Five Thousands Years of Culture from Heaven: Chinese Dress through the Ages

Xin Hui

PureInsight | January 13, 2003

[] Each dynasty in China had its own memorable culture. The many facets of color and design that emerged during a dynasty's reign were marvelous and made every aspect of Chinese culture, including their wearing apparel, -highly acclaimed works of art.

The costumes of ancient China were emblems of Chinese tradition, as well as an essential element in the history and culture of each dynasty. Costume maintained an important place in Chinese culture for more than three thousand years. The culture of China is ancient and well established, brilliant and resplendent. The costumes are likewise magnificent and colorful. There were many dynasties throughout China's history, each having its own unique style of dress. And each style would change or disappear as its dynasty changed, declined, or was replaced.

With the advent of each new dynasty and the progression of time, costumes were revolutionized. The style was classical and conservative in the Qin and Han dynasties, luxurious and glamorous in the Tang dynasty, delicate and exquisite in the Song dynasty, graceful and magnificent in the Ming dynasty, and very intricate in the Qing dynasty.

Stylized costumes first appeared in the Yellow Emperor, Yao and Shun periods. Chinese characters were invented during the ancient Yin Shang period. Although eighty percent of the characters were pictographic drawings, they were quite sufficient for writing and had special pronunciations. The inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells in the Shang dynasty, from about the 16th to 11th century B.C., show characters representing the social classes at the time, including wang (monarchs), chen (officials under a feudal ruler), mu (shepherds), nu (slaves), and yi (tribesmen). There were also words that related to dress and personal adornments, such as as yi (clothing), lu (shoes), huang shang (skirts), and mei (sleeves). Ornaments of varying value, like jade pendants, jade rings, earrings, necklaces, combs, silk fabrics, burlaps, and copper decorations, have been found on excavated statues. Valuable, exquisite items belonged to the aristocrats exclusively, not slaves or tribesmen.

With the developments and advances made regarding textiles, articles of clothing for different functions began to appear, such as dresses, skirts, crowns, footwear, hats, and stockings. Costume styles evolved from simple and practical to ornamental. This is reflected in the invention of "twelve designs of symbols."

Looking at the patterns and styles of clothes in history books such as The Rites of the Zhou, Book of Rites and Rites, you can see that Chinese clothing evolved from nothing to very simple and functional styles, and then to styles that were quite complex. During the Ying Shang period, the etiquette, music, rituals, and clothing showed no evidence of any distinction among different social classes. Starting in the Western Zhou dynasty, however, class distinction became apparent, as evident in the differences in clothing and personal adornment. More and more variety in clothing also appeared, depending on the occasion. For example, paying respects to the gods and making obeisance to heaven and earth at the palace temples required special clothing. Special clothes were worn for grand ceremonies. There were army uniforms, wedding ceremony outfits, bereavement clothes, and so on. Clothing at the time was still made in accordance with old systems and thus had dark tops and yellow bottoms, but official garb included four-inch-wide sashes made from silk or leather that were worn over the lapels. Other costumes included jade adornments on the waist belt linked together with silk ribbons. In addition, clothing of different colors indicated different social classes.

During the Warring States, the costume of the seven dukedoms of Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin, each developed changes accordingly. The so-called "skirt around the front of the body" style actually referred to loose-cut cloth with wide rims that was wrapped around the lower body. The ancient designers wrapped the cloth ingeniously from the front of the upper body to the back, making full use of horizontal and diagonal lines to complement space and achieve both quietude in motion and motion in quietude. Materials were light and thin, and stiffer brocade was used to embroider the borders with wavy patterns that reflected the wisdom and intellect of the designers.

Qin and Han Dynasties

During the Qin and Han dynasties, changes in the style of dress were dramatic. The Emperor Qin, who was influenced by the concept of Yin and Yang as well as the theory of the Five Elements, believed that the Qin dynasty would subdue the Zhou dynasty like water extinguishes fire. Therefore, because the Zhou dynasty was "fire superior to gold, its color being red," the favorite color of the Qin dynasty was black, since the color black was associated with water. Thus, in the Qin dynasty, black was the superior color to symbolize the power of water, so clothing and adornments were all of the color black.

