There are ancient Chinese language sources for writing on dress, which encompass its oldest written records: early histories (Shangshu, also known as Shujing); books of divinations (Yijing); descriptions of ritual (Liji); and poetry (Shijing). While many of these works were written down during the fifth century B.C.E., some can be traced to earlier periods dating between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E.
The Shujing articulates types and purposes for official dress; however, collectively these documents have shaped attitudes about proper attire and its significance to political order and as markers of the boundary between civilization and barbarity. Until the beginning of the twentieth century C.E., a ruler’s dress and, by extension, that of his government was essential to the appropriate and virtuous conduct of li, or ritual, which, in turn, insured order on earth and harmony with heaven. The notion that heaven conferred the right to rule directly to an emperor was central to the teachings the philosopher/political advisor Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.). Confucius called this the tianming, or Mandate of Heaven, a conclusion reached in his examination of early writings (cited above). Two and a half centuries after Confucius’s death, the government of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) built an enduring imperial state and culture based on Confucian teachings. The government established an educational system based on Confucian learning and a rigorous qualifying examination system that served as a means of selecting individuals to serve in the imperial administration. It is the labor, over time, of this learned class that created the written records of China’s past and that perpetuated the bias of China’s centrality within the civilized world. John Vollmer and Juanjuan Wu have written about these formative attitudes and their impact on China’s long dynastic history; see also the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, volume 6, “Overview: Han Chinese.” Other authors discussing these formative ideas about dress include Cho Kyu-soon and Sister Maryta M. Laumann.
From the time of the Han dynasty, the recording of the “official” history of each dynasty was the accepted obligation of its successor. These multivolume documents included the annuals (edicts and laws) issued by each ruler; chronological tables of nobles, meritorious officials, and other prominent people; treatises on the efforts of the state in various aspects of government; and biographies of important people of exemplary character.
At its outset, each dynasty, following Confucian precedent, “rectified” the official wardrobe. The dynasty color related to the wuxing, or five phases theory, was designated and the criteria and proscriptions for dress to meet the hierarchical, social, and cultural needs of the new government were proclaimed, thus affirming official dress as a key component of the Chinese imperial state. Many official histories record repeated efforts to deal with sumptuary legislation to regulate entitlements conferred by rank and status, and attempts to restrict access to specific colors, materials, and decoration.
This was the case whether emperors and their dynastic legacies were native Han Chinese or foreign, namely the nomadic Turkic, Mongol, or Jurchen groups from beyond the Great Wall. The dress codes imposed by each of these dynasties reveal the constant tension that existed between what was “Chinese” and what was “other.” In the Chinese view, what was “other” or “not Han” was by definition uncivilized or barbarian. Hence the dress code dictated one group give up its dress tradition for the other and, with it, the sense of identity that was conferred by it. This tension between Chinese and other continues to affect contemporary China’s relationships with much of Central Asia. Uradyn Bulag, Antonia Finnane, Dorothy Ko, Cho Kyu-soon, and Pyun Kyunghee and Aida Yuen Yong discuss aspects of this historic and contemporary phenomenon. See also the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, volume 6, “Wearing Ethnic Identity: Power of Dress.”
This tension comes into particularly sharp focus during the late imperial period when, for example, Ming dynasty (1368–1644) rulers reinstituted the voluminous, full-sleeved Han dress after overthrow of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) by claiming they were restoring the dress that had been used during the [Han] Tang (618–960) and Song dynasties (960–1279).
In 1644 the strategy was reversed when the Manchu, who established the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), overthrew the Ming dynasty. The Manchu instituted a dress code based on their nomadic dress, that is to say foreign/barbarian dress—a situation similar to that used by the Mongols who had established the Yuan dynasty three and a half centuries earlier. Among the more comprehensive discussions of Qing court dress is the chapter “Court” in Vollmer and Simcox.
