Mamianqun-Gate: When Chinese ‘Wolf Warrior’ antics hamper defense of Han dress heritage worldwide

This post was originally published on on July 30, 2022, and is republished here for archival purposes.

“Dress > Human Rights” writes the counter-protest sign held up by a Uyghur activist to the background of Chinese protesters outside the Dior brand flagship store on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Saturday July 23, 2022. @Byron_Won Twitter

In my 2017 Medium article, I expressed a concern commonly shared by the founders of the Hanfu movement — whom are now silenced from iterating it publicly on the Chinese internet — that under Xi’s regime that consolidates all forms of national and heritage pride into fervor and his ruling legitimacy, the civilian, grassroots movement to distinguish the Han ethnicity from “The Chinese Nation (zhonghua minzu)” is being hijacked by the pervasive state propaganda machine and at risk to a disasterous derailment in support, which has already happened once in 1913 with the rise and fall of Yuan Shikai as emperor.

That fear is now coming to actualization.

Since the establishment of Huafu Day by the Communist Youth League (CYL) in 2016, hanfu has since shifted from simply a topic in civil society and online into a recurring event endorsed by the CYL and local governments as cultural and heritage initiatives. So when the story began on July 15, 2022 with China’s official paper, The People’s Daily, ran the netizen discovery of the skirt in Dior’s 2022 Autumn-Winter collection as being uncannily similar to the traditional garb, it amplified the shock value of the news with the power of official authority, raising the stakes to a matter of national heritage and intellectual property rights.

As Chinese geo-politics deteriorated with Hong Kong’s protests in 2019 and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in 2020, the actions of “little pink” Chinese patriots protest are increasingly taken for granted as voices anathema to universal values and sensibilities. Now, despite having full-well and legitimate reasons for protest that would have been otherwise faced squarely had it been any other group, China’s ‘little pink’ militant expatriate protesters’ violent and vitriolic tendencies towards the free world over their country’s recent expansionism and infringement of human rights brook no sympathy from the global community. Now, when the tables turn, the ‘wolf warriors’ become the boys (and more often the case here, girls) “crying wolf” instead.

The “Horse Face Skirt” — actually the “bastion skirt”

“Horse Face” in Chinese refers to the curtain walls of a square extruding bastion with a steep incline, to which the shape of the flaring pleats of the skirt resemble and acquired its nomenclature.

Often cited as the Mamian-qun or translated literally as a “horse-face skirt”, the namesake of the skirt design actually stems more from architecture rather than the quadrupedal. Squarish protrusions on a city wall that serve as the base of towers or bastions are known in Chinese as Ma-mian or “horse faces” due to their long squarish profile, to which the Mamian skirt with its rolling pleats folding inwards towards the sides form a cascading box with the flat front and back and the slight flare from the side bear the striking similar silhouette of the Chinese fortifications’ incline.

An unpleated, overlapping 2-piece “spiral skirt” found in the Huang Sheng grave in Fuzhou, Fujian Prov., dating to the Southern Song (12c. CE). Seen as the predecessor to the pleated present variety, no other cultures of the world wore a similar design at the time or shortly thereafter. Source.

Prior to the current popular design involving two separate sheets of fabric with pleats rolling towards the centre, an unpleated version of this skirt was discovered in the grave of Lady Huang Sheng in 1974 and is the earliest surviving article of this kind of skirt, along with 353 various other pieces of elite female apparel dating from the Southern Song dynasty circa 12th century CE. First known as the Xuan-qun or “swirling skirt”, its primary feature in being able to split apart in the middle enabled riding on the backs of horses and donkeys without having the garment ride up the legs and thighs.

The visual features and fastening method differentiate the Ming from Qing era skirts, and now have become clear subcategories differentiating from each other. Pinterest and Internet.

