An historical illustration of different modes of Chinese costume. The original caption read: “Edad moderna: trajes de los Chinos.” Source: Historia universal: tomo decimosexto, segunda de la historia del traje, published in 1894 by Friedrich Hottenroth.

From the prehistoric to the People’s Republic, traditional clothing in China has reflected the culture and the technology of its time. Clothing has been worn to denote rank, to symbolize virtues, and to express political ideology.

Prehistoric Chinese made clothing from animal skins and furs and from plant fibers of hemp, wisteria, and ramie (an Asian perennial plant of the nettle family). Bone, shell, and stone ornaments have been discovered in caves and ancient tombs. Bone needles and awls also have been discovered; the discovery of awls suggests the use of leather for clothing.

Clothes before Qing Rule

By the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) trade and tribute with neighboring regions were well established. Tribute goods included woven and dyed cloth. Sericulture (production of raw silk by raising silkworms) had grown into an industry, and Chinese silk fabrics were highly prized trade goods. Simple cut-and-sewn garments such as straight, narrow robes, skirts, and trousers were worn during this time. Robes closed to the right, and sleeves were long and covered the hands to show respect. Hair was braided; hairpins were symbols of rank and distinction. Clothing was used to distinguish between stratified social classes.

Clothing continued to help maintain a stratified class system during the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). The Zhou li (Book of the Rites of Zhou) included sumptuary laws (relating to personal expenditures and especially to prevent extravagance and luxury) regulating the use of dress to show rank; the designation of special robes with special symbols worn by the emperor; and the dictate that all garments must close to the right. The usual clothing worn was the long, slim, narrow-sleeved embroidered robe and trousers or skirt; by the end of the Zhou dynasty a spiral-wrapped, one-piece robe was popular. Hats and shoes were symbols of distinction and rank. As Daoism was incorporated into Chinese life, the symbols for the Daoist immortals were frequently embroidered on clothing. These symbols included the fan (life infused into the dead), the bamboo tube (longevity), the magic saber (magic), the pair of castanets (music), the magic gourd (medicine), the flute (harmony), the basket of flowers (longevity), and the lotus flower (purity).

Another philosophical ideology was formed by the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE). His teachings included the importance of maintaining an orderly society and filial piety, which became important in some clothing traditions. Correct appearance was believed to help maintain order and to help people recognize and understand authority through clothing, fabrics, and accessories. Filial piety and respect were also expressed through appearance; men and women did not cut their hair because hair, like life, was a gift from one’s parents.

During the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) minority clothing influenced Chinese dress. The hu fu, a short jacket and long trousers, was introduced. The hu fu was widely adopted throughout China by men and women, particularly those living in rural areas. Robe sleeves began widening near the end of this period.

During the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han dynasties (206 BCE–220 CE) color symbolism was defined and became an important characteristic of ceremonial and ritual robes. Black denoted darkness, dawn, or evening; green or blue was considered the color of creation or life; red meant burning brightly and was the color of the sun and happiness; white was associated with opening, clearing, and cracked ice; and yellow denoted sparkling light and sunshine. These colors also symbolized the universe and the elements: Black signified north and water; green or blue signified east and wood; red signified south and fire; white signified west and metal; yellow signified center and earth. From the classical text Yijing red became associated with the masculine concept (yang), and blue became associated with the feminine concept (yin). One-piece robes were popular, as was a spiral-wrapped robe; both had large curved sleeves. Wealth was displayed by type and amount of embellishment and amount of fabric used in the robe. Hats and ribbons continued to denote rank. During the Han dynasty the trade route now known as the Silk Roads was established, and silk was introduced to Europe.

Buddhism reached China by the end of the Han dynasty, and Buddhist symbols were used as embroidery motifs on clothing; these symbols included the parasol (charity), fish (tenacity), the sacred vase (ceremonial), the lotus (purity and marriage), the seashell (appeal to wisdom), the canopy (spiritual authority), and the Wheel of the Law (infinite changing). Toward the end of the Han dynasty women began to favor a two-piece ensemble consisting of a long, pleated, wrap-around skirt and short jacket.

Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) clothing featured a narrow silhouette. Women continued to wear the jacket and skirt; red became the most popular color for skirts. Sleeves could be narrow or wide. A popular robe was the band robe. This robe featured a rounded neckline and a section of fabric sewn to the lower half of the front and back of the robe in a wide, horizontal band. Colors and fabrics continued to be used to indicate rank.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) Chinese envoys spread Chinese costumes throughout Asia, particularly affecting court dress in Japan and Korea. Tang dynasty dress was more elaborate and had a larger silhouette than the dress of previous eras. High-ranking men wore a stiff leather hoop belt with decorative plaques, often of gold, jade, or silver.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279) cotton was introduced from India and became an important textile crop in China for domestic use and foreign export. It began to replace indigenous cellulosic fibers used in Chinese clothing. In particular, cotton became widely used in the clothing of the lower classes. Song dress included large, full robes with large, wide sleeves. Robes opened down center front or closed to the right. Hoop belts with decorated plaques were also worn.

The tradition of foot binding, which was practiced in China before the Tang dynasty, was well established by the Song dynasty. Foot binding was usually characteristic of Han (the dominant Chinese ethnic group as opposed to ethnic minorities) women only. Tiny embroidered shoes, called “lotus slippers” or “lily slippers” became important dress and cultural attire.

Under the Mongolian Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) trade with other countries was encouraged. The cotton industries were well established. The Mongolians considered the Han Chinese inferior but borrowed many Han Chinese dress traditions, such as color symbolism and clothing items denoting rank. The Mongolians reduced the width of the robe and the sleeves and introduced the finial, an ornament worn on the top of hats, to designate rank.

The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was the last Han Chinese dynasty to rule China. Ming means “brilliant” or “glorious,” and red was its dynastic color. Sumptuary laws from the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties were reestablished, and clothing r
egulations for all social classes were strictly codified in such documents as the Ming Hui Dian. For the upper classes Ming dress was characterized by extreme width and long, wide sleeves. During the Ming dynasty rank or insignia badges, usually in the shape of a square, were used to indicate the civil or military rank of officials. Civil officials used birds to indicate rank; military officials used other animals to designate rank. These became known as “mandarin badges”; the word mandarin was derived from a 1589 Portuguese word meaning “a Chinese official.”

Clothes after Qing Rule

China’s final dynasty was founded by a group of conquering horsemen from the north, the Manchus. The Manchus took the Chinese name Qing, which means “pure” or “clear.” The Qing dynasty (1644–1912) instituted new sumptuary laws, many designed to assimilate the Han Chinese into Manchu culture. All Han Chinese men were forced shave their forehead and to wear their hair in a long queue or braid in the Manchu style (the Queue Order of 1646); those in government positions had to wear Manchu-style garments, namely, the chang pao, a one-piece robe with no pleats and with sleeves ending in the distinctive horse-hoof cuffs. Horse-hoof cuffs were distinctive features of Manchu robes, deriving their name from their resemblance to the hoof of a horse. The wide, flaring cuffs could be turned down to extend over the hands of the wearer for protection or warmth or to show respect when saluting high-ranking officials.

The Qing dynasty was also responsible for the many regulations that controlled the use and the possession of the dragon robe as a court and official costume. Robes with dragons as the main design appear to have been in existence since at least the Tang dynasty and were worn by imperial and high-ranking officials of each successive dynasty; records also indicate that robes with dragon motifs were given as gifts to foreign heads of state. However, not until the Qing dynasty did the dragon robe become part of the Chinese official costume; in 1759 an imperial edict codified the use of dragon robes according to rank.

The style characteristics of dragon robes worn by the emperor were regulated to set him apart from any other official. Qing imperial dragon robes had nine dragons embroidered on them; only the emperor could have five-clawed long dragons. The emperor was the only person who could have all Twelve Auspicious symbols on his robe. These symbols, whose use dates back to the Han dynasty, represented the qualities desirable in an emperor: enlightenment represented by the sun, moon, and stars (constellations); the ability to protect represented by the mountain; the ability to be adaptable represented by the dragon; literary refinement represented by the pheasant; purity represented by the water weed; filial piety represented by two sacrificial cups; the ability of the emperor to feed the people represented by the plate of millet or grain; brilliance represented by fire or flame; the power to punish represented by the ax; and the power to discriminate between right and wrong represented by the fu symbol. Groupings and placement of these symbols also had meaning. The sun and moon placed at the shoulder and the stars and mountains at the chest and back represented four important annual sacrifices that only the emperor could make. The fu symbol and ax groupings represented the emperor’s authority over the natural worlds. The five elements of the natural world were also represented with a grouping of the mountain (earth), waterweed (water), flame (fire), sacrificial cups (metal), and plate of millet (wood or plant life).