During the two hundred years of the Western Han dynasty, the "dark style" continued for clothing and personal adornment. Its characteristics were: cicada-like hats, red clothing, square sleeves, sloping necklines, jade hanging decorations, and red shoes. The general term for this style of clothing was "Buddhist clothing" and is basically a one-layer coat. Court dress was black in color. As for the formal dress used in performing sacrificial rites, it was edged with red. The only way to tell a person's rank or position in society was by the color and quality of his clothing — there was no difference in the style of the clothing worn by government officials and ordinary people. There were two types of robes, classified according to the style of the front of the robe. One style had a front with a diagonal opening, where the material was wrapped on a diagonal from the collar to under one arm, and the other had a straight opening down the front. Because this style of clothing was long and loose, it was a popular style for men.

Left: A red diagonal-wrap robe from the Western Han dynasty
Right: A red gauze robe from the Western Han dynasty

The Eastern Han dynasty started from 25 A.D. and ended in 200 A.D. During the period of the Guangwu emperor, red was regarded as the most respectful color, as it displayed the Han dynasty's "fire virtue." Until the second year of Yongping period, red was still the popular color, but a white inside layer had to be worn when performing sacrificial rites. This white layer was edged with red, which matched the red socks and shoes. Government officials dressed in colors that were appropriate for the seasons, according to the theory of Five Elements. They held ceremonies to pray according to the four seasons. At the beginning of spring, they would hold a ceremony in the eastern suburbs, and carriages and clothing would be a gray-green color. At the beginning of summer, the ceremony would be held in southern suburbs, and both carriages and costumes would be red. At the beginning of autumn, carriages and dress would be yellow, and at the beginning of winter, everything would be black.

According to History of the Song Dynasty, "The Han dynasty inherited the style of the Qin dynasty. There were thirteen different types of hats. Since the Wei-Jin dynasty people still used these hats, such as, law hats, high hats, hats for skilled craftsmen, mountain-like hats, square hats, Jian-Hua hats, Que-Di hats, swordsman's hats, Que-Fei hats, Jin-Xian hats, and many others." In the Han dynasty, a man's rank and status was indicated by the style of his crown.

In the Han dynasty, a woman wore a short jacket and a long skirt, and a decorative belt hung down to the knee. A man always dressed in a short jacket, trousers in the style of calf's nose, with a short cloth skirt outside. This style was the same for everyone — workers, farmers, businessmen, and scholars.

During the Wei-Jin period, court dress was red, and casual clothing was purple. In the ancient book History of the Wu Empire -- The Story of Lu Meng, it says, "ask the people who wear white clothing to be businessman's servant." From this description, we can tell that white was the color for ordinary people. During this period, the emphasis was on the jacket and skirt. A coat was considered informal dress. Women's adornments were particular delicate, including golden earrings, silver rings, and bracelets. There was a big difference in quality for women's accessories worn inside and outside the imperial palace.

Left: A lady with a flowery hairpin; Tang dynasty
Center: Women coloring fabrics; Tang dynasty
Right: A gentlewoman in a court-style costume; Tang dynasty

The Tang Dynasty
The Tang dynasty was the most thriving, prosperous, splendid, and glorious period of ancient Chinese culture and art. The style of women's clothing during the Tang dynasty is the most outstanding in China's history. Tang dynasty attire had many different styles, and was ever changing, which enabled the look of the Tang dynasty style to remain elegant, noble and poised, and forever unique and amazing. The costumes of the Tang dynasty are like exotic flowers in Chinese history. The quality of the material was particularly fine and delicate, and the decorations lustrous.

The characteristics of Tang dynasty attire were distinctive and natural, displaying the beauty, grace, and freedom of people from heaven. Hair was styled to cover the temples and frame the face, and gowns were low-cut with a high waistband. Women's outfits consisted of a shirt with short sleeves and a long skirt; or a loose-sleeved shirt, long skirt, and a shawl. Hair was coiled high in a bun, with such names as "gazing-gods bun," "cloud bun," "double handing-down bun" and so on, the clothing were mainly short jacket or shirt, and long skirt with a shawl, half-length sleeve, phoenix was decorated at the toe of the silk shoes or shoes weaved by grass, coiling the hair in a "flower bun", which could put bamboo hat on the head. After the prosperous Tang dynasty, sleeves became looser and larger.

