As foreign media has become more available in the West, Chinese period dramas such as “The Untamed” have experienced an explosion of popularity across the world. There’s a lot to love about a good C-drama. Fans have praised everything from their beautiful music, to their fast-paced action, to their passionate romances -- and to their costuming. For many new fans, it might seem fantastical, but to the Han ethnic majority of China, these styles of dress - called hanfu - are ancient traditions that can be traced back to over 3,000 years ago.
Having said all of this, what exactly is hanfu? How does it look? Hanfu is - as defined by Vogue magazine - “a type of dress from any era when the Han Chinese ruled.” China has a long history of many dynasties with a wide variety of designs, patterns and dress codes. Most styles of hanfu are composed of an upper jacket with long, flowing sleeves and a skirt, although some varieties are a one-piece dress or include pants. When you combine that with an array of accessories and optional inner and outer garments, hanfu style becomes a very flexible form of dress, available during summer or winter, casually or formally. Despite being a historical garment, a lot of the appeal of hanfu clothing comes from its somewhat fantastical style. While some people do go out of their way for strictly historically accurate dress, it’s not uncommon to see more modern styles taking some artistic liberty.
Some of the most popular styles of hanfu come from three of China’s most influential dynasties: the Tang, Song and Ming. The Tang dynasty, which is the first of these three dynasties, existed from 618 to 907 AD and was largely considered the Golden Age of China. While the beginning of the dynasty was heavily influenced by the Sui dynasty which preceded the Tang dynasty, styles shifted dramatically towards the end of the era. The narrow sleeves and skirts of the Sui dynasty gave way to the plump figures which had become the new fashion, resulting in loose, flowing styles of dress becoming more popular. The Tang dynasty allowed a lot of freedom of expression allowing women to show décolletage, or even to dress in menswear in public - both of which became fashionable by the end of the era. The Chinese people were allowed to dress in styles inspired by Persia or central Asia at the time, although those influences diminished greatly before the end of the Tang dynasty.
Succeeding the Tang dynasty, the Song dynasty ran from 960 to 1279 AD. Although it inherited the styles of previous eras, the strong rise of Confucianism discouraged the extravagant styles of the Tang dynasty. Instead, people began placing a strong emphasis on modesty. Clothing became more subdued, slender silhouettes became popular, and foot-binding began to be practiced. Although at the time, commoners were mandated to wear white or black garb, day-to-day styles were actually much more colorful than that.
Finally, the Ming dynasty, the most recent of the three, was the final Han dynasty in Chinese history. It began in 1368 after the collapse of the Yuan empire (which was the first dynasty not ruled by the Han people) and ended in 1644 when the Manchurian Qing dynasty rose to power. Having just recovered China from the Mongols (the Yuan), the new emperor banned Mongolian clothing and decreed a strict dress code that recalled the style of the Tang dynasty. Although the Mongols did not force the Han people to adopt their customs, many people had chosen to follow them for personal gain, or as a symbol of loyalty. By banning them outright, the new Ming emperor tried to create a strong Han Chinese cultural identity. Despite these efforts, occasional pieces of Mongolian clothing were still worn in court - even by the emperor himself. And although the dress code was strictly enforced at the beginning, by the mid-point of the period state control over the dress code weakened, until it was regularly transgressed by the end of the dynasty. As a result, styles of this period became a blend of Mongolian and traditional Han Chinese dress.
Although nowadays hanfu is mostly worn during special occasions, it has recently seen a resurgence of popularity through social media. Across popular Chinese social media platforms, #hanfu has seen well over 50 billion views, which certainly speaks to hanfu’s growing appeal to people today. Videos and posts about traditional Chinese hobbies make up a majority of the hashtag’s popularity online, and many Chinese diaspora have embraced the hanfu trend as a way to stay connected to their family roots. While some have voiced concerns about an increasing drive for patriotism within the country, others have suggested that the trend has instead risen from both a desire for strong cultural identity and a desire to rebel against normality from a generation of youths exploring their freedom of expression.
While much of what you see on screen is a fantastical adaptation of historical garb, hanfu remains a long tradition of beautiful, elegant dress. For more information on the trend, check out Vogue’s article on the topic.
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