Rethinking the Hanfu Movement, November 2010 (Pt.1)

The burning of the Hanfu skirt on Chongyang Day, 2010 in Chengdu.

Please pardon the recent lack of updates. Aside from attending to family affairs in a visit back to Hong Kong last month, I admit I have recently become engrossed in yet another online game (even scholars…especially scholars, procrastinate). I will try to give a few recent anecdotes personal and in the greater Hanfu circle. 

Without a doubt, the largest Hanfu related piece of news (and news in the time of our mass media usually is negative) is the Chongyang Day (Oct 16 2010) Chengdu Hanfu Burning Incident. It has been over a month since the affair, and as I watched the aftermath unfold (and the several people taking the lead in the actual burning were arrested for public disorder), it is perhaps time to write a summary on my and general society’s reflection of the giant rift of Chinese society – it is not just about political standpoints, education and income levels, age, gender and orientation, or any previously known one description or strata, but as individuals which comprise of any combination of such. 

Before carrying on to the reviews, let us revise the happenings of October 16, 2010: 

A Chengdu girl (alias Sun Ting) who was newly introduced to Hanfu from a friend tried on a borrowed set of short Quju top and skirt, and went out to the movies in town on the afternoon of the 16th, only to find the place much too crowded. They changed plans dine at a Dico’s restaurant nearby on Chunxi Road, to which they sat by the taller tables and stools by the second floor shopfront window. At that time, a wave of “patriotic” protesters passed by, encouraging fellow citizens to boycott Japanese goods and the government to enforce sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands (known as Senkaku Islands to the Japanese). A group of “university students” (later identified as a group of unemployed late-teens not affiliated in any tertiary institutions) noticed the crossed-collars of her clothing, unsure of its cultural background. People suggested going into the shop and checking her back to see if there was “a pillow” on it (the primary feature of the obi waistsash on a Japanese furisode), but rumours escalated quickly and spun out of control, and the message soon directed towards the violent end. 

The crowd surrounded the shop’s exits, demanded that she strip her “kimono” away to satisfy the public. Sun, despite being a newcomer to Hanfu, tried her best to explain that this was Chinese clothing, not Japanese. However, the protesters were unreceptive to reason, and forced her to surrender her top, which was taken away. Sun complied, but soon she was asked to also surrender her matching skirt. Having no other clothes underneath save undergarments and a T-shirt, she hid away in the Women’s washroom afterwards, as the crowd set fire to the skirt right outside the shop, under the witness of tens of cameras and cellphone captures. A man who bought a pair of jeans for his girlfriend graciously gave Sun his purchased goods, allowing Sun to leave with the least bit of humanly dignity. 

Netizens (including Hanfu group members) devoted themselves to searching up the perpetrators to the crime, refusing to believe they were really “university students” (although considerable bashing was given to the overall general quality of them), and later labelled them as “general ignorant thugs”, “remenants of Manchurian poison”, and even “intentional undercover Manchu separatists, trying to take advantage of ignorant patriotism direct against the Hanist movement”. Shortly after the incident, the Hong Kong Hanfu group set up on the Chinese version of Wikipedia a complete article on the incident, and within two weeks it became an international laughingstock on both official channels of news media to the most informal and bawdy parts of the blogosphere

Since I was in Hong Kong at the time of the happening of this incident, let’s take a look at some of the responses from there. Just as I was having trouble with my formal paper on the Hanfu movement and actual events displaying the stigma against it, this event has “artfully and timely” appeared in its most bare, despicable form. I cannot help but muse at the irony of the matter, and can conclude with the axiom “be careful of what you wish for”. 

First they mock you, then they fight you, then they accept the truth as self-evident.
-Mahatma Gandhi 

(Chinese) Audrey Eu: “If I was the girl Sun Ting from Chengdu…” (Nov 3, 2010, Yahoo! News) [Selected sections] 

假如我是孫婷,我希望今次事件促使所有以愛國為己任的人民和政府認真去想,怎樣才是最好的國民教育,培養國民對國家的歸屬感?// If I was Sun Ting, I hope that from this incident, all those people and the government who consider patriotism as their personal responsibility to really think what is the best citizen education, in order to develop citizens’ sense of belonging to their country. 