In the Tang dynasty, there was "the rule of the wide belt." This convention dictated that the quality and quantity of decorations on the belt be used to indicate the rank of government officials. For example, officials lower than the first rank wore a sword or knife, officials and generals higher than the third rank wore jade belts, officials of the fourth and fifth rank wore gold belts, and the six- and seventh-ranking officials wore silver belts. In comparison, ordinary people could only wear a small bronze or iron knife.

Left: A cross-collar slim robe with wide sleeves and a Dongpo scarf; Song dynasty
Center: A bright yellow robe with gilded wide sleeves; Southern Song dynasty
Right: "Precious Terrace Moon Tracing Chart" with gentlewomen in vests and "cloud bun" hairstyles.

The Song Dynasty
Song Dynasty clothing can be divided into three categories of style. One was designed for the empress, the noble concubines, and females of all levels of "government uses"; another style called "formal clothes" was for ordinary people; and one style was casual for daily use. The clothing designed for Song Dynasty government officials was extremely luxurious, and even common people dressed very fastidiously. Not only were the fabrics elegant, but also the hair styles were very special. Some were braided and hung down on the shoulder, while some were like cloud lights with delicate bands supporting the golden phoenix. People without much money used paper decorations in their hair, fragrance on the body, and wore shoes with embroidered flowers.

The Yuan Dynasty
In the Yuan dynasty, "Zhi Sun dresses" were popular. All government officials wore them to attend feasts inside the palace. Musicians and bodyguards also wore them. This kind of clothing was worn by all classes of people, and could be made from materials of varying weight and quality. Emperor Zhi Sun's winter and summer clothing had fifteen ranks (by Zhi level division). The materials and colors were well coordinated, as were accessories like hats. The winter clothing of government officials had nine ranks, while summer clothing had fourteen; they were made from materials of varying color and quality. The bi jian was a double-sided leather coat, worn by the both upper and lower classes, which was a little longer than the ma gua (a traditional Chinese gown worn by males). The Yuan dynasty Mongolians called it "pan zi da wu," and it was a garment that was suitable for horse back riding and hunting since it had no collar and sleeves and was shorter in the front than in back.

Yuan Dynasty women of the aristocracy had their own styles of dress. The aristocrats were Mongolians who wore leather coats and hats as their national attire. Clothing made of marten and sheepskin was very popular. Women wore mostly long, loose gowns with wide sleeves and narrow cuffs. Because the gowns were so long, they dragged on the ground, so noblewomen had maids accompany them to care for the clothing. The gowns, often made from red and gold embroidered brocades, silk, fur and long pieces of woven wool, had moon-shaped shoulders called "the gold embroidered cloud shoulder jadeite tassel." The name alone suggests how gorgeous the gowns must have been.

Left: A scholar in a black straight-lined robe; Ming dynasty
Right: Short top with long skirt tied with a silk waistband; Ming dynasty

The Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty female upper clothes were three collars with narrow sleeves. The body height was over three feet, revealing the skirt only two to three inches, the so-called "Flower hat, skirt clothes with big sleeves and round collars". The skirt installs often used light colored fabrics in early Ming Dynasty. At Chong Zhen time, white skirts were very popular. The skirt hem had one to two inch embroidered edges. The early Ming Dynasty's skirts were all 6 inches wide. At the end of Ming Dynasty, it changed to 8 to 10 inches.

Pleated skirts were extremely popular. The size of the pleats ranged from small and close to big and wide. Skirts were also highly decorated. One particular design was called the "striped garland skirt" or "phoenix tail skirt." Each strip was made from a different piece of colored satin, and each piece was embroidered with a flower-and-bird design in gold thread. One of these strips could be used as a sash. If several of these decorated strips or "garlands" were joined together at the waistband, in the form of a skirt, they fluttered and danced in the breeze—hence the name "phoenix tail skirt." Other popular pleated skirts were made from a whole piece of silk and hand sewn into close pleats. One kind of skirt had twenty-four pleats and was named "the jade skirt."