By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the skirt has acquired the pleats and silhouette as we know it, and its embroidery and embellishments tend to be horizontally laid out in bars or strips, and is tied with a pair of long sashes. In contrast, Qing dynasty (1644–1911) mamianqun skirts have an even taller skirt head, obvious vertical edges and adornments especially on the front and back “skirt door” facets, and as representation of removing the obvious Han ethnic dress element, uses hidden knob buttons to secure the wrap skirt instead. With the Hanfu movement promoting de-Manchurization and legacies of Qing dress since 2003, the Ming style and sensibilities is again the norm of today.

Never far from the West — Mamianqun and Dior’s mid-length pleated skirt

Mamian-qun are among the most commonly collected articles of Chinese apparel by Western collectors and antiques market, its popularity ranking just behind “dragon robes”, mandarin square patches, and little “lotus shoes” intended for bound feet. Asides from just being put on displays or in museums collections throughout the West, some are actively worn by Westerners for the exotic Oriental glamour and appeal since their encounter in the late 19th to early 20th century, or as an alternative to the suffocating constriction of corsets and Victorian dress. Most notably in modern memory was Princess Diana’s February 1981 engagement meeting with the Royal Family for her marriage to Prince Charles, wearing a scarlet Qing-style mamian-qun, tailored to a modern raised midi-length to deliver her message of intent of marriage through symbology of the skirt’s two-panel design as “the coming together of two” and the embroidered flowers for a happy, blossoming future.

Princess Diana in a red Qing-style mamianqun paired with a white lace blouse, about to meet her future in-laws with Prince Charles in February 1981. Source

With the skirt spared from the Han clothing ban along with the Queue Order of 1645 which changed mostly male garb and upper wear collar construction, it should be no surprise that access and reference to the design and its history was never far from bookshelves and clothing racks in Western ateliers. In Dior’s 2022–23 iteration, the foot-wide skirt head characteristic to Qing bottom-wear was replaced with a narrow inch-wide one, fastened with a “tonal belt with metal buckle” and grommet openings. In keeping to Dior’s sleek, industrial-punk sensibilities, it is also shortened to midi or calf-length as with Princess Diana’s 1981 piece, and is made with sleek “black wool and mohair” material with no adornments or embellishments for the sharp black-and-white look signature to the brand.

The skirt in question [Reference: 241J13A1030_X9000], from Dior’s 2022–2023 Autumn-Winter collection. Dollar figure listed in CAD. Hanfu Movement pundits point particularly to the wording “A hallmark Dior silhouette […] with a new elegant and modern variation” as intentional occlusion of the skirt’s unique structure to that of Chinese traditional design. Snapshot from Dior (Canada), July 26, 2022.

The Media Response and the Uyghur Question

After the People’s Daily article went viral, within a few days the skirt was taken down from the Dior China online shop, while other international sites have either unlisted them from the catalogue (but the page for the skirt still exists) and is denoted as “sold out online.”

netizens decided to take action to protest. By Friday, July 22, Hanfu societies in France called for an in-person demonstration outside the Dior flagship store in Avenue de Champs-Elysees on the next day .

The Weibo that circulated just a day or two before the protest.

The message reads:

Just submitted application for public assembly, going to Champs on Saturday to protest in front of Dior.
At the moment the plagiarized Dior design is only sold physically in France, the rest are all online. What are we hanfu compatriots waiting for? We must also “do what people do when in Rome”, and let Dior know that livid Chinese people are not to be underestimated! We will not stop protesting until they apologize and recognize that this kind of skirt originates from han dress culture, and our cultural export to France will also not stop!

We welcome more Parisian hanfu compatriots to join us, and together we defend Chinese traditional culture!

Time: Saturday [July 23] 16h-20h CEST
Place: In front of Dior, Avenue de Champs-Elysees, Paris

Please notify me if you are going, as we need to report to police the number of attendees.

#DiorPlagiarizesMamianqun #hanfu #DiorMamianqun

Similar protests outside local Dior stores or in haute fashion districts were organized in other cities on the same day, such as in Toronto, Canada. While in other cases the event passed by relatively uneventfully, the Parisian event was met with a counter-protest organized by Uyghur human rights activists.

