Fluttering Hems: The Issue of Taxonomy of Several Robe Types

Various styles of male Hanfu. This article focuses on the long robe variants and their names.

Although Hanfu becomes more readily available in a maturing market, a newcomer may still be driven to a daze by the flood of new terms and jargons used to describe and explicate the types and elements of this diverse sartorial culture.  

It does not help to the situation when there is an ever-changing understanding of the archaeology and taxonomy of the clothing within the civilian and institutional academic Hanfu researchers, as well the liberties taken by some Hanfu makers in its design and market labelling. Just what is the difference between a Zhishen and a Zhiduo? Why is a Shenyi of a totally different price and prescribed occasion for wearing compared to a round-collared robe or a simple long straight robe? Why is the Xuanduan so exclusive, if it even refers to the same thing to different people?  

Let us take a brief look at some of the finer details these clothes’ definitions:  

  • The Xuanduan (Black-hem) 玄端 Outfit,
  • the Zhiju Shenyi (Straight-hem deep-robe) 直裾深衣,
  • the Zhiduo (straight robe) 直裰,
  • the Zhishen (straight-body robe) 直身,
  • and the Daopao (Daoist robe) 道袍.


The Xuanduan Outfit 玄端服  

2010 (Gengyin) Jiangyin Qing-Resistance Memorial Homage Rite: The main ritual conductors are clad in black and red/yellow Xuanduan while following disciples wore the Zhuzi Shenyi (back rows).

What we have come to commonly accept as the most formal outfit still used in contemprary times are the sacrificial ritual outfits known as the Xuanduan (Hs’uen-duen) – the black-edged outfit. Our modern definition is taken essentially from the Zhou Book of Rites (the Liji, 《禮記》), referencing practical applications from artifacts and standards depicted in Ming (See: Daming Huidian Vol.61) and Republican-era (See: 1914 Temporary Official Clothing Mandate) records.

The Xuanduan outfit today consists of: A black cross-collared top yi, extending to the knee, which is worn over (untucked) a red (or yellow, depending on role in ceremony) shang wrap-skirt. A complement of accessories hang from the waist, including the trapezoidal Bi or Bixi 蔽膝 at front centre, and a fancy knotwork of a white (or coloured) silk sashes known as shou 綬, with its draping ends flowing down the front sides and pressed down by two screens of chained jade beads, known as pei 佩 (not worn on the picture to the left). — All of this is done according to the previously mentioned codes.

The "Xuanduan" in Republican times (right). Image from Minquan Huabao of 1912, cited in Antonia Finnane "Changing Clothes in China", p.98.

But this understanding becomes shattered as we look to more historic documents, especially when pertaining to the tumultuous and ultimately unsuccessful Hanfu revival in the early Republican era. The term Xuanduan was used synonymously with Shenyi, and at times confused with the description of the black Confucian cap, “Xuanguan”.  While the clothing design as used by Yuan Shikai’s heaven sacrifice on Winter Solstice 1913 and other followers of the period (See Zhang Zuolin clad in the outfit in the previous post) is of sufficiently similar design (also a long untucked yi with shang wrap skirt, coupled with a Mianguan mortarboard, there are no jade or fancy knotwork adornments on the waist – a legacy that lasts to this day in Taiwan), the civilian public sphere used the term Xuanduan intermittedly with the Shenyi (for a Shenyi, by Confucian convention, also had “black ends” at the collar, sleeve, and bottom hems). Although an officially recognized and approved convention of state and formal wear by the Republic and the Beiyang government, Hanfu styles were seen as ‘counter-revolutionary’ to the modernizing movement, and were seen as the choice of select scholars with a penchant of “feudal” antiquarianism, and were publically ostracized (See: Qian Xuantong’s Shenyi incident in March 1912, and Hu Shih’s editorial article in Shenbao Fujun in 1917). However, during this short period where Hanfu was proposed and worn in everyday practice, the Xuanduan, when used in reference to a civilian convention, may actually to what we call a Shenyi (or Zhishen), with or without black hems, used as a formal wear and may include an outer robe which we know today as a Hecang (read like “Huh-ts’aung”), Peifeng, or more colloquially a “big-sleeved gown”, the Daxiushan.

The Zhiduo, Zhishen, Xingyi, and Daopao 直裰﹑直身﹑行衣與道袍

Tongguan Atelier's "Zhaonan" white Daopao (with blue-grey beixin not pictured here), but labelled as "Daopao Zhiduo" in shop.

