Article by Lionel Rakai
Xi’an in spring offers the opportunity to take your cultural experience and moment-capturing photography to the next level by introducing the unique element of history this city offers in abundance with the accompaniment of cherry blossoms and spring flowers in bloom. To take advantage of this backdrop, you may have seen locals walking around in traditional-style clothing in search of the perfect background to match the patterns and colours of the historically cultural fashion statement called “Hanfu”.
Hanfu (translating as clothing of the Han people) is the name given to traditional clothing of Chinese people dating back to the Shang dynasty from 1600BC to 1000BC. At the time the basic clothing items included an yi – a narrow cuffed, knee length tunic tied with a sash and a chang – a narrow ankle length skirt worn with a bixi (a length of fabric that reaches the knees). Originally made of silk and painted in red and green, the style and colours had eventually evolved over time and have even been modernised in modern fashion couture.
Being an iconic statement of Chinese history and culture, its design and categorical statements have evolved throughout different historical eras. With an avid interest in traditional clothes, I tried to develop some insight in allowing myself the confidence to wear it in a way that offers a connection with the local history and show respect for the rich culture I am surrounded by. It was also important I understood how a foreigner can try wearing it to make the most of the spring seasons beauty as well as protect it against cultural appropriation. In retrospect, I’ve always preferred the fall (autumn) season with the muted colours and somewhat solemn atmosphere and this often dictated the colour schemes in my options of clothing.
This time a year ago, the only view I had of the season was the the adjacent brick wall staring at me from outside my dormitory window, some birds flying from roof to roof above those brick walls and a dying vase of flowers by the ledge. At the time, I had just received a delivery package of a navy blue one piece Hanfu with belts and boots, which I later wore just to sit on the ledge by my window to reminisce past Hanfu cultural activities and photo shoots. However, this spring ushered in a breath of fresh air and botanical life through historical and cultural landmarks around the city offering an abundance of locations to display the revitalised Hanfu wearing culture in style.
While Non-Chinese people can wear Hanfu, it’s important to understand its significance to engage in cultural appreciation instead of cultural appropriation. To educate myself on the subject of wearing Hanfu as a foreigner, I learnt about the rejuvenation of wearing Hanfu in modern Chinese city street life by millennials. Termed as “The Hanfu Movement”, I drew some insight from local Hanfu enthusiasts and social media groups. This movement has seen a revival within the last twenty years but popularity has grown through the promotion of successful television dramas like “Langya Bang (琅琊榜)” and “Sansheng Sanshi Shili Peach Blossom (三生三世十里桃花)”. Series dramas like “Qingpingle (清平乐)” improved the popularity of clothing from the Song Dynasty while “Chang’an Twelve Hours (长安十二时辰)” also increased the popularity of Tang clothing.
To some people, the idea of walking amongst the general public in complete traditional attire can stir some anxiety from the levels of attention it may attract, the intrigued eyes and the sound of shots fired by the camera button of smartphones – an accurate analogy of how I would feel in that position labelling myself as an insecure introvert. Other local perspectives consider the practical drawbacks, such as poor elasticity, sometimes the quality can be poor (depending on the origin of sale), air tightness, and its exaggerated nature that draws attention in public.
Though it is sometimes personally observed that girls prefer wearing Hanfu to boys, during the spring of 2019, I found myself joining a local Hanfu festival on the paths of Datang Bu Yue Cheng behind the Big Goose Pagoda (Dayanta). It turned the stretch of road into a sea of flowing silk, masks of makeup and glows of ancient relic jewellery. To this festival, I wore a black robe laced with gold amulets and plated belt inspired by nobility’s of the Song dynasty and rather than feeling the nerves of standing out in public, my attention was more worried about pairing some seemingly inconspicuous running shoes with a garment that resembled some image of nobility. There are traditionalists who would observe the accuracy of clothing items to be matched but this sort of scrutiny tends to apply in formal social occasions like weddings, professional photo shoots or recording of videos to depict a realistic view of historical stories.
Similar to changes in the season, the styles, patterns and colours in a Hanfu can resemble the existing season with a blend of the user’s personality. Some subtle ways of maintaining its significance include the interweaving of the classical and modern style. An enthusiast would define the wearing of traditional clothing as a way of bringing out a persons natural beauty as well as artistic beauty. When people start reflecting their personal style in traditional clothes, it subconsciously portrays ones beauty from the heart because the Hanfu itself resembles a beginning and the core of ones identity.
Though the categorisation of different Hanfu styles through history can grow into an extended tree of branches (distinguished by period, region or class in particular), in recent times they have been familiarly categorised into working clothes, casual clothes (for home wear) and clothes for special occasions like weddings or funerals. An interesting fact is how the colour of Hanfu worn during funerals were traditionally white in comparison to western funeral culture of wearing black.
These days the type of Hanfu a person chooses to wear for a recreational outing or a group activity with friends is all based on a persons individual style interests, personality or colour matching with ones skin tone under the objective of enhancing ones natural beauty. This concept has developed the artistic and human spirit elements in the styles of Hanfu demonstrated by the younger generation today. In contrast, the regulations and societal hierarchy was prudent in the selection of specific materials and designs of the past with a focus on shape, grade, floral/ bird patterns or the use of more expensive materials. Hanfu designers today infuse modern elements by using art and drawing lessons from ancient Hanfu as a base.
Ultimately, it’s all based on your desired style and interests. So this spring, try taking a step out of your comfort zone, make a simple search on Taobao with the word “Hanfu”, or “汉服“ in Chinese (汉服男 for men or 汉服女 for women), to browse through a catalog of options or take a walk through some of Xi’an’s old palaces, pagodas and relics parks to come across mobile carriages and stalls offering Hanfu experiences on time-based rentals. Embrace yourself in a unique cultural experience and maybe unveil some inner beauty as well.