News sources wildly differed on the reporting of the event. Citing Taiwan’s CNA, Radio Free Asia reports that:

“These Chinese ‘Little Pinks’ were met with more than 10 human rights activists in counter-protest. These human rights activists raised signs such as “skirts over human rights,” “Skirts are a small matter compared to human rights,” and “human rights are essential” to jeer at the ‘Little Pinks’’ oversight on the reality of the Chinese regime’s trampling of human rights. Moreover, some Chinese ‘Little Pinks’ couldn’t hold themselves back, and attacked the activist Mir.

CNA quoted Mir, noting, “I had no slogans nor presented any violence — I just simply raised a sign. However, the other party directly went and grabbed me by the neck without a second thought and attempted to restrain me on the ground. They did not speak up back on June 4, 1989, nor did they speak up when the Uyghur and Hong Kongers were oppressed. Now they congregate together simply for a skirt design, looks like skirts are more important than human rights to them.”

A Chinese protester attempts to wrest away a Uyghur counter-protester holding the “Dress > Human rights” sign. Twitter

Subsequently, the Chinese and Sinophone diaspora lit up on the issue echoing similar dismissive sentiments, ranging from the Chinese state’s human rights record, to its notorious double-standards on local and foreign intellectual property rights management and protection.

For example, Chinese-Canadian critic Terrence “Gongzi” Shen commented that the allegation was incomprehensible, as “cultural appropriation itself is a product of baizuo (leftist white) ideology and is not Chinese”, “the fact that they learned how to protest in our society is a sign of being Westernized — that they themselves have appropriated Western culture;” and as fashion is often imitated “dress should only matter whether they look pretty or not, and that people are not stripped of their right to dress as they wish.”

Meanwhile, another critic Gou-ge (DogChinaShow) cited how a Hangzhou woman joining the wave of international protest by wearing a mamian-qun and taking videos in the local Dior store got ousted by security was a prime example to why ‘Little Pinks’’ unruly and unwelcome behavior often overshadows the discussion at hand.

Xingzhi 形制 — The Hanfu community’s bottom line

These commentators, whom are mostly familiar with critiquing Chinese fanatical nationalism, have overlooked the key reason why the uproar became so significant in the hanfu community (to which the two groupshave some intersectionality between each other, but do not necessarily overlap.) — Aside from Dior’s lack of accreditation in the product description, the hanfu movement pundits and aficionados are alarmed and particularly sensitive to the issue of something they call xingzhi.

While this simply translates to “shape/form” in a Chinese-English dictionary, the hanfu community uses this term in a more classical language form and break down the two words to be understood as a standardization (zhi) of conventional forms (xing), which factors in cuts or patterning, tailoring techniques, construction geometries, and visual proportions that define the categories of dress and therefore justify its authenticity based on canonical and/or historically-informed adherence. More than individual articles of clothing and design motifs, Xingzhi defines the absolute essentials and bottom line of what makes hanfu “hanfu.”

Despite repeated attempts and works to create a definitive xingzhi rulebook, the Hanfu Movement’s duplicitous and often-times conflicting pursuit for period-informed detail and an all-encompassing common denominator to leave room for future creativity means that its definition is constantly being revised and expanded as scholars and designers alike work to refine the wording and categories that allowed for a more functional (rather than rigidly historical) perspective of designs, as well as providing increasingly sophisticated guidelines “vocabularizing” styles for future fashion design and innovation. Therefore, the most critical factor is none other than the pattern, construction, and shaping of the garment itself, rather than its decoration, material, or means in which how it was produced. Given the essentialized, black, and unadorned look of the Dior skirt, the verdict whether it qualified as hanfu or not therefore couldn’t have come any swifter.

From short to long, subdued to cute, sleek to fully-embroidered in gilt, the modern market will provide — given you know where to look and place an order.

