Traditional Chinese Dress and Clothing — Meaning, History, Culture, and Fun Facts

Traditional Chinese Dress Photography

Traditional Chinese Dress Photography by Guoguo Xiaojie.

 

What Is Traditional Chinese Clothing?

 

Traditional Chinese clothing includes the culture of all clothes that have been worn by Chinese people throughout history, from royals to civilians. 

 

In ancient China, a person needs to wear different outfits based on his or her family status, age, marital situation, career, seasons, special occasions, and rites. 

 

Each dynasty in history also had different styles and regulations regarding patterns, colors, and accessories. 

 

Therefore, besides artistic and aesthetic values, traditional Chinese dresses carry significant cultural, historical, and ritual values too.  

Traditional Chinese Dresses and Hairstyles of Different Stages of A Princess' Life (Kid, Grownup, Married Lady, Mother) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Traditional Chinese Dresses and Hairstyles of Different Stages of A Princess' Life (Kid, Grownup, Married Lady, Mother) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

 

What Are the Important Elements of Chinese Dress? 

 

In general, a set of traditional Chinese clothing includes headdresses, jewelry, pendant accessories, and outfits. 

 

Importance of Hair and Headdresses

 

In ancient Chinese culture, hair has been believed a valuable part of the whole body that was given by one's parents, and shouldn't be cut or hurt without any reason. 

 

Therefore, keeping and taking good care of hair was an important tradition, as well as wearing appropriate headdresses that show one's social status.

 

Click to Read Ranks of Terracotta Army from Hairstyle and Ornaments

Portrait of Empress Renhuai, Zhu Lian (? — 1127), the Queen of Emperor Qinzong of Song.

Portrait of Empress Renhuai, Zhu Lian (? — 1127), the Queen of Emperor Qinzong of Song

Many important rites in Chinese culture include headdresses and hair. 

 

On the Coming of Age Ceremony, one needed to tie up the hair and put on Guan or Ji; on Traditional Chinese Weddings, a significant rite was to tie a strand of the new couple’s hair together, meaning they become a whole entity since then. 

 

Click to Read More About Traditional Hair Ornaments, and Wedding Dress and Rites

Different Types of Civilians' Fabric Hats (Guan) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Different Types of Civilians' Fabric Hats (Guan) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

Jewelry and Pendant

 

As rituals, blessings, or aesthetic decorations, they have been important representatives of one's social status in traditional Chinese dress culture. 

 

Click to Read More About Chinese Jewelry and Costume Accessories 

Outfit

 

Traditional Chinese outfit includes clothes and shoes, with patterns and colors that show one's social status, age, and marital situation.

Traditional Chinese Dress of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) on Tri-Color Glazed Figurine

Traditional Chinese Women Dress of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) on Tri-Color Glazed Figurine — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Fun Facts About Traditional Chinese Dress

 

Strict Hierarchy

 

Every Dynasty in the history of China had its own clothing regulations of different hierarchies and on different occasions, which people of every occupation and class followed strictly. 

 

For example, a concubine, no matter how much she was loved by her husband, was not allowed for her to wear the color that only the wife could wear; a businessman, no matter how much money he earned, had very limited choices on colors, fabrics, and styles. 

 

Meanwhile, certain costume accessories should be worn properly by nobles or ministers, no matter if they like them or not. 

 

Besides styles, color and pattern are the two most important elements in this hierarchical clothing system, which have been inherited quite well throughout history.

Some Clothing Examples of Different Ranks of Officials of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Some Clothing Examples of Different Ranks of Officials of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin)

Colors System and Symbolism

 

In ancient Chinese culture, Black, White, Red, Yellow, and Cyan have been believed the Five Orthodox Colors, which were believed honorable and corresponded to the Five Elements (Water, Metal, Fire, Earth, Wood) theory. 

 

Meanwhile, certain honorable colors were only used by royals and the ruling class, such as the exclusive use of red walls and yellow roofs in the imperial Forbidden City

 

Unless the emperor especially awards someone to wear a certain honorable color because of his or her exceptional accomplishments.

Click to Read More About Chinese Color Symbolic Meanings

Clothing Colors of Wanli Emperor and Officials of Different Ranks on Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu, By Artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue in 1588

Clothing Colors of Wanli Emperor and Officials of Different Ranks on Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu, By Artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue in 1588 — Palace Museum

Patterns and Meanings of Traditional Chinese Dress

 

Around 2000 to 3000 years ago, the Book of Documents (Shang Shu) clearly noted 12 patterns that were used for royal and nobles’ clothing. 

 

The colors and positions of those patterns changed slightly in different dynasties, however, the content and essence of them were well applied and preserved in millennium years of Chinese history. 

 

Emperors and most honorable officials may use all of the 12 patterns; others would deduct the numbers of the patterns based on their social status. 

Sun (Ri)

Sun in Chinese Pattern Culture

Moon (Yue)

Moon in Chinese Pattern Culture

Star (Xing Cheng)

Star in Chinese Pattern Culture

Meaning people wearing these patterns have the responsibility to illuminate and enlighten all humankind. 

Mountain (Qun Shan): Firm, Persistent, Steady.

Mountain in Chinese Pattern Culture

Dragon (Long): Mysterious, Changeable, Unpredictable.

Dragon in Chinese Pattern Culture

Fire (Huo): Bright and Promising. 

Fire in Chinese Pattern Culture

Colorful Flower and Bird (Hua Chong): Intelligent, Write Beautiful Articles.

Bird in Chinese Pattern Culture

Rice (Fen Mi): To Provide and Nurture.

Rice in Chinese Pattern Culture

A Special Ancient Embroidery (Fu): It looks like two bows back against each other, which means smart perceive, back away from evil, and face toward benign. 