香港回歸13年,特區政府熱衷推行國民教育,打算在中小學設獨立的「德育及國民教育科」替代現有的公民教育。教育局網頁上的國民教育課程,歌頌中共建國60年的豐功偉績。假如我是孫婷,不禁要問,中國人如果連漢服都不認識,香港特首連劉曉波得獎都只能「不予置評」,政府所要求的究竟是什麼貨色的國民教育?// 13 years after the return of Hong Kong to China, the SAR government endeavoured to promote national education, intending to have “Virtue development and National education” subject promulgated towards primary and secondary institutions, replacing existing civic studies classes. The outline for national studies on the Board of Education’s website sings in high praise of the People’s Republic’s great and proud achievements. If I was Sun Ting, I’d ask: If Chinese people don’t even know about Hanfu when they see one, and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong can only give “no comment” upon Liu Xiaobo’s reception of the Nobel prize, what kind of national education is the government expecting? 

As a practicing lawyer and Legislative Council councillor in Hong Kong, Eu’s concern is primarily on the freedom of expression (including political and cultural forms) in her home city and the country up north. She cites (partially) Sun Jiazheng, the Chief of the Department of Culture, that “people each have their own tastes, let a hundred flowers bloom, and it’s all a personal matter” to enforce her argument that freedom of expression is the issue at hand. However, what was NOT mentioned was the earlier half of Sun’s same statement: “As of the moment, I still don’t know what clothes could represent China?” Rather than being supportive words to freedom and expression of Chinese identity, it was one of anxiety and uncertainty, and provides a rather ironic implied answer to her initial question of “what kind of national education the government is expecting”. 

Lee Bik-Wah's article on meeting me in Hanfu, on HK's Apple Daily.

On one hand, while Hanfu is slowly becoming an internationally-recognized object and culture, there is still an irrational, irrefutable stigma or disassociation from it by Chinese people. Despite repeated attempts since 2006 to tell newspapers other forms of television/radio that Hanfu is not “Han Dynasty clothes” (just as Tangzhuang isn’t what people wore in the Tang dynasty), the misnomer carries on for years before occasional articles correctly refer correctly to the modern reference. 

During my stay in Hong Kong, I wore Hanfu numerous times – three times fully and two times halfway, to be exact: Once to the Hong Kong Cultural Center to watch the stage adaptation of “1587: A Year of No Signifacance” by Zuni Isocahedron, another to visit a friend and play guqin for him at Lai Chi Kok Park’s Chinese garden, and once to visit qin master Yao Gongbai at Chi Lin Buddhist Nunnery. The last item here is what I would like to particularly mention, as it is the cause to this Lee Bik-Wah’s article of me walking around in Hong Kong article you see on the rightside image.

On the morning of Thursday, November 4, I visited Master Yao in Hanfu and was able to get some advice from him for the pieces Gufeng Cao and Qiuxiao Buyue (both can be found in the Standards of the Guqin), but was cut short due to his busy schedule. For the rest of the day, I went to have tea at a seafood restaurant in Kowloon Bay with my mother and grandfather, then we met up with my sister to shop at a Jusco’s in Tai Koo. Note that in this process, I have not changed my clothing, and was up and about all day in Hanfu, to which Lee writes:

書生一身白、杏、藍,寬袍大袖,頭紮髻繫長帶,古意盎然。轉過身來,才發現是女扮男裝的「祝英台」。衣飾決非一般蠻夷式的「披髮左衽」時裝,乃正統右衽漢服。自由社會愛穿啥沒人大驚小怪,相信外國這身打扮亦不會引起注目。有位加拿大的記者曾提過彼邦華人的「漢服復興」運動,聽時沒在意。今日和朋友 shopping,偶遇與人交談的楊小姐,竟是多倫多古琴社社長,加籍香港人,回港亦漢服巡遊。