During the first century of Qing rule, the throne issued numerous edicts concerning sumptuary legislation affecting dress. In 1748 the Qianlong emperor (ruled 1735–1795) commissioned a review of all previous court dress regulations. The review culminated in the circulation of the Huangchao liqi tushi [Illustrated Precedents of the (Qing) Imperial Court] in 1766. This law, the most comprehensive of its kind in the history of imperial China, classified all court clothing and accessories from the emperor to the lowest functionary. Printed versions of this edict, including 1,384 individual plates, remained in circulation until 1911.
Although various forms of genre painting and sculpture, principally mingqui, or ceramic burial figures, are part of the historical record for dress, the genre of commemorative portraiture, as it was practiced during the late imperial period for rituals honoring ancestors, is particularly useful for studying how dress was actually worn. Eighty-five examples of these life-sized images of individuals, and, at times in multigenerational family portraits, are in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Jan Stuart and Evelyn S. Rawski’s catalog is one of the best explanations of this art form in English. It also includes reference and information about the official portraits of members of Ming dynasty imperial family held by the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and those of the Qing imperial family now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, West Europe’s newly discovered sea routes around Africa and South America initiated sustained interactions between Europeans and the inhabitants of South, Southeast, and East Asia. Although the published accounts of Marco Polo’s travels in China and those members of the Franciscan order who served as papal envoys to the Yuan dynasty court from three centuries earlier continued to circulate, new offerings of “eyewitness” accounts of China became profitable publishing ventures. Those that contained illustrations enjoyed even greater popularity. Among them are the volumes about European explorations of the New World (The Great Travels, or The Discovery of America, 1588) and Asia (an eight-volume Collectiones peregrinatiorum in Indiam orientalem et Indiam occidentalem, 1590–1634) produced by the Flemish-German engraver and publisher Theodor de Bry (1528–1598). He visited neither the Americas nor India, but freely adapted the firsthand observations, images, and maps of others. Similarly, China Illustrated by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), published in 1667, relied on the observations of others, namely reports of Jesuits working in China.
In contrast, the diaries and letters of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), founder of the mission to China, from his twenty-seven-year service, published in 1615 by his fellow Flemish Jesuit, Nicholas Trigault (1577–1628), provides an observed overview of late Ming-dynasty China’s geography, politics, and culture, and a history of the inroads made into China since the early 1580s. The frontispiece features an engraving by Wolfgang Kilian (1581–1662) with figures of Francis Xavier, who led the Jesuit mission in India, wearing Western vestments and Ricci wearing modified Confucian scholarly dress.
Johannes Nieuhof’s (1617–1672) account of the embassy of the Dutch East India Company to Beijing, 1655–1657, published in 1665, is embellished with more than 150 illustrations drawn from life by Nieuhof. The Macartney Mission of 1793, the first British diplomatic mission to China, resulted in several publications illustrating eyewitness accounts of Chinese dress based on drawings made on site by William Alexander (1767–1816) and Henry William Parish (ca.1765–1800). Marcia Reed and Paola Dematté’s 2007 catalog provides an excellent overview of the printed materials of the period and an assessment of how they influenced a more nuanced appreciation of cultures that flourished on opposite sides of the globe.
The developments in photography during the second quarter of the nineteenth century and the subsequent widespread circulation of prints made from negatives, and their use as illustrations in mass-circulated publications, changed the ways Westerners viewed China and Chinese dress. Unlike engravings, which were reworked from original sketches, often by a second or third hand, the negative captured a specific moment and place.
Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837–1921) established a studio in Hong Kong. Between 1868 and 1872 he traveled 5,000 miles across China. The combination of staged and candid imagery, including all levels of society, provided an immediacy not seen before. The catalog from a traveling exhibition edited by Betty Yao is a most complete reference to Thomson’s work in English. Marco Meccarelli, Yee Yah Foo, and Antonella Flammini discuss the history and impact of photography in China.
The West became aware of the richness of Chinese dress when Western expeditionary forces, seeking redress from China as a consequence of the Second Opium War (1856–1860), sacked the imperial summer palaces at Yuanmingyuan. Confiscated imperial goods, including items of dress, auctioned to compensate France and England for their costs and other, privately-looted goods made their way to London and Paris, quickly establishing new markets for Chinese decorative arts. The outstanding quality of imperial robes and textiles was saw them recognized as art and they became a focus for connoisseurs, private collectors and, eventually, museums. These “collections’ have shaped scholarship on Chinese dress in the West. Largely confined to museum exhibition catalogs, the approach has been expository, paying particular attention to developments from the founding of the Qing dynasty to the twentieth century.
