To Sinologists and Sinophiles, it probably isn’t surprising to know that the Chinese have always worn long robes with “y”-shaped collars, just like the Japanese and Koreans. However, to the uninitiated and to the Chinese public (who grew up learning that everything traditional was just BAAAD), the truth isn’t that obvious, and are often VERY (self) justified in doing so.
What’s all this “Hanfu Movement” buzz? Why are the members in this movement so fervant and adament on re-establishing this extravagant but seemingly cumbersome set of robes?
And here’s the whole background story.
At the dawn of 1912, the 293-year long reign of the Manchus laid to a dwindling end as a group of revolutionists declared China a republican state in Nanjing. Overnight, the entire male population of Hong Kong adorned a short cut, bidding a harsh farewell to the much-despised pigtail, a symbol of repression and backwardness. The rest of the nation were very soon to follow suit.
Rewind to Autumn of 1644. Sitting on the Great Wall, General Wu Sangui had a choice to repel a huge northern barbarian invasion army set out to conquer the falling Ming Dynasty, or repress the rebel army of Li Zicheng that just invaded Beijing, caused the Emperor to hang himself on a dead tree overlooking the Forbidden City, and mocked at Wu by capturing his beloved courtesan. Thinking that any orderly power was better than a bunch of rowdy peasants, he committed the worst mistake known to Han Chinese history.
For the next thirty years, three quarters of the Chinese population were wiped out in resisting the new Qing regime and its Queue Order, which demanded that the clothing and hairstyle of men and women be changed according to its new Manchu rulers. To the Chinese, having to shave men’s heads was equivalent to ripping out their parents’ flesh with their own hands, as well discarding the national and ethnic identity and cultural symbols that defined everything Chinese, spiritually and materially. As the world’s most technologically advanced and economically developed civilization at the time, the idea was ludicrous.
But alas, the state was already in upheaval and resistance was not a well-concerted effort, which eventually led to the total assimilation of Chinese tradition and image into a Manchu one. Throughout its reign of nearly three centuries, countless resistance movements continued in the last dynasty’s name: this was unique throughout Chinese history, and is interpreted as a cause in a concept of ethnicity and race, rather than strictly for a royal family.
Despite the cutting of the queue, the clothes have not been restored. The Chinese ethnic image are still perceived much in negative light even in the beginning of the new millennium. The current People’s Republic ethnic policy as well its propaganda give an ambiguous image for the Han Chinese, representing them as a ‘modern’ person in a Mao suit, T-shirt, or the same Manchu outfit dating to the times of their oppressive regime.
Chinese history and tradition has been spared under the exceptions of surviving books, paintings, the clerical traditions in Daoism and Buddhism, and the stage (or the TV today). However, to bring it back out to general life with such great difficulty is nothing short of being a strange face of general historiographical concensus.
Hanfu is unceasingly and increasingly promoted as the true Chinese image and tradition, and its supporters stand adament on this because of the unique and direct relation between the clothing design and the Chinese political and cosmological views. The Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), who “draped in the robes and gowns, He governs all under Heaven”. Each component of the shenyi (deep-robe, one of the many designs, particularly favoured by Confucian scholars) and its later derivations symbolize the Chinese cosmological view. To list a few examples, the Shang (the skirt or lower part of the long robe) is comprised of 12 pieces of fabric sewn together, symbolizing the months of the year; the collars are folded over left-over-right, symbolizing self-control and civility (‘barbarian’ tribes wear their robes in reverse).
The Chinese wore these folded-over robes with the y-shaped collars and hemmed skirts and sleeves since then and improved its designs over the eras, but these basic elements remained as key features of the clothing.