The Modern Hanfu: A System of Objects

A strip titled "Evolution" from Alfonso Wong's "Old Master Q" comic series, drawn in the 1950's to 1980's Hong Kong, ironically but accurately predicted the return of Hanfu.

Foreword by Juni L. Yeung

Hanfu has experienced a 360-year discontinuation, and has faced tremendous challenges in attempting to restore itself as the representation of a people who consists of one fifth of the world’s population. We, the people of the Internet and Television era, may have only heard of or seen these clothing on the glowing display screens showing martial arts flicks and staged opera, and specific styles of these clothes represent certain eras of the Chinese past. However, how much of these are stereotypes? Even if a style of clothing is said to be “xx-dynasty style”, do all people of that time wear that? If not, what do the others wear?

Hence, it is important to discuss Hanfu as all other (active) fashion should be: by function and formality. Reviving this tradition in a world without a monarchical reign means that many of the social strata requirements attached to these clothing will have to be redefined.

Historical Systems of Classification for Hanfu

Despite each dynasty having its own unique features in its official clothing standards, it does not stray far from the Book of Rites and five major functions of society. In all the dynasties’ official standards, the first entry on defining clothing is always the Emperor’s ceremonial clothes, reserved specifically for the most important occasions like ascension to the throne and the Heavenly Sacrifice on Mount Tai.

Current Systems of Classification for Hanfu

Doing away with monarchy and related concepts of social hierarchy, what becomes of the system of objects that has structured the way we have been dressed for the past 4,000 years? Upon re-investigation and mutual decision, no other factor can defeat functionality and form as the prime qualities of classifying clothing, for these two directly address the internal and external raison d’être for what we garb onto our bodies. In turn, the modern redefinition of Hanfu challenges the previous archaeologically centred view of observing the features and peculiarities of particular period depictions, resisting the notion of Hanfu as an “ancient Chinese clothing” or something be put on a pedestal in a museum.

Lead-in commentary to Yizhanfeng’s Foreward:

As a longtime researcher of the movement, I have observed and openly stated an outline of what a systematic, structurized diagram of Hanfu organized by function and form would be, throughout the pages and posts of this blog. I have written extensively on the classification of robes (shenyi included) and headdresses, and is published as a Powerpoint slideshow, accessible from this very website as a promotional and informational resource.

However, it is only all the more convincing when yet another member of the Hanfu community (outside of the eyes and hands of academia) actively scribes and formulates an extensive (if not attempting at exhaustive) description of this system which the community has been building in mutual acknowledgement.

Beginning in early 2011, A Baidu netizen and German expatriate known as Yizhanfeng (“A goblet of wind”) created the Hanfu Wiki and digital zine Hanfu Shidai in aims to perfect and publicize this new understanding of Hanfu as a living system of fashion. Allow me to stop now in my own words and begin to relay his messages in the following paragraphs below and subsequent sub-pages attached to this cover, in translation to the best of my ability, to bring this glorious recovery of knowledge worldwide, and sharing the Chinese grassroots-driven enlightenment in global synchronization.

Foreword by Yizhanfeng (for v.1.0 of the Modern Hanfu System of Objects)

The lack in standards of form has constantly haunted the Hanfu Movement and impeded its development. The mess of classifications and names have led to various ways of calling it among different people, and causing a situation where “you have your word, I have mine, and no one gets what the other is saying.” Rifts form among the community, where as a result, our promotion and research efforts become blockaded.

The writer has read through various essays on the classification and division of Hanfu shapes and forms, and discover that most are scattered at best, and could not form a holistic picture of the system. An idea sparked: Why not create a contemporary system for Hanfu?

The writer is not a related professional or academic [of taxonomy], nor have abundant knowledge in relevant knowledge, and at first such a daunting topic seemed all the more impossible. But fortunately, we have a wide community base of Hanfu restorationists, who have been trained in various fields of specialities and have access to a range of professional knowledge. I strongly believe that if we can sort out this knowledge, the result would definitely be a marvel to behold. Hence, the author decided to build an encyclopedia based on Wikipedia’s framework – allowing everyone to build our contemporary Hanfu system. The author is an organizer and a participant, and am looking forward to everyone’s opinion.

There are various benefits to this system:

  1. Faster results
  2. A wider partipant base, allowing higher approval of the work
  3. Higher fluidity in revision, allowing it to reflect the development results of the Hanfu community
  4. Through debate and argument, discover and clarify previously ambiguous or ambivalent issues
  5. The process of building is promotion in itself.

But such ways in gathering netizens’ collective intellectual base are often looked down by certain groups of people – they believe that the stuff of the Internet can only be used for recreation or entertainment, and knowledge is best left to the professional hands of academicians. The reality is, however, precisely because there is no current standard or authority on the matter, the only way to get commensurate and reasonable results is obtain collective approval, legitimizing it as a mutually-recognized standard. Hanfu is not a natural science, but the concensus of a group of people. As long as we have the approval of the majority, we can come to believe that this standard is reasonable.

As well, from the point of practical operation, it is too unpredictable to simply sit and wait for academia or administration bodies of power to dictate standards. Our generation no longer allow the development and understanding of Hanfu sit in stagnation: The Hanfu Movement rose and sprouted from among the citizens, and as a cultural phenomenon, should be narrated and propelled from the forces of the citizenry.

The Hanfu community is full of professionals and experts, and their knowledge base are of an impeccably high standard in content. If this quality can successfully resist and counter the doubts in our time, then it also guarantees the foundational rationality of our system itself.