Another consequence of the Opium Wars was the authorization of Western commerce in select ports. Foreign goods and the creation of foreign settlements, with their pillared, arcaded public buildings, transformed the face of China for many in the West, sparking an avid interest in visiting China. Access was greatly facilitated with a regular trans-Pacific passenger service in 1867 and with the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869. With Thomas Cook (1808–1892) initiating the globetrotter era of safe, affordable travel in 1873, the treaty ports of China emerged as popular stopovers for tourists just as John Thomson’s privately published four-volume folio, Illustrations of China and Its People, appeared. Thomson’s photographs showed travelers to China, whether imagined or actual, that treaty ports were familiar points of entry.
Tourists purchased bits of “authentic” China as souvenirs. Merchants, from simple rag and used clothes vendors to the representatives of international art dealers, were quick to supply this market with textiles and garments. The supply of these goods became a flood in 1911.
Major collectors include Chicago-born Gertrude Bass Warner (1863–1951), who first traveled to China in 1904, where she met her second husband. They resided in Shanghai until 1909, but Mrs. Warner made numerous return trips until 1937. During this period she became an ardent collector of Chinese art, including textiles and costume, which she first began donating to the University of Oregon in Eugene for a museum in 1922.
Dealer-sponsored gallery exhibitions and auctions in the West supplied the demands of more stationary clients. The auction catalogs of sales in New York by the Anderson Galleries, the American Art Association, and Yamanaka and Company during the 1910s and 1920s provide some visual documentation, often with rather inflated information about dating. Jean-Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac (1877–1932) organized one of first recorded museum exhibitions in 1914. The collection of Swiss banker Bernard Vuillemier (dates unknown) was exhibited in London in 1939, and the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased it in 1946.
The collection of garments found in San Francisco antique shops by attorney and conservationist William E. Colby (1875–1964) in the 1920s was purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1942. Alan Priest (1898–1969), curator of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized the first exhibition of the Colby collection with a catalog, Imperial Robes and Textile of the Chinese Court, the next year in 1943. Priest organized a second Qing dress exhibition, “Costumes from the Forbidden City,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1945. The catalog, by the same title, is the first to propose a stylistic chronology based on robes associated with specific emperors.
American Sinologist Schuyler V. R. Cammann (1912–1991) published numerous articles and books about Chinese dress. “The Development of the Mandarin Square,” published in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies in 1944, was among the first to discuss the badges displayed on court garments to signal rank within the Qing imperial household and its civil and military bureaucracies. These were objects made obsolete by the collapse of the dynasty, and were acquired in vast numbers from vendors in China and North America by travelers and collectors. Cammann’s book about dragon robes is the first in-depth study based on artifacts and the original Chinese language source materials documenting these quintessential Qing garments.
Cammann’s work influenced the next generation of scholars. In the 1970 and 1980s Jean Mailey, John Vollmer, Valery Garrett, and Verity Wilson expanded the focus of dress beyond Qing dynasty court attire, offering research on secular and minority garment origins extending to the previous Ming dynasty on the one hand, and to the animal hide garments of nomadic groups from southeastern Siberia on the other. In the 1990s Western scholars including James Watt, Anne Wardwell, Jacqueline Simcox, and Krishna Riboud began considering pre-Ming dynasty dress seen in publications of controlled excavations in China, as well as from actual materials appearing in Nepal and later in Hong Kong, New York, and London, a result of the disbursal of Tibetan monasteries’ treasuries, and, increasingly, from clandestine finds offered on the art market.
