China’s early clothing system intertwined with social hierarchy

By REN ZHIYU / 06-27-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: A plain, unlined gauze gown with a straight hem weighing just 49 grams from the Western Han Dynasty, unearthed from the Mawangdui site, Hunan

The origins of Chinese clothing can be traced back to the late Paleolithic era. Bone needles, suitable for sewing, were discovered at the Zhoukoudian Upper Cave site in Beijing and the Xiaogushan site in Haicheng, Liaoning. Spinning wheels from the Neolithic period have also been found in numerous sites. Archaeological discoveries at the prehistoric Jiahu site in Henan suggest that silk appeared as early as 8,500 years ago, indicating that the residents of Jiahu had likely mastered basic weaving and sewing skills at that time.

Pre-Qin dressing hierarchy

During the Shang and Zhou dynasties (from the 16th century BCE to 256 BCE), the Chinese people had developed a basic clothing paradigm consisting of “tops and skirts (known as chang in Chinese, worn by both men and women), with garments designed with a right overlap, and hair tied up.” During the pre-Qin period, mainstream garments featured a crotch seam that would open when sitting cross-legged, potentially revealing the lower body, which would be inappropriate and impolite. Thus, people often adopted careful sitting postures to maintain modesty, such as kneeling on the ground with the legs folded underneath the body or tied a “fu” (an apron-like cloth that hangs in front of the knees) to cover their lower body. During the Western Zhou Dynasty, nobles hung jade ornaments on their “fu” belts. The length and complexity of these ornaments indicated social status, with higher-ranking individuals wearing longer and more intricate jade pieces. This practice served the purpose of “regulating ones steps,” as nobles of different ranks walked at varying paces, with higher status individuals taking smaller steps to emphasize social hierarchy. This emphasis on ceremonial norms underscores the deep integration of clothing with the ritual system, a tradition that persisted through later generations.

The Warring States Period (476–221 BCE) saw the first significant transformation in Chinese clothing history, marked by King Wuling of Zhao’s (a ruler of a major power in the Central Plains) promotion of “Hu clothing and horseback archery.” The earliest soldiers in the Central Plains were charioteers, who mainly wielded spears and shot arrows from chariots, requiring minimal lower-body movement. These charioteers, mostly nobles, attached great importance to personal grooming and were reluctant to change their clothing and accessories even during warfare. In contrast, northern nomadic peoples wore narrow-sleeved tops and long pants (generally known as Hu clothing) for convenience on horseback, which differed significantly from the skirts worn in the Central Plains. King Wuling of Zhao mandated the adoption of Hu clothing and established cavalry units. Despite this, Hu clothing did not gain widespread acceptance among the Central Plains people, which ultimately led to the popularity of a garment known as “shen-yi.” Shen-yi preserved the traditional chang skirt by connecting the top and the skirt into a single piece, with extended curved hems (“qu-ju”) that overlapped and wrapped diagonally behind the body. This design not only made walking more convenient but also provided cover for the lower body. Female shen-yi remained popular from the Warring States to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589), while male shen-yi gradually gave way to long garments with straight and simple hemlines in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220).

Headwear of Qin and Han eras

Building on the clothing traditions of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the Qin and Han dynasties further developed a comprehensive system of clothing regulations, highlighting the hierarchical system of a unified empire. Regulations and traditions related to headwear formed a part of the clothing system, dictating the types of hats permitted for individuals of varying ranks, professions, and statuses. 

Over the 1800 years spanning the Qin, Han, and Ming dynasties, the “jinxian” hat for civil officials and the “wubian” hat for military officials held the most importance. The most prestigious hat was the “mian” hat, recorded in historical documents as appearing in the Zhou Dynasty. By the Eastern Han Dynasty, the “mian” hat [characterized by a lacquered board placed atop the hat, with strands of jade beads draping from the two ends] became exclusive to sacrificial ceremonies hosted by the emperor. The emperor’s “mian” was adorned with twelve white jade strings from each end, with seven jade strings for dukes and marquises and five black jade strings for officials, reflecting the hierarchical system of the time.

Time appealing charm of Hanfu

During the Han Dynasty, the curved-hem shen-yi was still popular among people in the Central Plains. The main reason for the curve design was to address new issues arising from the integration of the upper and lower garments. Prior to the Han era, split-crotch pants were typically worn. In order to avoid exposing their undergarments, upper-class individuals, especially women, preferred curved-hem garments for coverage. Men’s curved-hem shen-yi had a slightly curved hemline of moderate length, whereas women’s curved-hem shen-yi were more intricate, with multiple layers of winding hems. 

The curved-hem shen-yi was fabric-intensive, consuming 40% more fabric than straight-hem garments. By the Eastern Han Dynasty, shen-yi (mainly men’s) was gradually replaced by robes, characterized by crossed collars and straight hemlines. However, as noted earlier, women’s shen-yi remained popular until the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Han Dynasty women wore curved-hem shen-yi for everyday attire, which they often adorned with intricate pointed edges (“xian”) and ribbons (“shao”) to form the exceptionally splendid “guiyi” for formal occasions.

Features of ethnic integration  

The Northern and Southern Dynasties were a period of great transformation in Chinese history, featuring intensive ethnic integration. This era witnessed the second major transformation of Chinese clothing, which culminated in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the Han people favored “ku” and “zhe” clothing. “Zhe” was a long upper garment that extended to the knees, and “ku” referred to lower garments similar to trousers or pants, featuring wide legs and crotch seams. To facilitate movement, people tied the “ku” legs with ribbons at the knees, a style known as “binding ku.” Although binding “ku” was not as convenient as directly shortening them, it was considered fashionable at the time.

Since the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304–439), the steppe nomads had surged southward, establishing Northern Dynasties states ruled by ethnic minorities such as the Xianbei. Upon entering the Central Plains, these groups gradually integrated with Han culture, notably represented by Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei (r. 467–499), who was known for his significant efforts in Sinicizing his regime by adopting elements of Han culture and governance. This cultural integration is depicted in the reliefs at the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang, which show Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei and his ministers wearing Han-style clothing. 

During the Northern Qi (550–577) and Northern Zhou (557–581) dynasties, there were instances of certain rulers exhibiting anti-Sinicization tendencies, particularly in contrast to the Sinicization policies of their predecessors like Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei. This led to the predominance of Xianbei-style attire, characterized by headscarves and round-collar robes, which persisted into subsequent dynasties like the Sui (581–618) and the Tang dynasties.