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Cut From the Same Cloth

From a niche subculture to a multibillion yuan industry, hanfu – the traditional costume of the Han ethnicity – has experienced a renaissance thanks to China’s young generations

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

There is a line from the ancient poem “No Clothes” that goes: “How can you say you have no clothes? I will share my long robes with you.” 

This poem from The Book of Songs, the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, is often quoted by a growing community focused on something just as ancient.  

Hanfu, the traditional costume of Han Chinese, is characterized by a wide-sleeved, knee-length tunic tied with a sash and a narrow, ankle-length skirt. The garments first appeared more than 3,000 years ago – only to disappear during China’s last imperial dynasty.  

But the 21st century has rediscovered hanfu. Enthusiasts consider November 22, 2003 a red-letter day. Wang Letian, a 34-year-old power grid worker in Zhengzhou, Central China’s Henan Province, wore his self-made hanfu on the city’s most crowded street.  

As he passed a department store, Wang saw someone point and shout: “Look, it’s a Japanese man in a kimono,” he later told Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao. Kids laughed at him from a street corner, calling him baga – or “fool” in Japanese.  

Wang recalled how his costume mostly attracted curious and disapproving glares. He found it strange how people assumed it was Japanese and no one was aware of his costume’s true origins. 

The article garnered online attention for traditional Han clothing. Seventeen years later, the hanfu movement has developed from a cosplay-like subculture to a two million-strong community of history enthusiasts and anime lovers, students and young professionals.  

Calling All Tongpaos
“My love for hanfu can be traced back to my childhood when my mother made me recite The Book of Songs. I was entranced by the beauty of the language and the ancient culture,” Lian Yuxin, a 25-year-old fashion vlogger and hanfu fan, told NewsChina.  

In 2012, Lian joined a hanfu club while attending college in Chongqing and learned to stitch her own costumes. She even wore hanfu to class. In 2016, when the period drama The Imperial Doctress was all the rage, Lian uploaded a short video on Sina Weibo on how to recreate the hairstyle of one of the characters.  

Ever since, Lian has uploaded hanfu-related videos under her Weibo name “Little Cardamom,” where she appears in exquisite costumes and talks about traditional Chinese culture to her 2.95 million fans.  

Lian also runs a popular hanfu store on e-commerce platform Taobao. During this year’s Singles’ Day shopping festival on November 11, Lian’s hanfu store was listed on Taobao’s Top 100 best-selling women’s fashion stores. 

“I wouldn’t call myself an online celebrity. I am doing it to promote traditional Chinese culture through hanfu,” Lian said.  

Hanfu disappeared at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), during which Han were forced to dress in the style of their Manchu rulers. Many were killed in protest of this State-sponsored cultural suppression. After the Qing fell in 1911, many quickly shed their Manchu robes for Western dress.  

But hanfu is making a comeback, especially among China’s youth. Many schools have hanfu clubs, where enthusiasts address each other as tongpao – a term of endearment meaning “people sharing the same robe” also from the ancient poem “No Clothes.”  

Many fans describe dressing in hanfu as an immersive experience. “As long as I wear it, the garment evokes my imagination about a pastoral and poetic life, as if time had slowed down. Those beautiful ancient poems come to my mind instantly, and I become more aware of the beautiful things surrounding me, like the seasons, the sun, trees and flowers. Every time when I put these garments on, I feel a strong, deep connection with our traditional culture,” Yang Xin, a 25-year-old veterinarian and hanfu fan from Hunan Province, told NewsChina. 

A Difficult Start 
Lv Xiaowei first heard of hanfu cosplay in 2005. At the time, it was a fringe community largely based online. Lv said she always admired the distinctive traditional clothes of China’s other ethnicities. She began researching hanfu.  

“I realized that Han were forced to give up their own costume,” Lv said.  

In the early days of the hanfu community, fans mostly met online and rarely wore their costumes in public. One reason was their prohibitive cost, as most garments were handmade by a small number of designers. For example, Lv bought a Quju dress (curved-hem robe) for more than 700 yuan (US$99), nearly one-tenth her monthly income of 8,000 yuan (US$1,137) as a TV reporter.  

Lv said people had a hard time accepting her hobby. She would sometimes wear hanfu to work only for colleagues to mock her. Her superiors asked whether she had joined a cult. She would also get uncomfortable stares on the street. Some mistook her costume for a Japanese kimono. 

After two major wars between the countries in recent history, people in China generally harbor complicated feelings towards their neighbors. Being mistaken for wearing a Japanese kimono made Lv uncomfortable. 