In 1925 the government of the Republic of China declared the former imperial collections a national museum. The institution, housed in the Forbidden City, was opened to the public after the expulsion of Puyi (1906–1967), the last ruler of Qing dynasty. Part of this museum collection was taken to Taiwan in 1948 with the retreat of the Nationalist government, where it is now known as the National Palace Museum. The items of imperial dress in Taipei consist largely of court hats, belts, and accessories and have been published by Chi Jo-hsin and Hsia-sheng Chen.
The garments worn by Qing emperors and the imperial household remained in Beijing at the Palace Museum; many are published in volume 51 of the multivolume catalog to the collection. For the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the Gugong (Forbidden City) mounted a major exhibition of court robes. Yong Yan and Fang Hongjun’s catalog, including a signed, numbered edition, illustrated many more pieces from this collection.
In Asia, the scholarly focus on a comprehensive history of Chinese dress dates to the early twentieth century, when archaeological and ethnographic research emerged in China and Japan. As art historian Chen BuYun has pointed out, the “interdisciplinary” method based on the empirical study of artifacts and texts pioneered by the Japanese scholar Yoshito Harada (1885–1974) was a major influence on scholarship that developed in China. Harada’s 1921 article on Tang dynasty dress and adornment brought together textual sources and archaeological materials, screens and paintings preserved at the Shoso-in storage house at Todaiji in Kyoto, and fragments of wall paintings from Dunhuang and other Central Asia sites. The article was translated and published in Chinese in 1958, where it continued to be regarded as the authoritative text on Tang dynasty dress until Harada’s revised and expanded study was published in 1970. The translation came at an opportune moment. The creation of the Institute of Archaeology within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1950 ushered in the rapid development of Chinese archaeology, marked by the establishment of new institutions, the launch of new training programs and excavations and a proliferation of archaeological reports on the various sites, and catalogs of unearthed objects.
The Chinese novelist Shen Congwen (1902–1988) replicated Harada’s approach to the historical study of dress; Shen began working at the Chinese Museum of History in 1950, where he initiated his monumental survey of dress from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty. However, the results of this research were not published until 1981, following his rehabilitation after the Cultural Revolution. Shen’s comprehensive history of Chinese clothing integrates the study of paintings and archaeological materials with a detailed analysis of textual sources to trace changes within each dynastic period and across dynasties. Shen’s research remains as one of the authoritative texts on premodern Chinese dress. His influence can be found in the work of such scholars as Zhou Xun and Gao Chunming, Sun Ji, and Huang Nengfu and Juanjuan Chen, who have each produced comprehensive histories of Chinese dress and adornment.
These encyclopedic surveys reveal a consistent bias. Documenting dress change according to a dynastic model privileges a narrative that considers dynastic dress as evolving in tandem with a distinct Chinese past. Both Chinese scholars and the ones from the West discussed above present a self-contained, centrally driven costume history that emphasizes the uniqueness of Chinese culture and ignores other factors that can, and do, affect dress.
The mutiny of the imperial army garrison in Wuhan on 10 October 1911 led to the emperor’s abdication and, ultimately, to an end of imperial China. The Republic of China heralded a new era of modernization, as well as seven decades of social and political turmoil. The centuries-old dynastic dress code ceased its currency.
Initially, a new dress system eschewed excessive ornamentation and complex constructions; the resulting garments reflected functionality and modernity. The first president, Sun Yatsen (1866–1925), is credited with introducing a tunic and trousers suit known as the Zhongshan zhuang as a type of uniform for the new government. Nonetheless, it echoed traditional male and female Han Chinese working attire—pants and a jacket. Variations of this garment were to be associated with China’s National Party and, later, the Communist Party where, under the rubric of Mao suit, it is still functions as official dress a century later.
Claire Roberts notes that the garment is a synthesis Japanese Meiji period student uniforms, German military dress, and Western-style suits. Its fabrication by a Western-style tailor in Shanghai reflects one of the effects of the growing presence of foreigners and the influence of Western ideas, particularly in the Treaty ports during the last half of the nineteenth century. Shanghai had been a small fishing village prior to 1842; but after the First Opium War (1839–1842), British, French, and American interests carved out autonomous concessions outside the walled Chinese town, opening the port to international trade and attracting foreign businesspeople and Chinese migrants. The city grew, becoming a major modern metropolis, which by the 1920s was known as “The Paris of the East.”
