical level, is protecting a civilized land with an ethical enlightenment. Huaxia civilization is based on ethnicity but higher than race. The Annals of Spring and Autumn differentiates the morals of inner and outer spheres: Inner “Central Kingdom” and outer “Various Xia States (abiding by Central Kingdom values)”; inner “Various Xia States” and outer “Yi-Di (barbarians)”, refining self in order to reach others, reach from near in order to affect far, with the final ideal to achieve universal peace. Without a proper self, one cannot correct another. Standing from within one’s own tribe, but setting sights on the whole world – that is the foundation of the Kingly Way of governance. Huaxia is a pragmatic people, as it is trying to bring people into a world with the social fabric designed for people (Ren-wen), and not a mystical religious higher level of existence. Its ultimate goal is to actualize the Way of Heaven, Earth, and Mankind in our human society.  

The meaning in “The origins of classifications” in practice provides the connection between the Way of Heaven and Earth with the Way of Mankind.

The Three Ways position Heaven as the top, Earth on bottom, and Mankind in the middle. Using “The origins of classifications” to connect the three, with three horizontal strokes and one vertical stroke, forms the word “King (Wang王)”. Understanding the Way of all three bodies, is the Kingly way of the Huaxia.

The King (王), is one who goes forth (Wang往), meaning one who all under heaven looks toward to. Chunqiu Fanlu (Dews from The Annals of Spring and Autumn by Dong Zhongshu) writes, “The ancients who created our written word, drew three strokes and linked them at the centre and called it King (Wang). Of the three: Heaven, Earth, and Mankind. The one who can go understand and go between them all, is the King.” The Ancients who figured out the Way of all three bodies are known as the Sage Kings, and inherits the civil spirit of Heaven and Earth as One. This is respecting the Kingly Way.

From this we know, that the three meanings of Hanfu is the actualization of the Ways of Heaven, Earth, and Man in the clothing culture, and focusing equally on the three meanings of Hanfu is putting in practice the Huaxia spirit of combining the three Ways as one. This kind of spirit is the Kingly Way [Endnote 1].

But then, the Way of Heaven is distant and hard to understand, and not everyone can comprehend it. The Way of the Earth is wide and weighty, and the common person may also have quite some difficulty to enact it. Hence we have to come at it step by step, from putting to action the Way of Mankind (the rites and rituals related with Hanfu), then work equally focus with the Way of the Earth (encompassing all with virtue), and gaze afar the Way of Heaven (our traditional faith), and not forgetting the “origin of classification of things” that connects it together (our ethnicity attribute). Taking the top stroke from the King character, and shortening the stroke that represents the Earth, and we get the character Shi (士[4]) [Endnote 2]. The Way of the Shi is a part of the Kingly Way, a smaller version of the Kingly Way. In other words, one who can put equal weight on the importance of the three meanings is the minimum requirement of the qualities of a Shi class person.

Ethnicity, customs, and aesthetics are the inner qualities of Hanfu. Due to subjective environments, people see different aspects to it, hence forming factions which focus on one or another trait. Their persistence in discussing and researching one end aspect of it allows different paths for the revival of Hanfu, but as time goes on, it is impossible to avoid the inherent bottleneck, and the past few years for Hanfu revival in practice have proved that a simple single-route plan have continually faced cool-down periods. The Classic of History under the chapter Successful Completion of the War writes, “the way of the (good) [King] is wide and straight, without partiality and without favouritism. The way of the (good) [King] is even and smooth, without favouritism and without partiality.[5]”Only by not showing preference to any aspect, giving equal significance to the entirety, and taking the median, can one abide by the Kingly Way.

The Three Forms of The Study of Hanfu

The study of Hanfu is primarily divided into three types:

Ideological or speculative, in particular regards to argumentative and refinement study. This is the basis of the teachings of the Sage Kings, and is the basic Way of the Hanfu revival movement.

Rituals and customs, in particulars to the study of rituals and its practice. This is the method of the Sage Kings, and is the technique used to restore Hanfu.

Clothing standard research, in particulars to archaeology of the clothing and artifacts. This is the vessel to turn the Sage Kings’ teachings into the customs of the people, and is the vessel used in the restoration of Hanfu.

The Sages use clothing and headwear to turn the people towards customs, and enact its virtuous teachings under Heaven. Clothing and headgear is its objects, and rituals are its governing technique. How does one use this object and this method? This requires the explication from the perspective of the Way of Huaxia. Only with this Way can the clothing become vessels fitting to the Way, and the rituals methods fitting to the Way.