Rank or insignia badges to indicate the rank of military and civil officials were also regulated by Qing sumptuary laws. Qing rank badges were square and were sewn to the upper back and chest of the pu fu or surcoat worn over long robes. Because the pu fu opened down the center front, Qing insignia badges to be worn on the front chest were made in two halves.

Men in the Qing court wore three basic types of robes. The most formal court robe was the qao fu (chao fu), a one-piece, dragon-figured robe with a pleated skirt attached at the waist and horse-hoof cuffs on the sleeves. Qao fu is believed to have been cut down from Ming dragon-figured robes. The heavily embroidered pi ling, or cloud collar, was worn with this robe. The qi fu (chi fu or long pao) was a semiformal dragon robe worn for festive occasions and is the robe that is usually considered as the Qing “dragon robe.” It was in the typical Manchu style, having no pleats, horse-hoof cuffs, and side and center front and back slits (women’s robes had only side slits). The pu fu with insignia badges was worn over the qi fu. Wives of officials (whether Han Chinese or Manchu) were also allowed to wear their husbands’ insignia badges. The third type of robe worn by middle- to upper-class men was the qang fu (chang fu, chang pao, chang shan, or cheong sam), an ordinary robe worn for informal occasions. This robe was generally not embroidered and was often worn with the ma kua (ma gua), or short jacket.

For women the rules of dress were more relaxed, particularly for Han Chinese women, and distinct visual differences existed between Han Chinese and Manchu women’s dress. Han Chinese women typically had bound feet, wore a two-piece garment (a jacket and long pleated skirt or trousers), maintained regional hairstyles, and continued using embroidered sleeve-band cuffs instead of the horse-hoof cuff. Manchu women wore the feminine version of the Manchu long robe, the one-piece qi pao (chi pao or cheong sam), and wore the distinctive Manchu black cloud headdress or liang pa tou erh, the “two handle headdress,” a hairstyle formed by using real or false hair built over a frame to form symmetrical wings on either side of the head. Manchu women, for whom foot binding was forbidden, wore shoes with high platform soles that emulated the gait and the small pointed toe of the Han Chinese lotus slippers. Han Chinese women did not appear to borrow many Manchu dress traditions; Manchu women, however, frequently borrowed Han Chinese dress elements, such as the embroidered sleeve bands.

Everyday dress worn by the lower classes in the Qing dynasty was simply cut and decorated. The sam fu, a two-piece ensemble, was worn by men, women, and children. The sam was a long- or short-sleeved, hip-length jacket that closed to the right, and the fu was a pair of trousers. These were usually made from wool, hemp, or cotton fabrics and could be lined, quilted, or padded for warmth. These garments were cut to be comfortable and to allow the wearer to work efficiently. By the end of the Qing dynasty sam for men used a center front closure.

Adoption of Western Clothing

After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1912 Chinese citizens began to wear Western clothing, and its adoption was particularly strong in coastal urban areas. Chinese businessmen who dealt with Westerners on a daily basis were the first to cut their queue and to adopt total Western dress. More typical was the incorporation of Western dress with traditional clothing, such as wearing the qang pao (cheong sam) with Western hats, shoes, and a suit coat. Men in rural areas were less likely to adopt Western clothing.

Urban women in China also embraced Western dress, especially hairstyles and shoes, and many totally abandoned traditional clothing. Most urban women wore modernized versions of the jacket and skirt; the qi pao became popular and was styled after Western silhouettes and hem lengths. Peasant or lower-class women in urban and rural areas continued to wear the sam

Revolutionary political leader Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of the Nation,” was responsible for encouraging Chinese men to Westernize their clothing by wearing a suit based on European military uniforms and Japanese cadet uniforms. This suit had Western-style trousers, and the jacket had a convertible collar, four patch pockets, and a five-button center front opening. In the 1920s and 1930s civil servants wore this suit, and it was also modified into a military uniform worn by the Chinese army during World War II.