Special Embroidery in Chinese Pattern Culture

Algae (Zao): Emerges from the filth and stays unstained, meaning characteristic of pure and noble.

Algae in Chinese Pattern Culture

Axe (Fu): To cut off negative aspects, to stay resolute and decisive.

Axe in Chinese Pattern Culture

Tiger and Monkey (Zong Yi): A pair of ancient wine vessels in sacrifice ceremonies, meaning respect the ancestors. The tiger represents power and dignity; the long tail monkey symbolizes wisdom, loyalty, and filial piety. 

Tiger and Monkey in Chinese Pattern Culture

In the history of China, the utilization of these 12 patterns has been extremely strict, based on social hierarchies among the ruling class. 

 

Click to Read Chinese Traditional Clothing of Emperors and Empresses

Portrait of Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty

Hongzhi Emperor in Imperial Robe with the 12 Patterns, Painted By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Besides those 12 patterns, images of some auspicious creatures had been used in officials' robes to show their ranks in some dynasties as well. 

Click to Read Creatures on Robes of Officials of Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

 

As for civilians, there are many other lucky ornaments, most of which are still popular in China nowadays, such as Magpie, red-crowned crane, plum blossom, pine, etc. 

 

Click to Read More About Traditional Chinese Patterns and Their Cultural Meanings

 

Philosophy and Characteristics of Chinese Clothing

 

  • The strict hierarchy of costume is following the essence of Confucianism, which highly valued order, etiquette, and high moral standards. 

 

Hence, the main purpose of traditional Chinese clothes is to present one’s social status, as well as to cover the body decently.

 

  • In ancient Yin Yang theory, left is Yang, and Right is Yin. 

 

Hence, the right lapel (meaning the Yang suppresses the Yin) has been an important rule in Chinese traditional clothing culture, and the left lapel is used to dress the deceased. 

  • Taoism, another important philosophy school, worships freedom and follows nature. Therefore, traditional clothes are loose, smooth, and don’t fetter the body. 

Taoism Religion Clothing on Mural of the Yongle Palace (Built in 1247 — 1358) in Shanxi Province

Taoism Religion Clothing on Mural of the Yongle Palace (Built in 1247 — 1358) in Shanxi Province

 

Traditional Chinese Dresses in Ancient Paintings.

Traditional Chinese clothing on silk paintings of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), with flying Dragon and Phoenix creatures, are now in the Hunan Museum.

Traditional Chinese Clothing on Silk Painting of the Warring States Period for Man
Traditional Chinese Clothing on Silk Painting of the Warring States Period for Woman

Chinese traditional dresses of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220), on the grave mural of Dahuting Tomb about the owner's banquet.

Traditional Chinese Clothes of Nobles of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220)

Traditional clothing of Three Kingdoms, Wei, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 — 589) in the painting "Luoshen Fu", by artist Gu Kaizhi (348 — 405).

This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Palace Museum.

Traditional Clothes of Three Kingdoms, Wei, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 — 589) on the Painting "Luoshen Fu"

Chinese traditional dresses of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) in the painting "Guoguo Fu Ren You Chun Tu", about Yang Guifei's sister the Lady Guoguo and her guards, by artist Zhang Xuan (713 — 741). 


This is the copied version by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135), preserved in the Liaoning Museum.

Traditional Clothes of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) On the Painting "Guoguo Fu Ren You Chun Tu"

Traditional clothing of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979) in the painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai", by Gu Hongzhong (910 — 980). 

This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Palace Museum.

Traditional Clothes of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979) On the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai" part 1
Traditional Clothes of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979) On the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai" part 2

Traditional dress of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) in the painting "Nantang Wenhui Tu" by Zhao Chang (959 — 1016), preserved in the Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying).

Traditional Clothing of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) On Painting "Nantang Wenhui Tu"

Traditional clothing of the Yuan Dynasty (960 — 1279) in the painting "Dongshan Sizhu Tu" by an artist of Yuan, preserved in the Palace Museum. 

Traditional clothes of the Yuan Dynasty (960 — 1279) on painting "Dongshan Sizhu Tu" by an artist of Yuan

Traditional dresses of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) in the painting "Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu", by artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue, preserved in the Palace Museum. 

Traditional clothing styles of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) on painting "Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu"

Traditional royal clothing of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) in the painting "Yongzheng Shier Yue Xing Le Tu", about Yongzheng Emperor and his family's daily lives in the Old Summer Palace, by artist Giuseppe Castiglione, preserved in the Palace Museum. 

Traditional royal clothing of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) on the painting "Yongzheng Shier Yue Xing Le Tu"
 

Reformed Chinese Traditional Dress in Modern and Contemporary Times.

 

With the fall of the feudal Qing Dynasty in 1912, some new styles of traditional clothes appeared, including Cheongsam or Qipao Dress, Tang Suit, and Zhongshan Suit or Mao Suit.

The cheongsam dress (Qipao) and Tang Suit were evolved and reformed from two types of the traditional clothing of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), and Zhongshan or Mao Suit was invented and spread in the 1920s.

Reformed Chinese Traditional Clothes the Tang Suits

Reformed Traditional Chinese Clothes the Tang Suits

Recently, traditional Chinese dress became a new trend, when more people wear ancient style outfits, and more reforms and elements are added to clothing designs. 

 

Some people prefer to follow the entire ancient clothing culture strictly, others like to reform and develop modern style Chinese costumes with ancient elements. 

 

Either way, they are all part of Chinese clothing culture because the people are the culture. 

Women Wearing Traditional Chinese Dresses

Women Wearing Traditional Chinese Dress, Photography by Guoguo Xiaojie.