“Once I got on a bus and I heard a young couple behind me gossiping about me. They were guessing whether I was Korean or Japanese, or if I was simply cosplaying. The man said that I definitely was Japanese and the woman gave me an angry look. I felt offended and told them, ‘I am Chinese, and this is hanfu, not Japanese clothes.’” Lv told NewsChina.  

These experiences made Lv lament how the millennium-old hanfu had been long forgotten in China. In 2006, she and her fiancé wore hanfu when they registered their marriage at the local civil affairs bureau. And they later held a hanfu-themed wedding.  

That same year, Lv quit her reporting job and opened her own hanfu store at Wenshufang, a street of ancient-style architecture in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  

To drum up business, she would dress in hanfu and perform traditional music on a guzheng, a traditional zither, in front of her store. Not only were sales dismal, Lv said she was also harassed.  

“Old people would criticize me, saying the clothes I sold were ‘feudal’ and went against the trend of the times,” Lv said.  

Lv was not alone in her experience. In October 2004, a website posted an article disparaging a group of hanfu fans for wearing their “shrouds” on Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping street. The article accused them of ���backward feudal superstition,” adding “they might also want to restore the traditional funeral rites,” which are often characterized as superstitious and backward in media.  

Three of the hanfu fans involved filed a libel lawsuit against the website – and won.  In 2005, a group of hanfu enthusiasts were reportedly forced to leave a ceremony celebrating the birth of Confucius at the Confucius’ Temple in Fuzhou, Fujian Province because their clothing was 
“bizarre and undignified.” 

Two designers work on hanfu at a studio in Changsha, Hunan Province

Fashion Revival 
To her surprise, Lv said the strongest opposition to her business was from other hanfu enthusiasts. “They believed the hanfu movement should focus mainly on the spiritual level and emphasize culture. They saw any commercialization as a betrayal of its lofty mission. Now, that seems too innocent, almost naïve,” Lv told NewsChina. 

The decade since 2010 saw a boom in Chinese period dramas. Historical or fictional shows such as Empresses in the Palace (2011), Scarlet Heart (2011), Nirvana in Fire (2015), Eternal Love (2017) and Story of Yanxi Palace (2018) have stirred widespread interest in ancient 
Chinese culture and lifestyles.  

Hanfu-related content fills social media platforms such as Sina Weibo, video website Bilibili and short-video apps TikTok and Kwai. Most show young people in exquisite long robes and flowing dresses performing cultural activities such as drawing, calligraphy, embroidery, harvesting tea leaves, playing guzheng and strolling in gardens. Many of these content creators and livestreamers are huge online celebrities.  

Li Ziqi, a 29-year-old vlogger, has enamored millions of fans for cooking with traditional methods, her delicate hanfu styles and scenic views of Sichuan. She is one of China’s most popular online celebrities, with more than 20 million followers on Sina Weibo and five million on YouTube. Her videos have garnered a total of over three billion views.  

Hanfu is no longer a niche style for a small group of enthusiasts looking to promote Han culture. According to a hanfu industry survey by the Shenzhen-based iiMedia Research, 47.2 percent of 
consumers said they enjoyed hanfu culture while 40 percent see hanfu as fashionable. 

There are more than 2,000 hanfu organizations online and offline. 88.2 percent of hanfu fans are female with an average age of 21, the survey said. 

The industry is expected to exceed 1.9 billion yuan (US$270m). In 2017 and 2018, sales revenue of the top 10 best-selling hanfu stores on Taobao increased 50 percent year-on-year. In 2018 alone, the sales of the top 10 stores reached over 316 million yuan (US$44.9m).  

“The recent years have seen a surge in film and television about traditional culture, such as animated features Big Fish Begonia, Nezha and The Monkey King. The successes of these pop culture works have attracted more young people to love and embrace traditional Chinese culture and identity. Hanfu culture, as well, is increasingly acknowledged and appreciated by youth,” said Fang Wenshan, a lyricist from Taiwan popular among Chinese millennials, at the opening ceremony of the Seventh Xitang Hanfu Cultural Week in Xitang, Zhejiang Province on October 26. 

Fang has worked to promote hanfu culture for seven years. He founded the first Xitang Hanfu Cultural Week in 2003, which has become one of the most influential events in the hanfu community. Every year, more than 10,000 hanfu-clad tongpao from all over the country come to participate.  

Fang described hanfu as the perfect bridge for connecting young people with traditional Han culture and identity that is open to anyone.