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Ancient clothing embodies Chinese aesthetics

LIANG MEI | 2020-08-07
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Traditional Chinese clothing has experienced a fashion revival among young Chinese people in recent years. Pictured are girls in traditional hanfu attire, the traditional clothing of the Han ethnic group, taking a selfie at Nanjing Forestry University. Photo: IC

Thousands of years of Chinese history have laid a rich foundation for the development of traditional Chinese clothing, with each dynasty featuring distinctive artistic preferences for shape, structure, ornamentation, pattern and color. Yet there is one style of clothing that has been fundamental since the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE)—the shenyi, or deep robe, a one-piece garment tracing back to the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period (770–221 BCE). This type of clothing was widely adopted by various dynasties throughout the history of China, and it still has a great influence on modern one-piece clothing.

Rituals, etiquette 
The aesthetic of traditional Chinese clothing was based on traditional Chinese etiquette culture. The Confucian rites prescribe a set of complicated and systematic rules and regulations for public dress, encompassing all aspects of the making of people’s clothing and accessories.
A shenyi consists of a “yi” (upper garment) and a “shang” (lower garment) that are cut separately but sewn into a one-piece outfit. This type of clothing is characterized by gracefulness and elegance, as it covers the whole body and keeps it hidden, thus it is called a deep robe. It is “not made so short as to show any of the skin, nor so long as to touch the ground,” as it is described in the Chapter of Shenyi in the Book of Rites. Though there are some differences in how shenyi were made over time, the basic style of covering the whole body remained consistent, being deeply rooted in traditional mainstream Chinese ethics.
In ancient feudal society, people’s social rank and status could easily be determined from their daily dress, especially when distinguishing between ordinary people and the upper class. There were strict rules for the shape, color and decorative pattern of traditional Chinese clothing design. For example, only the emperor was allowed the color yellow and the dragon emblem, as an exclusive affirmation of his power. As for ministers, generals, councilors and their wives, their clothing was also strictly regulated in terms of how many lions or cranes could be embroidered on it.
Each dynasty had the book Vehicle and Trapping Notes, an encyclopedia of vehicle and clothing norms for the dominating class, in which the social hierarchy directly determined who was qualified to wear what kind of clothing and ride on what type of vehicle. This institutionalized aesthetics were regulated, and was tied to the governing philosophy of the imperial ruler at the time.
Taoist philosophy
Traditional Chinese garments were designed in accord with the time, occasion and wearer’s body, as well as convenience for activities and labor. The fabric was often smooth and made-to-fit, creating a loose, natural and harmonious relationship with the body. The body then remained free, relaxed and unfettered in the space formed by the clothing.
Such aesthetics stem from Taoist philosophy, which advocates “heaven and man are united as one” and “non-action.” These ideas highlight the fundamental significance of nature in human affairs and describe the endeavor made by man to pursue life, order and values through interaction with nature. In the end, all behaviors must conform to nature. 
In this regard, the shenyi became established as the basic form of traditional Chinese clothing, precisely because no matter whether sitting or moving, its loose and wide shape can allow for the body to be relaxed. This transcendent and free philosophical aspiration is the aesthetic source of traditional Chinese clothing design, emphasizing vigor, elegance and charm.
Taoism believes that the Way of Heaven is the source or the basis of humanity’s moral conduct and of orderly human relations. One should comply with the Way of Heaven, in both words and deeds, and so should people’s clothing, including its make, pattern, color and adornment, as well as the way it is worn. 
The popularity of gowns represented by shenyi hints at the ancient Chinese aesthetic preference for loose-fit and broad-sleeved clothes, tall hats, and wide belts. This aesthetic is the external embodiment of the peaceful nature of Taoist culture and the harmonious atmosphere of Confucian culture in clothing, as well as the manifestation of the nation’s pursuit of a natural, unrestrained, harmonious and inclusive spirit.
With the development of embroidery and brocade art, traditional Chinese garments were often embellished with embroidered or painted patterns, and colorful decorative bands were added to the edges. These bands had more than a decorative function. They helped smooth the garment, making it wrinkle-free, more figure-fitting and also more stylish.
Ancient Chinese textile printing and dyeing technology was quite advanced, giving rise to a variety of fabrics. Hence, the use of multi-layered fabric to achieve decorative effects was common. For example, they used a kind of thin, light plain fabric as the base material for embroidered clothes. It helped emphasize the exquisiteness of embroidered clothes and added a sense of elegance in movement. 
In the traditional clothing design, embroidery and ornamental borders were widely applied to contrast the texture of the fabric with the decoration. Whether embroidery, printing or dyeing, the decorative patterns were often delicate, reflecting the traditional aesthetic taste.
Five classic colors
Traditional attire often featured certain main colors, while secondary colors were rich and diverse, with subtle use of various colors in the color spectrum. The achievement of color aesthetics was one facet of Chinese garment culture.
Just as the Five Elements Theory (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood) played an important role in influencing many Chinese beliefs and customs, it influenced color theory as well: Red for Fire, Yellow for Earth, Black for Water, White for Metal, and Green for Wood. This color code associated traditional attire with nature, adding symbolic meaning and forming a unique color aesthetic. 
In color matching, the Chinese were keen on harmony, as indicated in the Confucian doctrine of the “Golden Mean” or zhongyong. The idea is that everything has its limits, and neither exceeding nor falling short of the limits is desirable, so moderation becomes the upmost criteria in aesthetic appreciation. 
Beauty is achieved through the balance, moderation and harmony of various relations. Therefore, when designing, making and wearing clothes, people should choose the styles, materials and colors that are consistent with their complexion, age, figure, family background, temperament and social role, so as to achieve harmonious aesthetic effect.
Simple, subtle, elegant
On the whole, traditional attire pursued beauty in elegance, subtlety and humility, adhering to the aesthetics advocated by Chinese culture. Not showing too much skin was one principle that the traditional clothing upheld. The most representative gowns and skirts were all long pieces that covered the legs and feet, projecting a subtle, solemn beauty.
Meanwhile, Chinese literati also favored simple and natural design. These advocates for elegance were opposed to the vulgar. In the eyes of the Chinese literati, the beauty of clothing is mainly reflected in a simple and elegant style that suits its wearer, whereas over-reaching glamorous, bizarre, complex outfits are vulgar. 
Some literati who pursued a free spirit preferred to wear simple cut robes, without additional ornaments, hats and belts, in order to project an elegant, natural and generous image. With the traditional loose-fitting gowns masking a person’s physical features, their behavior and body language become more reflective of a refined spirit.
The ancient Chinese believed that the beauty of a garment is inseparable from that of a person’s posture. Only the charm of the wearer matched with that of the clothing can achieve the desired aesthetic effect. 
In summary, traditional Chinese clothing was a charming presentation of life aesthetics. Traditional Chinese costume culture was a result of ancient material and spiritual civilization and a product of the development of technology and art. Therefore, the aesthetic concepts embedded in traditional Chinese clothing help us appreciate the achievements of Chinese culture and better understand the characteristics of Chinese culture.
Liang Mei is from the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
edited by YANG XUE