Late this May, I met a friend of mine for a day out on the town. It was a reassuringly normal experience after months of COVID-19 stress: Just the two of us hanging out, grabbing lunch, and snapping photos together. Best of all, we fit right in with the dozens of other young Chinese wearing the flowing dresses, wide sleeves, and elegant sashes of hanfu — an umbrella term for a wide range of traditional or traditionally inspired Chinese clothing.
Three years ago, when I first started wearing hanfu in public, we would have attracted far more attention. Back then, my outfits frequently drew stares on the street. Someone once asked me if I was Japanese. Why else would I be in a kimono?
That would almost certainly not happen today. According to a report from market research firm iiMedia, the number of self-identified hanfu enthusiasts saw a 73% jump to 2 million between 2017 and 2018, with the report’s authors estimating the market for hanfu products would hit 1.4 billion yuan ($200 million) in 2019. About 47% of consumers listed “love for hanfu culture” as a reason for getting into the hobby. This was followed by the 40% who listed “pursuit of fashion,” and 35% who said they wanted to promote traditional culture.
The emergence of hanfu as a consumer trend has been a source of hand-wringing in some corners, where it is sometimes portrayed as a symptom of China’s rising nationalism or resurgent Confucianism. The headline of an op-ed by Australia-based scholar Kevin Carrico called the hobby “a fashion movement built around nationalism and racial purity.”
But in my experience, calling hanfu fashion a “movement” might be a stretch. In a country as large as China, 2 million isn’t that big a number. Meanwhile, there are significant cracks and fissures within the broader community of hanfu enthusiasts, many founded in radically different approaches and theories of what actually constitutes hanfu.
Take the radicals, for example. Derisively known by some in the hanfu community as the “Old Crypt Clique,” they insist it’s only hanfu if you can back up every stylistic element with evidence from ancient tomes — or better, ancient tombs. On the other end of the spectrum are the “fairies,” who are more concerned with looking good than creating exact replicas of dynastic-era raiment. Much to the disdain of the radicals, they eschew historical fidelity in favor of modern fabrics, including lace and chiffon.
The development of ‘hanfu’ clothing over the centuries, according to ‘hanfu’ hobbyist site. The term ‘hanfu’ is a recent invention, one the subjects of these dynasties would not be familiar with. From @古典新风尚 on Weibo
Somewhere between the two are the “reformers.” Although this group pays attention to the historical record, they’re not wedded to some of the more abstruse sartorial choices of past generations. For example, Song dynasty (960-1279) trousers, once on, are extremely difficult to remove — something that can greatly lengthen a typical bathroom visit. Rather than insist on strict historical accuracy, the reformers will acknowledge the impracticality of the historical garment and accept updated versions similar to modern loose pants, though decorated with traditional patterns to maintain the overall effect.
And I haven’t even gotten into the various inter-dynastic squabbles over which dynasty’s — or dynasties’ — clothing merits inclusion under the hanfu banner. Even the term hanfu is itself a recent invention without a clear, agreed-upon definition.
Ultimately, whenever a subculture gathers a bunch of young people searching for identity in the same room, some are going to take it to extremes. Many hanfu enthusiasts are still growing and maturing, and some of them may say or do extreme things, but they’re not necessarily representative of hanfu fans as a whole. Plenty of hobbyists argue that, given the confusing and complex nature of these issues, there’s no use in getting too worked up over minor differences.
Some seem to simply enjoy the sense of superiority they get from taking others down a peg, or proving they know more about a given topic. This can pose a daunting barrier to newcomers interested in the style, but unsure of how to get started. I once saw a girl wearing a beautiful outfit at a hanfu event. But when I asked her where she bought it, she told me how to write the name of the shop — a Chinese character rarely used today but which appears quite often in ancient poems — in a condescending manner, implying I did not know the word.
Even if you do manage to look past all that, there’s another barrier: money. The most important asset for any aspiring hanfu enthusiast is plenty of surplus income. Top hanfu stores typically charge between 2,500 yuan and 6,000 yuan for a single set, sometimes more, while upper mid-range brands typically cost between 800 yuan and 2,300 yuan per set.
Most sets are produced in limited quantities. And in a seller’s market, it’s routine to have to wait months before your clothes arrive.
There are rewards for those who persevere. One of the advantages of hanfu is how the embroidery, wide sleeves, and loose robes will make you look elegant, no matter your body shape.
People dressed in ‘hanfu’ cross a road in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 27, 2020. Zhu Jianguo/People Visual
Personally, I do my best to stay detached from the drama. I got into hanfu in 2017 through someone I met at work. I’ve always loved reading classical poetry, listening to traditional Chinese music, and visiting Chinese gardens. But she was the one who helped explain the various aspects of hanfu to me and advise me on which set to pick — in the Song style, which I find to be closest to modern everyday clothing.
The extra effort involved means hanfu probably won’t become my daily attire anytime soon. As a conference interpreter, I can’t chase after my clients and take notes in wide sleeves while trailing in a long robe. But on those special occasions when I do wear it, as with my friend this spring, it has a way of transporting me to a poetic and romantic place, far from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, where I live.
The designs I prefer are simple, in line with liubai, a traditional ink painting technique that emphasizes blank, white space, unmarked but for our own imaginations. That’s what hanfu is to me: an aesthetic, a fashion choice, a way for me to show my taste, and maybe even a chance to escape reality for a while — not a movement.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Young women pose for a photo at a park in Beijing, May 23, 2020. IC)