Despite the Republic’s senate issuing edicts specifying official dress for men and women in 1912, the first two decades of the twentieth century were characterized by greater freedom of expression, most notably in the dress of women. Garments became shorter and tighter, revealing more of the wearer’s figure. By the 1920s what had traditionally been an ensemble consisting of a skirt and jacket was replaced by a formfitting dress known as qipao, which promoted was by Sun Yatsen’s wife, Soong Ching-ling (1893–1981), as an appropriate sartorial expression for women. In addition to Roberts, other scholars who have documented these developments in Chinese dress include Antonia Finnane, John Major and Valerie Steele, Hazel Clark, and Valery Garrett.
Shanghai’s glory faded with the Japanese invasion in 1937. Although World War II ended in 1945, fighting between the Nationalist-led government of the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China lasted until 1949, when the Nationalist forces were forced to retreat to Taiwan.
For the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s witnessed a period of consolidating power, launching several massive unrealized reform projects, culminating in the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), a decade of political recrimination and social upheaval. Dress during this period was characterized by a uniform, or zhifu, adapted from Mao’s military dress. Men and women of all classes living in cities or the countryside tended to wear the same attire. Although supplies and choices were extremely limited and controlled by rationing, the reality was a remarkably subtle, but easily discernable political hierarchy. Briefly, in the mid-1950s, some women adopted a Russian-inspired dress called bulaji. During the Cultural Revolution most civilians turned to khaki, rather than usual navy blue or gray, as demonstrations of revolutionary allegiance. The qipao dominated fashions in the Chinese diaspora in Hong Kong and Taiwan until the 1960s, but Western-style clothing for both genders, influenced by international fashion trends, became the norm after that.
Dress in the People’s Republic of China changed dramatically after the launch of economic reform in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997). Although resistance to bourgeois liberation remained prominent on the political agenda, Western influence rapidly permeated all aspects of society. By the early 1980s, Hong Kong and Taiwan’s international garment manufacturers had relocated operations to the mainland. Export goods that did not meet production standards were often dumped on local markets, putting Western-style fashionable goods within the reach of many. The revival of mass-distribution print materials about fashion, both educational and promotional, spread information about current fashions and trends. Many early contributors, including Bao Mingxin, Yuan Ze, and Hu Yue, were academics or graduates of fashion design schools. By the late 1980s international garment manufacturers had begun targeting the domestic Chinese markets. Designer logos and brand names quickly became signs of Chinese consumer power and emblems of membership of the international world of fashion. In the 1990s China’s garment associations and municipal governments were hosting annual clothing and accessories fairs and fashion festivals, enhancing the influence of China’s growing designer fashion industry. Juanjuan Wu, Zhao Jianhua, and Christine Tsui, among others, have written about this transitional period.
Recent writing about Chinese dress has focused on global systems of understanding clothing: specifically, what is meant by the term “fashion” when dealing with non-Western cultures. These scholars, including economic historian Antonia Finnane, refute the notion that China had no such thing as fashion, as argued by the French historian Fernand Braudel (1902–1985). Finnane links fashion to processes of urbanization and the breakdown of old institutions and hierarchies, where stylistic changes promote an accelerating pace of production and consumption. Thus her arguments establish the emergence of fashion in Shanghai on the same terms as Western fashion. Although the aim is to detach fashion and consumption from a Braudelian Western-centered narrative, the study adheres to a paradigm that seeks equivalence between China and the West.
Art historian Chen BuYun, in her study of Tang dynasty dress, departs from a consumption-centered approach to fashion. Chen proposes fashion as a category of historical analysis and not reductively as a phenomenon that can be located in history. Changes in Tang dress illuminate a system that emerged through efforts of artisans, wearers, and critics. Tang elite subverted dress regulations to acquire luxury silks with novel designs, as shifts in economic and social order promoted what we now recognize as precursors of a modern fashion system: a consciousness of time, a game of imitation and emulation, and a shift in modes of production.
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