The reintroduction of the Zhiduo design in the modern Hanfu movement was in late 2007, when Minghua Tang of Guangzhou introduced its first catalogue of Ming-era design reproductions to the public. In that catalogue, the term “Zhiduo” was used to describe a lined, woolen full-length robe with a triple-pleated panel on either side. As other makers across the country quickly realized the uniqueness of this “new” product they quickly replicated it, but were also attentive to the community’s response to the rediscovery of several articles of similarly looking clothing also from the Ming era, named the Daopao, Zhishen, and Xingyi. Even from the Ming portraits of gentry and scholars, as well as contemporary accounts distinguishing the various designs, it is difficult for even experts to name a specific design from looking at a depiction from a single angle. Upon this confusion, Hanfu makers label their products with as many appropriate keywords in order to gather attention, and hence today to most Hanfu wearers have little understanding about the difference between the Zhiduo and Daopao, and may even perceive them to be the same object.  

Minghua Tang Winter 2011 Catalogue: Black Western-suit material casual Zhiduo

Recently, Zhong Yi of Minghua Tang released a blog article with the preview of the upcoming season’s product line, explicating the difference between the two designs – an authoritative account, but not absolute as popular practice tend to differ from theory. He writes: “The Zhiduo robe can be long or short, and its sleeves wide or narrow. Also, the sides of the robe have no panels or flaps and are directly slit open. Although not as intricate as a Daopao, it is more convenient and wieldy. (直裰袍有长有短、袖有窄有宽,且袍身两侧无褶无摆而直接开衩,虽不及道袍般讲究,但却更为灵活简便。) But looking at all of Zhong’s previous articles, the long robes with pleated side paneling are labelled as “Daopao””Zhiduo” (in separate quotation marks) and contradicts this current definition. Perhaps this may be a new revelation to the definition of distinguishing these variant types of robes. 

According to various historical sources previously mentioned, as well as Dong Jin (Jiefang Zhuren)’s research, the Zhiduo also refers to different things at different times. The definition of these three terms (Daopao, Zhiduo, Zhishen) may even refer to the same clothing (See response on 2010-04-28 02:59:33). It is only in the mid-late Ming period when the terms were clearly distinguished, where the Zhiduo referred to a cross-collared robe with unconnected side panels that hang outwards, or have no side panels and allow the slit to open freely. In contrast, the Daopao’s definition explicitly states having full side panels that extend around the hips and legs to the back meridian seam, where there is a hidden cloth loop for a pair of sashes (on the upper corner of the side panels) to tie against and form a skirtlike wraparound, covering the inner trousers or leg underneath while imitating the same grace of a Zhiduo and its open back piece from the open sides starting from the waist.  

Because of this difference, the Zhiduo and its rather lax definition and lack of covering in comparison to a Daopao has made the latter the formal wear of choice by scholars and gentry in the high and late Ming, while the Zhiduo is relegated to a lower social class, among clergymen and urban commoners. This aesthetic carries on today, as outside of the Hanfu movement, the Zhiduo without side paneling and open slits survives in the formal robes of Daoist garb, and is the first layer of outer robes on Buddhist attire of the initiated.  

 The Zhiju (Shenyi) and the Zhishen 直裾(深衣)與直身 

A Hanfu group outing around Southeastern China in 2007. The majority of men here donned the Zhiju Shenyi.

When the Hanfu movement first popularized starting in 2005, the three major designs of male Hanfu were the formal yi-shang (cross-collared top and wrap-skirt) such as the Xuanduan, and the curved hem deep-robe or Quju Shenyi (which Wang Letian himself wore on the historic photograph, along with a broad-sleeved peifeng outercoat) – but the most popular and ubiquitous design was undoubtedly the classic scholarly image of the straight-hemmed deep robe or Zhiju Shenyi.

The Zhiju got its name in contrast to the Quju Shenyi, where the bottom hem of the left lapel spirals its way up to the waist of the wearer. In contrast, the Zhiju’s bottom hem circles around the ankle levelly, hence a “straight” line.