The Way (Dao道), is the study of ideology and polemics of Hanfu; the Vessel (Qi器)is the study of archaeology and applied methods of producing Hanfu. The Method (Shu術) is the study of ritual customs and its re-application. The developments in Hanfu research in ideological, clothing standard archaeological, and applied ritual aspects target the Way, Method, and Vessel aspects of Hanfu culture.

Those who adhere pedantically to ideological pursuits in ideology only understand the Way of Hanfu but not in its vessel object, so the Way cannot be enacted and advanced, rendering it to pure discussion. Those who are only entranced in the study of clothing design research thoroughly understand Hanfu as the object but not understand its Way, and is unavoidable to leave this as a strictly academic research and leap into Hanfu as a living culture – or worse off, even develop into a research into rejecting or going against Hanfu. The superior form is called the Way, and the inferior form is called the Vessel. By putting equal emphasis on both the Way and Vessel, and enacting it with the Method (ritual in practice), together they form the basic network to restore Hanfu.

Any of the three meanings of Hanfu are all based upon the Way, used upon Method, and shaped by the Vessel. When all three are present, the study of Hanfu will be a straight path.

Conclusion: When the Great Way Stands, Theories are Abandoned

From the three meanings of Hanfu, into the Three Origins of Rites, and into the Kingly Way – This is not just a deduction based on thought, but an empirical spiritual realization. The internal processes actualized in practicing theories is an extension of reasoning – it is only a process, not the ultimate goal. Laozi says, “He who devotes himself to learning (seeks) from day to day to increase (his knowledge); he who devotes himself to the Dao (seeks) from day to day to diminish (his doing).
He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing (on purpose). Having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing which he does not do.[6]” (Laozi, Ch.XLVIII) Thought has its ends, and this end is entering the domain of the Way, and then taking the Way to speak of Virtue, and the theories on the seeking of thought will become the explication of reason based on the Great Way.

Chinese people’s thought has already considerably been Westernized, and topics on thought often bring deep tones of logical deduction and other Western academic traits, but Chinese academic knowledge is a empirical spiritual process. Only by leaving the path of Western style proof, and completing the transition to a Chinese style of understanding, can one change from thought into discipline, escaping from the complication of conceptual entanglement, and enter the realm of the Way. If one is obsessed with logical deduction and reasoning, the issue will only become increasingly complicated, until one completely loses control of its processes.

Hence, when the Great Way stands, theories are abandoned. When the study of argumentative reason is established, then all thought which the Hanfu restoration is based on will be in accordance with the Great Way, and the search for theories can come to a close. “Returning to the basics and seeking within oneself”, taking the pursued Way into actualization, action can be close to humaneness. The Shi’s discipline is for the sake of attaining proof for the soul from putting his or her own actions into contributing to the world.


Wang-Dao, the Kingly Way, does not equal to Confucian ideology. The same definition of the Kingly Way exists from the Classics in Huanglao Daoism, the Four Classics of Huangdi.

The Classics have not described the Shi and the Way of the Shi as such. The author is only trying to borrow upon the shape of the character to explicate its inner meaning.

Qilufeng, written on Year Jichou, 8th month, evening of the 23rd day. (Tuesday, October 13, 2009)

[1]  Transl. Sturgeon, Donald. Liji: Shen Yi. Chinese Text Project. Last accessed October 31, 2009.

[2] Transl. Sturgeon, Donald. Yijing. Qian. Chinese Text Project, Last accessed October 31, 2009.

[3] Ibid. Yijing. Kun.

[4] Traditionally translated into English as either “Aristocracy” or “Literati-class”, Shi is defined by Chinese standards the ones who are educated in the awareness of the Three Ways and to uphold responsibility for all.

[5] Transl. Sturgeon, Donald. Mozi. Book 4, Universal Love III. Last Accessed October 31, 2009.

[6] Transl. Sturgeon, Donald. Laozi. Ch.XLVIII. Chinese Text Project, last accessed Oct. 31, 2009.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Lily
    Nov 13, 2009 @ 21:51:39

    Hi, your essays on hanfu are really helpful for a person like me who can’t read Chinese that well.
    Do you know where I can find a thorough English explanation of all the manners associated with hanfu (proper greeting, bowing, sitting)? Thanks!


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