After the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and its leader, Mao Zedong, in 1949, many restrictions on apparel were instituted, and people were allowed to own only a small quantity of clothing. The qi pao was eventually considered not representative of Chinese ideals and banned from the mainland. For men and women Mao favored the suit developed by Sun Yat-sen, naming this jacket and trouser combination chieh fang i fu or “liberation dress” and instituted this ensemble as Chinese national dress. Called the “Mao suit” or the “Mao tunic,” this uniform was believed to be in keeping with the Communist precepts of universal comradeship and equality. Although the government approved other articles of clothing, the Mao suit became one of the world’s most recognized national costumes. It was usually made from blue cotton twill fabrics, although often wealthy Chinese had hand-tailored Mao suits of luxury wools.

The Mao suit was the dominant Chinese style in clothing until after the death of Mao. In the decades after his death clothing restrictions in China relaxed as the result of changes in government policies and the introduction of capitalism. As many young Chinese became exposed to the West, many of them began to wear Western clothing; soon the Mao suit was seen only on older people and people who lived in rural areas. Ironically, as the Mao suit has become less popular on the mainland, it is enjoying a resurgence outside China. Called the “Zhongshan suit,” the suit now honors Sun Yat-sen. Many young Chinese nationals living outside of mainland China often wear the Zhongshan suit as a way to declare pride in their national identity, and the suit is available through retail and Internet sources. Because of its association with Sun Yat-sen, the suit is considered to be a symbol of patriotism, and meaning has been attached to the style components of the jacket. For example, the four pockets of the jacket represent four essential principles that should guide behavior and conduct—propriety, justice, honesty, and a sense of shame. The five buttons of the center front closure represent the five government branches created by the constitution of the republic—executive, legislative, judicial, examination, and censorate. The three buttons on the cuffs represent the Three Principles of the People—nationalism (the right of the Chinese people to govern themselves), democracy (the right to have a republican form of government with elected officials), and people’s livelihood (the equalization of land and wealth to allow all people to be able to earn a livelihood). The Zhongshan suit has been the subject of many art works and is considered by many to be a cultural icon.

Just as the Zhongshan suit has become an expression of cultural identity, an interest in Han fu or “ancient clothing” has also emerged. Han fu is the traditional clothing worn during the Han Chinese dynasties—most notably the Han and Tang dynasties—and includes the one-piece, spiral-wrapped robe, the straight robe, traditional skirts and jackets, and hats, shoes, and accessory items. The phrase “Han fu” is derived from the Book of Han, which described Chinese court clothing during the Han dynasty as “delighting” visitors. The wearing of Han fu is encouraged for historical reenactments, as a hobby, and for rituals and services (such as university graduations); some Han Chinese even promote Han fu for everyday dress. For many of the Han Chinese ethnic group, the interest in promoting Han fu is a reaction against the presumption of the Manchu qi pao (cheong sam) as the representative Chinese garment.

China plays an important role in apparel manufacturing for Western companies; much of the clothing sold in the United States is made in China. The design sector of the fashion industry is experiencing growth as many young Chinese designers, trained in European fashion schools, return to China. Using traditional clothing as inspiration, Chinese designers, with their unique design aesthetic, are working to establish China as a major fashion center.

Further Reading

Cammann, S. (1952). China’s dragon robes. New York: Ronald Press.

The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. (n.d.). Evolution and revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s—Mao suit.. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from

Ferrald, H. (1946). Chinese court costumes. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology.

Garrett, V. (1987). Traditional Chinese clothing in Hong Kong and south China, 1840–1980. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Scott, A. C. (1958). Chinese costume in transition. Singapore: Donald Moore.

Wang Yu-Ching. (n.d.). The research and examination of Chinese women’s gowns of successive dynasties. Taipei, Taiwan: Chinese Chi Pao Research Association.

Xun Zhou & Gao Chunming. (1988). 5,000 years of Chinese costumes. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals.

Source: Klosterman Kidd, Laura. (2009). Clothing, Traditional. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 437–442. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The “dragon robe” of an emperor. Although robes with dragons as the main design existed as early as the Tang dynasty and were worn by imperial and high-ranking officials of each successive dynasty, the Qing was the first to regulate the use and possession of the dragon robe as a court and official costume. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Clothing, Traditional (Chuánt?ng fúzhu?ng ????)|Chuánt?ng fúzhu?ng ???? (Clothing, Traditional)

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