The stakes of the cultural appropriation game

Although the market report by Chinese research firm iiMedia boasted that hanfu fashion passed the CNY10B (USD1.48B) market value milestone in 2019 (before dropping due to the pandemic), as a niche market comprised of hundreds of small, unknown ateliers that only prevailed thanks to an internet-based social and commercial environment, reach to a global market continues to be mired with language and financial institutional barriers, as most overseas buyers would have to rely on Taobao purchaser agents or personal connections to access the market.

Moreover, as a byproduct of the Xi regime’s constriction of free speech online since 2014, the primary discussion topics of the movement has shifted increasingly from ideology and societal issues with wearing hanfu, towards design and intellectual property protection, and battling knock-offs and stop proliferation of costume lookalikes that would otherwise not qualify as presentable clothing in the common sense. Fully aware of the dress’s own nascent, vibrant but precarious disposition, hanfu consumers (especially those who joined the niche after 2014) have a particularly heightened wariness to instances and issues of plagiarism and design theft. This newer demographic of mostly 19–26 year old teenagers and young professionals are significantly more female-heavy compared to the gender-balanced participation in the early-mid 2000’s. Therefore, when the Dior skirt in question made its catwalk debut in South Korea and its “hallmark Dior silhouette” description devoid of any mamian-qun reference appeared online, it did not take long for the more fashion-conscious members to realize the implications of existential threat for its current ‘Han element’ fusion designs niche market — while it would be legally difficult to prove or exert rights over clothing design, the media and corporate pressure of a multinational elite brand upon an individual or class of hanfu designers or makers would be devastating and unrelenting.

The lashback was then inevitable, and the Party propaganda machine then capitalized and amplified it with the full force of nationalistic rhetoric.

The story of Bihor and Han — And this is why we (all of us) can’t have nice things

“Cultural appropriation” — any variety of misrepresentation, lack of proper accreditation, or even lack of financial return to the original cultures and parties, is nothing new to international design brands like Dior. A similar incident with a beaded jacket design Bihor, Romania in 2018 led to a blustery media sensation for that spring-summer season, followed by appearances in Paris Fashion Week and a website that promised direct links local makers to the international market. However, this initiative was short-lived: The website never took off past a placeholder homepage, the online store was never established, and no actual products were sold in that manner. Presumably, that had little impact on Romanian local tailors and textile makers, and similarly the market moved on with little else affected.

By comparison, the hanfu industry‘s position is enviable for a traditional dress market— vibrant and growing, youth-led and oriented, active innovation that has products seeking to integrate itself with the global mainstream fashion market. Yet this time, there is little sympathy from the international collective response, including and especially of the pan-Chinese and Sinophone communities overseas, either dismissing the issue of cultural appropriation altogether as moot, or attacking China’s own poor human rights and intellectual property record.

By comparing the attacks made and shared by Gongzi Shen (who now resides in Canada), Sydney Daddy (in Australia) to Chip Tsao (a Hongkonger radio and newspaper critic who recently moved to the UK), we can gather that aside from low-level misunderstandings and mis-explaining the technicalities of hanfu construction (such as Sydney Daddy’s 10-minute explainer on the mamian-qun), many still misconstrue the wearing of the dress as antiquarianism and by extension, harkoning the whistle-call of a CCP-orchestrated plan to project cultural imperialism — or at least the rejection of “Western” universal values — starting with an imagined unified sartorial landscape similar to what Shu-mei Shih described with what standard Mandarin is doing to Chinese martial arts cinema.