At times, the Zhiju may also be colloquially called a Zhishen (“straight body [cut]”). This becomes problematic as the same term later also applied to the Zhiduo design, and at times even the round-collar (as pictured, dark green at front centre) or Tang “standup” round-collared robe. This was the case for despite the principle of the Shenyi remains as “a long robe comprised of sewing a top and skirt together at the waist, the Zhiju gives a straight and sleek appearance that hides the broad, flaring effect from the trapezoidal skirt panels. In some lesser-quality articles of clothing during the early stages of the current Hanfu movement (generally before 2005), these “Zhishen Shenyi” may even defy this basic principle and cut out its full length from a single piece of broad fabric, in similitude to a round-collared robe or Zhiduo. Fortunately, this mistake was not widespread and was quickly corrected among the Hanfu-circle approved makers, but it seems that the term “Zhiju” still stood out as a category separate from simply “Shenyi”. To solve this mystery, one needs to look at the assumptions made by this current generation when defining the absolute parameters of a Shenyi – surviving artifacts dug up from graves, the Book of Rites’  chapter on the Shenyi, and the three major interpretations of the chapter: the Zhu Xi Ritual Standard Shenyi or Zhuzi Shenyi, Jiang Yong’s Shenyi Tujie from the Qing era, and Huang Zongxi (Lizhou)’s Shenyi Kaowu also from the early Qing.

While surviving artifacts of Shenyi are numerous and often conflicted in its details of design, current research by Hanfu enthusiasts point out from these above texts several major distinctions:

  • The Zhuzi Shenyi’s top yi part does not (and should not) have an extended lapel, or the little triangular piece of fabric that joins up to form the front meridian seam. Rather, it is a parallel-collared top with 12 pleats of trapezoidal fabric as skirt and hemmed up on all available sides, and worn to imitate cross-collared clothing.
  • The Jiang Yong Shenyi was an archaeological and philological study by the late Ming/early Qing author in a desperate attempt to preserve the memory of Han dress. His version involves the same parallel-collared top as the Zhuzi Shenyi, but uses a mix of horizontal and triagular strips of fabric to create a skirt (creating two large equalateral trapezoids). His design (or conjecture) was criticized by his contemporary philologists, but since Han Chinese were forbidden to wear Hanfu (especially the Shenyi of the scholarly elite – an immediate ticket for decapitation by simple possession), it did not create much influence on a practical level.
  • The Huang Lizhou Shenyi applies Ming-Qing clothing conventions by extending the fore lapel with another piece of fabric (making a front meridian seam), coupled with 12 pleats of trapezoidal fabric. However, he interprets the “round curve” on the sleeve differently from others, by having the compass round at the root of the sleeve rather than at the end, making a sleeve “go wider” from the shoulder rather than “closing in” near the wrist.
  • Modern Hanfu stores usually follow a mix between the Zhuzi and Huang Lizhou versions, employing the fore extended midseam and curving off at the wrist, allowing the sleeve have the same width as the top yi itself. They will label these “by the book” models as Zhuzi Shenyi.
  • To this end, Zhishen or Zhiju Shenyi take liberties in one or two aspects of its requirements, such as altering sleeve length and width, or the shape of the fabric panels to adjust its flare.

Despite the many advances in research of Hanfu and its taxonomies, there are still many ambiguities in the referencing and detailing of its design and elements — in the future (or even this very moment), the arguments and classifications in this article may be considered fallaceous, and is subject to more investigation and debate. However, from this we can see the amount of effort and dedication of scholars and tailors alike to further build upon an already diverse System of Objects, and creates a structure for society to live upon. From this we can also see that Hanfu is very much an alive tradition, and despite constant calling to “maintain the ancient ways”, innovation and change is inevitably a steam-engine of driving progress.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. charlesrupertdomeki
    Jan 19, 2011 @ 18:23:26

    Zhuzi: are you saying ity doesn’t have a front meridian seam? Also, I am confused by the term ‘extended lapel’…


    • Satsuki Shizuka 五月靜
      Jan 20, 2011 @ 15:57:52


      Zhuzi: Yes, because there is no “right front” piece of fabric on the outer lapel. It is parallel-collar worn cross-collared, like many current Kimono.

      Extended Lapel: Chinese “Shu-ren”, refers to that very same fabric I just mentioned. It’s not there on the original Zhuzi description.

      Keep in mind that Zhu Xi’s “archaeological report” on the Shenyi was laughed at in his time, but was revered in the Ming, but even his contemporaries added back some common features found on other clothing…


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  3. 汉人
    Dec 29, 2013 @ 09:26:43

    I fail to find a difference between a Shenyi and a Zhiju/Zhishen. What is the difference? A Shenyi is a Yi (Top) and a Shang (Skirt) stitched together, while a Zhiju is simply a straight cut? When did the Zhiju come about? Is it historically accurate?


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