Hanfu or ‘Han clothing’ is a trend in China where younger citizens dress in Imperial-era clothing. (Flickr: Rico Lee)
Li Doudou’s grey kitten squeezes in next to her as she applies makeup and puts her hair in a bun adorned with elaborate ornaments.
- Hanfu clothing promotes the traditional dress of China’s majority ethnic group
- It regained popularity following the Cultural Revolution’s suppression of traditions
- Critics of the trend say it promotes Chinese Han ethnic superiority
Appearing like a character out of a Chinese historical drama, the 26-year-old property analyst is wearing a long Ming-dynasty-style blue tunic with sweeping sleeves and a flower design outlined in gold and silver thread, paired with a flowing, bright orange skirt.
Ms Li, who lives in Hebei province in northeast China, is a devotee of the Hanfu movement — a subculture where people don the traditional clothing of China’s dominant Han ethnicity.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Han make up 91.6 per cent of the country’s total population, or over 1 billion people.
Some of the movement’s most popular styles are from the Ming, Song and Tang dynasties — garments often clad in silk, bright colours and detailed embroidery.
Ms Li donned her first gown in March and has lost count of the Hanfu outfits in her wardrobe, she says.
Ms Li is a recent adopter of Hanfu attire, and said she had “lost count” of the pieces in her wardrobe. (Reuters: Jason Lee)
She was inspired to buy Hanfu by an account dubbed Nanzhi999, which shows numerous photos belonging to a slim Chinese man who regularly transforms himself into a young woman in elaborate traditional Chinese gowns.
He has 1.1 million followers on the Douyin short video social media platform.
“Everyone wants to share what is beautiful, and has spread the word via platforms like Little Red Book, Weibo and Wechat,” said Dai, who only gave her last name, a public relations manager at Chong Hui Han Tang, a 13-year-old national chain of Han clothing stores.
While some Hanfu followers like the clothes for the fashion statement, some say its significance is greater.
“It’s to propagate China’s traditional culture,” said another woman, who only gave her surname, also named Li, at an event to mark Chinese Valentine’s Day in Beijing last month.
Weibo has catapulted the profile of Hanfu aficionado Nanzhi999, who has 1.1 million followers. (Weibo: Nanzhi999)
Elaborate dress was once akin to ‘holding drugs’
The Chinese cultural revolution placed an emphasis on a uniform dress code. (Wikimedia Commons )
Over the past decade the Hanfu movement has grown in China and among the global Chinese diaspora.
Brisbane Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide are all home to Hanfu associations.
It is estimated Hanfu enthusiasts doubled to 2 million in 2018 from a year earlier, according to a survey by Hanfu Zixun, a popular community account on the WeChat social media platform.
But the revival of this form of traditional dress is a relatively recent phenomenon, which contrasts greatly with China’s strictly coded dress codes during the Cultural Revolution from 1968–1978.
Led from the top down by Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, the period purged China’s old traditions to realise the leader’s socialist revolution.
This meant Western-style clothing, or clothing from China’s Imperial era were ditched in favour of a national dress that was utilitarian, which took its cues from the ‘Mao Suit’ — a dark military-style suit.
Verity Wilson, a researcher in Chinese fashion, found that sartorial change was often enforced violently.
“Red Guards, euphoric with power, would attack people in the street and use scissors to cut away what they perceived to be offending garments,” she wrote.
Vogue China’s inaugural editor, Angelica Cheung, told fashion website Business of Fashion about the emphasis on sartorial uniformity in this period.
Angelica Cheung’s Grandmother flushed her jewellery down the toilet during China’s Cultural Revolution. (Supplied)
“They looked for signs to show that you weren’t one of the people who had nothing. And then you’d be regarded as the enemy of the people,” she said.
She said that during the cultural revolution, her Grandmother “out of panic flushed all her jewellery down the toilet”.
“She was so terrified, as if she was holding some poison or drugs. It was like a drug raid,” she said.
‘A medium for nationalism’
Critics of Hanfu say the practice promotes the Han ethnicity as being central to China’s history. (Reuters: Jason Lee)
Today however, the picture is a lot different.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is usually seen in Western-style suits, though during state dinners is seen donning traditional garments.
Contemporary Chinese designers, such as Guo Pei, fuse traditional Chinese design language with Western-style garments.
In cities both within and outside of China, traditional garments often play second fiddle to a slew of Western clothes — luxury or otherwise.
But Mr Xi has also spent considerable time trying to promote traditional Chinese values, stretching from personal behaviour to style through apps or public pronouncements.
Chinese president Xi Jinping (right), wears traditional Chinese garments during state dinners. (AFP: Dominic Lipinski)
For their part, Hanfu practitioners say they are apolitical, despite official recognition from Beijing.
The Communist Youth League for example, organised a Chinese National Costume Day for the first time last year, urging people to share their traditional outfits online.
Critics of Hanfu say the trend presents something more sinister, as they claim it attempts to revise China’s history and places the Han ethnicity at its centre.
Kevin Carrico, author of The Great Han: Race Nationalism and Tradition in China Today — a book that specifically looked at Hanfu’s relationship to Chinese nationalism — wrote that Hanfu is a “tradition intertwined with greatness”, which is, “dedicated to a rewriting of Chinese history around the central figure of the Han and a reinvention of Han traditions in the present”.
“Clothing thus remains primarily a medium for the movement’s main message of nationalism: an unyielding fascination with the idea of the Han Chinese nation,” Mr Carrico wrote.
He added that this presented wearers with a “fantasy land of traditional rites and etiquette over and against their everyday experience of the actually existing real China”.
Supporters of Hanfu say the trend is apolitical, and provides people with a sense of escapism. (Reuters: Jason Lee)
However, for others, this fantasy land is exactly what wearers want, and remain ignorant about the trend’s detractors, according to Eric Fish, author of China’s Millennials: The Want Generation.
“I see it in some sense as a form of fantasy and escapism, like cosplay or role-playing video games are for a lot of people,” Mr Fish told Business of Fashion.
“Life is tough for youth in modern China’s hyper-capitalistic and materialistic society, so subcultures [like Hanfu] that harken back to simpler, romanticised times can be very appealing.”