“If the little pinks are so engrossed with China and Chinese tradition, then they shouldn’t be wearing Western underwear, or wear glasses and use smartphones, or use concepts devised by Western liberals to make their point!” These kinds of binary attacks as iterated by Tsao and Sydney Daddy are not new, but rather echoes the same jeers made by “experts and critics” in mainland China 20 years ago and has long since been addressed. Rather, this diversion into whataboutism and assumption of antiquarianism reflects the ideological rigidity of these critics due to their generational alliance of their pro-freedom, anti-CCP positions with that of globalist-capitalist neo-liberal conservatism. With this “First World/Second World” Cold-war binary, it is not difficult to understand why a protest of ‘Little Pinks’ touting ‘woke’ ideology in the capital of Free World fashion would appear almost comically repulsive in their eyes.

On the other hand, while the Parisian counter-protest’s mentioning of China’s human rights record may seem non sequitur when put up to a protest about a European company’s commercial affairs in the West, the connection is not only valid but its nature may be much more insidious. Along with the Communist Party’s embrace towards symbols of national heritage as tools of unity such as the Huafu day celebrations, those same tools and messages are disseminated verbatim in its frontier regions. Notably, a Communist Party cadre of Uyghur ethnic background named Kurban Niyaz was publicly lauded by Xinhua on Weibo in 2018 and again on television in 2019 for his work to promote “minzu [national/ethnic] unity and progress” with Mandarin-language and Han culture education. This comes at a time just as international attention began to converge on accounts of cultural genocide in form of “re-education” the region, and in this case of the ethnic Uyghur Communist cadre cum elementary school principal, have turned a dress and symbol brought out by grassroots netizens as a struggling call for equal heritage representation and treatment in the national gaokao exams turn into a tool of colonial assimilation and in the larger picture, of local erasure.

Kurban Niyaz, a Communist Party cadre and school principal in Uqturpan (Wushi) County, Aksu, Xinjiang , is lauded here by Xinhua state media on Weibo in early 2018 for bringing Chinese culture and language education to encourage national unity local Uyghur children in Xinjiang. Quora

On the same day as the Parisian protests, the Boyan Hanfu society of Paris proceeded to publicize a campaign to call on Dior to apologize for the incident and “[not] require the removal of this item from your stores and online shops, but please correctly mark the source of inspiration of [the] Ma Mian skirt”. However, response has been sparse outside of the Chinese student and diaspora circles. Popular international response was twofold: Either apathy on the issue because of the non-recognition or denial of the topic as part of leftist “woke politics”, or in the case of Sinophone critique, a continuation of the rejection of the hanfu category and hanfu movement’s premise and mission to address the imposing legacy of Manchu dress on the Han and other conquered peoples of the Qing Empire.

Due to the resurfacing of Cold War-style tensions between Russia-China and the West, the issue becomes overlooked to the discredit of China’s feckless sabre-rattling and projection of national sovereignty, forming a kind of “instant karma” to the howls (and occasional incensed jab) of injustice despite having every objective justification to validate the claim and seek its very modest reparation with a simple line of text on a shopping catalogue. At the same time, this animosity is unfair for Han ethnic heritage, whom make up a majority of population not just in the People’s Republic but also in the free societies of Taiwan and Singapore, and a significant proportion of other free nations such as Malaysia, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and more.

When worlds prepare for head-on conflict, it is difficult to see beyond the obvious and prevalent bandwagon of the two belligerents. “Would a little pink actually also speak up or raise a sign about other injustices like the Uyghurs and Hong Kong to the Chinese state, rather than just about a dress to a French company?” While I may not be the ‘little pink’ they would hope to seek, perhaps I could provide by example of those who would.

The author out in a contemporary mamian-qun and all kinds of intersectionality.

Juni Yeung, MA (Toronto, CUHK) is the co-founder and chairperson of the Hanfu Movement of Eastern Canada, and a scholar of hanfu and activist of the hanfu movement since its inception in 2003. Yeung’s teaches guqin music and China-centered approach to Chinese musicology and of course hanfu tailoring in English. See her Youtube channel.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Arapeggio
    Sep 11, 2022 @ 22:25:36

    I guess… Both human rights and culture needs tending to, but why would anyone rally Dior for human rights? 😂
    Nice article, in-depth and rich perspectives.


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