The author began this project by organizing existing knowledge and scrupulously discussed it in groups, and presented it in alpha version 1.0 for the Baidu [Hanfu] Tieba. Then according to the opinions and suggestions of the community, the framework was expanded and enriched to our current version. As the collector and organizer of this project, I am overjoyed to see the healthy maturity of this gem. This not only proved the method’s plausibility, but also the diligence and contributions of the community, and it shall continue on well into the future.

The first official version does not mean the full maturity of Hanfu as a system of objects: it is actually quite the opposite. The author believes that the development of a contemporary Hanfu system is divided into three levels:

1. Development of Hanfu as a concept
After years of progress, we have essentially reached this first level of Hanfu as a concept. We recognize the notion that Hanfu refers to “the traditional clothing of the ethnic Han Chinese”, and encompasses the temporal band from the Sage Kings to the Ming Dynasty. Don’t underestimate this short little sentence, as every term in it was fiercely debated and gave a rude awakening to many comrades. This is the representation of an indomitable contribution by our forerunners.

2. Development of Hanfu a System of Objects
This refers to taking Hanfu’s innate features and functions as a basis for sorting and classifying its various individual specimens. We have already received many accomplishments, but we have to admit that we still have many issues yet to solve, and require more dedicated work. This project directs to solve this layer of understanding.

3. Development of Hanfu as a form of standard
Form refers the “shape” and “style” of a thing, which means that form defines the details of Hanfu itself. How long and wide must each panel of cloth be, the ratio of waist to body, proportions of the design, the patterns used for the situation…these kinds of details are entailed by the word “form”. “Details determine the success or failure”, as any mature fashion must certainly contain years of practical experience into designing a piece of clothing with the maximum practical result. Imagine: would a Western suit tailored to not fit the body bring out the ideal effect? Neither would a piece of Hanfu made without consideration of every last detail.

But regrettably, because of the disconnect of the tradition for the last few centuries, our precious experience is almost all but lost, and we are building from the ashes of our cultural ruins. For the past few years, our forerunners have already bore much fruit, such as the investigation and reproduction of various designs – but these results come in individual tidbits and scattered, without relation to the framework of Hanfu as a whole or a platform. The author believes that that is due to the lack of building towards the second layer we now know as the construction of a “Hanfu System of Objects”. The author wishes that through building this system, we can perfect our understanding of our Hanfu, and provide a reasonable framework to understanding it.

(Signed, March 15, 2011)

Foreword, v.2.0 by Yizhanfeng

As mentioned in the previous version, the author mentioned that netizens called for an encyclopedic glossary or database for Hanfu, for ease of organizing related information. Luckily, we did it. The first open-sourced Hanfu encyclopedia, Hanfu Baike Wang (www.hfqun.com/wiki/) was established on March 21, 2011 with webmaster Xiaobai, and after a series of hard work, all information in the Hanfu Systems v.1.0 have been inputted into the Wiki. With the help of fellow Hanfu comrades, we have been continually eliminating mistakes, and clarifying our thought patterns, and can finally present a new version. Version 2.0 takes on primary data in the Hanfu Baike, and the author is every editor in every article in the project.

Pictures used in the Wiki all come from online sources. If there are any infringements of photo rights or copyrights in fair use, please tell us so.

(Signed, March 28, 2011)

Foreword, V.2.1 by Yizhanfeng

Version 2.1 combines the advice and corrections from fellow comrades and rearranged various illustrations. Particular expansions have been made about formal dress, and “individual Hanfu pieces” have been renamed to “Hanfu styles”, while the original article of Hanfu styles is now renamed to “Hanfu functions”.

(Signed, April 30, 2011)

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Hanfu—-Chianese Han people’s traditional clothes « Dongni Du
  2. Zeng Hua
    Dec 26, 2010 @ 16:03:04

    Since I learned that the clothes with stand-up collars and knot buttons are actually Manchurian, I’m really interested in hanfu. During my Taijiquan lessons I wear these Manchurian clothes by now but I want to change that by sewing a hanfu dress myself. Especially I like the patterns on this website – they are really great! And of course all the background information! But there is still a question I have: It is said that common clothes that are worn in everyday’s life should not be red and black. Is it possible to use a black collar with a red pattern if the rest of the dress is dark blue?

    Reply

    • Satsuki Shizuka 五月靜
      Dec 26, 2010 @ 20:34:00

      The red and black represent fire and water – the primary elements of heaven and earthly powers, and is hence usually reserved for ritual purposes. Although that is the case, there is no real ‘restriction’ to these colours (other than the ‘wearing a Tux to a ballgame’ phenomenon), and if you have some kind of embroidered pattern, then all the better for casual clothing. If the collar is black AND red at the same time, there’s no problem.
      Just to reiterate: The highest ritual standard is black top and red skirt, and a lot of accessories.
      Best of luck to getting a new set of Taiji clothes!

      Reply

  3. Zeng Hua
    Dec 27, 2010 @ 03:05:26

    Thanks a lot, you really helped me! I found some very beautiful black fabric with a red pattern of the four gentlemen in the internet that I’d like to use.

    Reply

  4. Santi
    Dec 04, 2014 @ 01:57:00

    Rather than building a separate wikipedia-like web which will very difficult if aims to be as large viewed as wikipedia, why not make a page within wikipedia itself named maybe ” Chinese Original Clothes (Hanfu)” , for examplev?
    And if possible put a link to this Hanfu page into every other wiki’s page about ancient/traditional china as a reference, be it wiki’s info pages about dinasties, Hongkong film actors, Hongkong/China wuxia/kungfu/historical films or serials, even of politicians/celebrities ?
    I dare bet that the Chinese clothes page and the Hanfu item will be quickly known by such links , as I myself often look for info’s about a film /actor/important persons in wikipedia after watching HK/China films or tv serials or news.

    Reply

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