The Ming dynasty also had one special kind of cape. Because of its beautiful shape, it was called "pink cloud cape." Males typically wore a robe having a square towel and circle collar . This garment characteristically had wide sleeves, black edges, a round blue collar, and a black ribbon soft turban hanging belt. Laborers were the only ones who wore cloth pants, which were black. They also wore long black cloth handkerchiefs and coats with wide hems. The official's costumes were cloud satin round collar gowns. There were also cloud satin coat dress style. This style of robe hung one inch above the ground. Sleeves were also long enough to cover the hands, and the sleeves themselves were each one foot wide. Bright red shoes were the typical fashion.

Left: An embroidered red satin robe for women; Qing dynasty
Center: A purple satin robe with double sleeves; Qing dynasty
Right: A blue satin imperial with golden dragons; Qing dynasty

The Qing Dynasty
Manchurian-style clothing with short narrow sleeves was the popular mode of dress in the Qing dynasty. The style was slender and rectangular in form. The saddle-shaped collar was large enough to cover a person's cheeks and protect the face. The entire garment, which was not lined, was cut straight from top to bottom and did not have waist. Plate buttons were placed on the front-right side as decoration. There were two to three false sleeves, and the sleeves were long enough to cover the hands. Garments were often decorated with embroidered designs, and clothes covering clothes add on the vest and long robe. The box-like look of Qing dynasty clothing presented a solemn, slightly arrogant image that commanded respect. It was quite unique.

The Qi robe (Chinese cheongsam dress) and the short clothes have the shape of a pi pa (a Chinese musical instrument) front, big front and parallel front, etc. The sides of the garment, as well as the collar and sleeves, were decorated with inlays and embroidery. The matching skirts and pants were highly decorated in a variety of ways, including dye printing and embroidery.

Qing Dynasty women had separate clothes for formal, casual, and business occasions. Business dress was for empresses and other nobility up to 7 Pin (level). Formal clothes were worn at events like weddings or to funerals. Inside the palace, the clothes were decided according to the females' Pin. The style of casual clothes varied, depending on their function.

From the very brief picture of ancient Chinese attire presented here, it is easy to see that one outstanding feature of these historic dynasties was the strict system of full dress. It demonstrates that the ancients were careful about maintaining their standards and their responsibilities in society, regardless of whether they were sovereigns, officials, or civilians. Each class had their own integrity.

The ancient people's world-view and way of thinking manifested in the way they dressed. A description in Yi-Xi Ci (Book of Changes – Commentary) explains the relationship as follows: Clothes appeared in the time of Yellow Emperor Yao Shun, and thus ended the prehistoric state in which people wrapped their bodies with animal skins.

People dressed according to this clothing style, bowing to ancestors and offering sacrifice to heaven and earth, having realized their control over the world. Qian kun refers to heaven and earth. People learned from observation that in the morning before daybreak, the sky was black in color (which was called xuan), so their top clothing was black in color, as it should resemble heaven. The earth was yellow, so bottom clothing was colored yellow to be like the earth. In this way, they expressed their adoration of heaven and earth. It is clear from their attire that these ancient people did believe in God, respected heaven, and upheld God's will.

As an important part of ancient Chinese culture, ancient attire also embodied the harmonious relationship between people and nature. In fact, ancient people's way of thinking—that man is an integral part of nature—was based on their faith in God and their adherence to high moral standards. And it was exactly because of their kindness and gracious morality that God bestowed wisdom and magnificence on them, enabling them to develop a glorious life style and living environment.

The costumes of the different dynasties all had their own distinctive features and appeared to have no close connection to each other. They represented the culture of the different dynasties and the wisdom that humans were endowed with during the different time periods. The attire of each dynasty vividly reflected and represented the life style, social status, ideology, and mentality of that time. This could be a result of the different characteristics that each dynasty possessed, as people of different dynasties came from different heavenly kingdoms. When being reincarnated in China, they brought to the human world the cultures of their own paradises, thus making Chinese culture bright and colorful, as well as rich and varied.

While pondering these beautiful, fascinating wardrobes of the ancients, one feels a part of their past, and it is easy to realize the broad and profound inner nature of Chinese people. One cannot help but be awed by these magnificent masterpieces that can only be found in the heavens and that have come to the human world by predestined relationships throughout the ages.

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