In 2003, a power-company worker named Wang Letian in Zhengzhou, Henan Province began doing something unprecedentedly strange, almost unthinkable in Chinese society with its subtly conformist pressures. He walked down the street, in broad daylight, wearing traditional Chinese clothing. And not just any traditional Chinese clothing – he did not choose, for example, the tangzhuang which was common during the Qing Dynasty. Mr. Wang chose to wear a pre-Qing hanfu (漢服) – and was the first person to do so in a public setting in 358 years. He may or may not have intended it, but his small act sparked a significant subcultural interest in reviving traditional Han clothing in China. Amongst many Chinese people, particularly young people, there is a desire to assert some material form of local, national and cultural pride which finds a ready expression in the hanfu.
The location here is significant. Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan Province, China’s cultural (and agricultural) heartland. Henan is home to Luoyang, Kaifeng and Anyang, three of China’s most important historical imperial capitals from the Xia, Yin, Zhou and Han Dynasties all the way down to the Song Dynasty. And yet, in recent years, Henan and its people have faced various difficulties. The famine of 1942 during the Sino-Japanese War hit Henan hardest of all, to the point where children were sold to other families so that they wouldn’t starve to death. In the wake of ‘reform and opening’, Henanese farmers were some of the hardest-hit by the corporate-driven land expropriation that followed hard on the heels of Deng’s privatisation programme – only the farmers of Anhui Province to the southeast suffered more. As a result, many migrant workers (mingong 民工) came out of Henan to work in urban centres of capital like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Henan was routinely (and unfairly) portrayed and ridiculed in Chinese popular culture, particularly during the early 2000’s, as violent, criminal, backwards, superstitious, given to vice and (worst of all) poor.
It would be more than somewhat naïve to dismiss the class or regional origins of the hanfu subculture out-of-hand. Wang Letian was not, of course, a migrant worker, but in 2003 he was a proletarian power-plant worker in Henan’s biggest urban centre. And as an element of material culture, the hanfu of course hearkens back directly to a time when Henan was China’s centre and had not been left behind by the post-Deng rush to riches. Wang himself speaks of his gesture in nationalist and aesthetic terms, though: ‘In the end beautiful things will meet with people’s approval,’ he says. ‘Not to mention, the hanfu has always been our thing… in the great family of China’s 56 ethnic groups, only the Han do not have their traditional dress. Following [our] tragic history, only the Han traditional clothing style died out; we need to revive [this tradition].’
The hanfu subculture has not stayed in Henan. It has gained attention and interest from all over China, particularly from young people and particularly from young women. It has also attracted a great deal of criticism, which runs in several related veins. One WangYi (163.com) article from 2012 criticised the movement as ‘attention-seeking’, ‘awkward’ and reminiscent of ‘time-travel’, which covers most of the bases of the criticisms levelled at the hanfu subculture.
The first criticism, the criticism that gets the most air-time, is that the hanfu is ‘awkward’. It is ill-suited, the critics assert, for the practical demands of everyday clothing in modern urban life. The long design is imagined as impractical for the demands of work, school life, play and so on. The second, related criticism is that the adoption of the hanfu is essentially a form of misplaced nostalgia which has no place in modern Chinese society. The third criticism, running somewhat at odds with the first two, is that it is essentially a movement by individuals seeking to show off or an inauthentic attempt at copying a privilege enjoyed by other nations: that the current focus on clothing is superficial and shallow, and does nothing substantial for the spiritual question and the question of national dignity which it attempts to address. Still other critics do not dismiss the importance of the hanfu movement, but rather see it as trending dangerously in the direction of Han ethnic chauvinism, playing to historical victim complexes and potentially alienating China’s minorities.
The first and second criticisms are particularly interesting for their assumption, and indeed assertion, of a set of cultural norms governed by the demands of Western capitalism. In modern China the Western business suit is associated with ‘success’, defined in terms of monetary gain and superior social status. For women, western brands are practically always preferred to domestics. Practically the best thing one can say about a piece of clothing in Beijing or Shanghai is that it is ‘in vogue’ (shishang 時尚), and the types of clothing that invariably receive this assessment are European in design. One of the very last things one would say about the hanfu is that it is shishang – for this reason, it is dismissed as either a mere piece of nostalgia, as something that comes out of a period drama, or as something ‘impractical’ in the terms laid down by capitalist modernity.
The third criticism is somewhat more well-intentioned, but the idea is that the hanfu movement doesn’t go far enough and that it gets mired down in trivia in the quest for the Chinese national soul seems a bit grandiloquent and even misaimed. For one thing, the Bard’s (ironic?) quip in Hamlet that ‘the apparel oft proclaims the man’, though it is now used to enforce modern clothing norms, is not entirely untrue. What you wear does say something, and not necessarily something merely superficial. For another thing, the traditional Chinese classics outright proclaimed this. The Book of Rites states: ‘The son of Heaven, every five years, made a tour of Inspection through the fiefs… he ordered the superintendent of rites to examine the seasons and months, and fix the days, and to make uniform the standard tubes, the various ceremonies, the instruments of music, all measures, and the fashions of clothes. Whatever was wrong in these was rectified.’ Classical Chinese thought saw nothing ‘superficial’ about material culture calendars, weights and measures, music or clothing; all had the potential to either to proclaim or to blaspheme the sacred and transcendent. To limit this quest for the Chinese soul to more abstract pursuits is to reduce the Chinese soul itself to a modernist Cartesian abstraction, in a way that can only be self-defeating!
Nowadays, though, the risks for the hanfu movement are largely internal, and regard its relation to the culture around it. The big question for the movement is: to what extent does it seek to normalise the use of traditional dress? Many of the movement’s leaders, and certainly Mr. Wang himself, would say that they want to make hanfu a common and unremarkable sight in normal everyday Chinese urban life. Others would be content to keep the hanfu merely for important events – especially weddings, graduations, coming-of-age ceremonies. One real problem is touched on by thoughtful articulators of the third criticism, and that is that the hanfu is still sometimes broadly considered a novelty and a spectacle in modern Chinese culture. There is the risk of the ‘hipster’ factor, that hanfu becomes something worn for show in wilful or ironic self-alienation. Very obviously it isn’t a panacea for China’s national anxieties. But hopefully it can become and remain a form of healthy cultural expression in its own right.
That caution having been made. Here’s to the hanfu movement: with its local and proletarian roots; with its assertion of a national identity against the demands of deracinated, global capitalist anti-culture; with its ‘impracticality’; and with its attempt to bring something transcendent and beautiful back into China’s material culture.