Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Photographs Courtesy of Omeida Chinese Academy, Twitter, Tumblr, New Hanfu, and Weibo
In metropolitan China, an interesting new (or should we say old) clothing trend has debuted on the streets in recent years: hanfu (汉服, pinyin: hànfú), or traditional Han Chinese clothing that was historically worn in the flourishing Ming, Tang, and Song dynasties. And, like all modern fashion trends, this hanfu movement is being fast-tracked by one of the most powerful organic marketing tools of today -- social media.
Hanfu-clad Chinese youth are making the rounds all over douyin, or Chinese TikTok, which is in turn being reposted by fashion accounts on Western TikTok. The hashtag #hanfu has billions of views (and climbing) all over Weibo and douyin and nearly 500 million views on TikTok. After decades of Western fashion trends, it appears Chinese fashion enthusiasts are reclaiming a new trend of their own, from their own.
What is hanfu?
When non-Chinese people think of traditional Chinese clothing, most naturally think of the qipao, or cheongsam, a body-hugging silk dress with a high neck often embroidered with shiny golden dragons or floral patterns as seen on Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai’s iconic In the Mood for Love and many other martial arts movies in the golden age of the Hong Kong movie industry.
However, the qipao is actually an ethnic Manchurian piece that was integrated into the Chinese aesthetic when the Manchurians established the Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty in China. In the Qing court, the qipao became the clothing of the Chinese people, and the traditional hanfu, which literally translates to “the clothing of the Han people,” was largely left behind.
In modern times, qipao are still worn on special occasions and even casually by some older Chinese women. One way to think of qipao and hanfu is that qipao are cultural pieces still worn in the modern day, whereas hanfu is period-era clothing.
The modern hanfu “renaissance”
Cities like Shanghai and Chengdu, already key streetwear hotspots, have in recent years become urban runways for hanfu. Some people are seen wearing historically accurate hanfu complete with silk fans and parasols, while others sport sheer white hanfu with classic black Vans, cruising down their skateboards. The hanfu community calls this fusion of Chinese culture and Western flair “汉洋折衷” (pinyin: hànyáng zhézhong), literally “the middle way between Han and Western styles.”
Hanfu has also recently made it onto the runway. This year’s Shanghai Fashion Week debuted a stunning line of hanfu that balanced the hanfu’s traditional elements with a minimalist and modern twist. It is interesting to consider whether this might suggest more historically-inspired pieces in high fashion.
There are several reasons this renaissance has emerged. For one, much of China’s entertainment industry is populated by period dramas, also referred to as wuxia (武侠, pinyin: wǔxiá) dramas, a genre of Chinese fiction revolving around the fantastical adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Wuxia dramas have been some of the biggest hits in China, and they are also beginning to gain popularity overseas. For instance, recent hit The Untamed (Xiao Zhan, Wang Yibo) surpassed 9.5 billion views on Tencent Video this summer despite being released in 2019, making it one of the highest-viewed dramas on the platform. The series has also been made available for streaming worldwide on Netflix and YouTube, where it has accumulated over 3 million views per episode.
Many fans of wuxia dramas have manifested their appreciation for the aesthetic in the form of fashion, wearing hanfu both as an homage to their favorite period dramas and to a renewed sense of cultural identity.
Increasingly advanced technology is making Chinese period dramas more elaborate and available to young audiences, and this is occurring conveniently at the same time the younger generation -- in China and all over the world -- is becoming acutely interested in period pieces of the classical world. We only need to look at TikTok to see this is true -- Pride and Prejudice was released over a decade ago, but in recent years it has experienced a resurgence of popularity on the platform, and period pieces like Little Women and Bridgerton have risen to encourage this renewed interest in the past.
The booming hanfu market
This renaissance of hanfu in the modern eye has important implications on the Chinese and Western market. A study done by Forward Industry Research Institute showed that the number of hanfu enthusiasts in China was 5.163 million in 2020, creating a market equivalent to 6.36 billion RMB ($980 million). This is an increase of over 40% compared to the market size in 2019. The same study projects that by the end of 2021, the total number of hanfu enthusiasts in China will exceed 7 million, creating a market larger than 9 billion RMB (US$1.39 billion).
Hanfu is still a niche trend that has not yet gained mainstream popularity beyond China’s fashion hotspots, but it is the start of an artistic movement of the Chinese youth away from monolithic Western beauty standards. Instead of adhering to Western beauty trends, Chinese youth are instead romanticizing their own cultural clothing.
Naturally, hanfu enthusiasts and fashion experts both agree that it is important to remain cautious about how hanfu may be integrated into mainstream fashion. The modern world has developed a keen interest in “Chinese chic,” which has manifested in culturally insensitive reappropriations like the case of the qipao, where non-Chinese brands took the traditional design for themselves, calling it a “jacquard” silk top or an “oriental” print top, stripping the qipao entirely of its name, culture, history, and meaning.
It is unclear whether the hanfu will become as popular in fashion as the qipao or even the Japanese kimono. It is nonetheless important, though, that designers respect the cultural meaning of the hanfu as a period piece of China’s “golden age.” The clothing has become popular, after all, due to Chinese people’s desire to display their cultural history. It would be painfully ironic for non-Chinese brands to once again strip the hanfu of its cultural significance and reappropriate it for its own (probably calling the clothing generic names like “wide-sleeve top,” “oriental vest”). Cultural appropriation is one of the fashion world’s biggest problems to tackle, for which they still seem unable (or unwilling) to address.
What hanfu means for the future of fashion
What we’re witnessing with the growing popularity of hanfu among youth is a broader global movement among Gen Z towards history, towards a revaluation of knowledge capital in the form of art and culture.
While hanfu is only a small subsect of new streetwear trends, it suggests the latest global trend of “renaissance,” or a return to the past. Corsets have reentered the fashion world, and Bridgerton inspired many TikTok users to recreate the iconic period dresses. As fashion innovates, we are seeing some of this in the form of innovating the old into the new. Are the next fashion trends going to be rooted in this celebration of the past? Are we going to see more historically-inspired pieces on the runways in the future? Is history the newest fount of creativity for designers?