The silhouette of a “Liang Shanpo” appears out of a busy department store. A scholar in ancient costume, appears out of place with the high-tech era and its newest kitchenware and non-stick pans. I almost thought it was some prank peepshow.
This scholar dressed white, almond and blue, had wide and big sleeves, tied his long hair in a topknot, and was full of classical air. Turning around, I found that he was a “Zhu Yingtai” dressed in male attire. Her clothing was definitely not some barbarian “loose hair and left-lapelled” fashion, but proper right-lapelled Han clothing. Nothing’s strange when it comes to clothing in a free society, and I think that this attire won’t get much attention overseas. A Canadian reporter once mentioned about the “Hanfu restoration” movement over there, and I didn’t pay much attention then. As I went shopping with my friend today, I met with Ms. Yeung who was talking with someone then, who happens to be the chairman of the Toronto Guqin Society, and a Canadian Hong Konger. She’s also parading around in Hanfu back here.

Of course, when it comes to the restoration of “Huaxia clothing and headwear” that was lost for centuries, and then there’s the coming of age ceremonies – “Guan adding” for males at age 20, and “Hairpin adding” for females at age 15, I wonder to what extent of an effect that had? Ordering a set of Hanfu is not easy already, I know how expensive those costumes they use for movies are. With some people passionate about it, they live in modernity but don’t forget their roots, by guqin (just called qin in antiquity, seven-stringed qin, or Yaoqin. Legend has it Fuxi created it) elegant gatherings and ancient costume parties as the starting point for cultural exchange.

The Japanese kimono and Korean jeogyori, will always reappear in festivals and important occasions, and Hanfu should also be respected — but I personally prefer the layerings of Tang dynasty servant girl costumes, as they are unrestrained, and more free. (Lee Bik-Wah, Nov.6, 2010, Apple Daily HK page E-6)

While she accurately describes that Hanfu equates with “Huaxia clothing and headwear”, the proper term for this kind of clothing, and implies somewhat that it is one (somewhat) same tradition, but at the same time rejects Hanfu (or “prefers”) for a “Tang”-fu (clothing). For years promoters have stated that Hanfu was a term that addressed not the “Han Dynasty”, but the “Han ethnic group/’nationality'”. If one uses the term “Tangfu”, one may also be inclined to think of the “Tangzhuang” (the modified magua jackets) made today, which has the danger of being potentially misleading.

A "Gaoyao Duijin Ruqun" - or "high-waisted, parallel-collared ruqun (top and skirt)"

However, what I do understand is that most people, when thinking of these “ancient costumes”, is that they have not yet adapted to the totally different methodology of understanding traditional Chinese clothing. To put the effects of the Hanfu movement in a nutshell, it has changed the understanding of traditional Han Chinese clothing from that of a periodical/historical way of classification into a system of objects based on fashion design elements. To the uninitiated, how would they have fathomed that a dress like the one shown here on the right be called a “parallel-collared ruqun“, full of element-specific technobabble jargon? What the layperson will remember is from which dynasty’s painting (on a scroll or on a wall) or whatever dynasty this costume (or something similar) may be played out on the last primetime television soap opera, and then call it from there. The leap of understanding from one to another is great, and one must applaud the power of the Internet and the studeousness of Hanfu compatriots for making this leap and trying to have others follow in their footsteps, but their goal of “mass revelation” is still far from reality. If this step is not taken, then this (or even our next generation) will continue to regard these clothing as a dead practice in antiquity, and the Hanfu “revolution” will still have yet to succeed.

I have also met up with the Hanfu group in Hong Kong, as well as representatives from a hobby-group turned NPO there during my stay in October. The second part of this reflection will cover our two meetings at a Tsim Sha Tsui Starbuck’s, and a series of conflicts and concensus we have identified and achieved.


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