Asia Pacific / Social Issues

Young Chinese women give tradition a nod by wearing Hanfu costumes

by Huizhong Wu

Reuters

Li Doudou’s gray kitten squeezes in next to her as she sits painstakingly applying makeup and putting up her hair in a bun adorned with elaborate ornaments.

Looking like she has just stepped off the set of a Chinese historical drama, the 26-year-old property appraiser is wearing a long Ming dynasty-style blue tunic with sweeping sleeves and a flower design outlined in gold and silver thread, paired with a flowing orange skirt.

Li, who lives in Hebei province in northeast China, is a devotee of the hanfu movement, which has spanned a decade and in the last year has seen a spike in followers, partly thanks to social media.

Hanfu, meaning “Han clothing,” is based on the idea of donning costumes worn in bygone eras by China’s dominant Han ethnic group. Some of the most popular styles are from the Ming, Song and Tang dynasties.

Hanfu enthusiasts doubled to 2 million in 2018 from a year earlier, according to a survey by Hanfu Zixun, a popular community account on the Wechat social media platform.

“Everyone wants to share what is beautiful and has spread the word via platforms like Little Red Book, Weibo and Wechat,” said Dai, who only gave her last name. She is a public relations manager at Chong Hui Han Tang, a 13-year-old national chain of Han clothing stores.

Li donned her first gown in March and has lost count of how many hanfu outfits she has in her wardrobe.

Li was inspired to buy hanfu by an account dubbed Nanzhi999, which has 1.1 million followers on the Douyin short video social media platform. A tall, slim man posts videos on this account in which he is dramatically transformed into a beautiful young woman in traditional Chinese gowns.

Many Hanfu followers like the clothes for the fashion statement, but some — Li included — say its significance is greater.

“It’s to propagate China’s traditional culture,” said another girl, who only gave her surname, Li, at an event to mark the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day in Beijing last month.

Those who have studied hanfu say the movement is a mix of history and fantasy, said Kevin Carrico, author of “The Great Han.”

“It’s very much taking a modern concept and projecting it into the past,” he said.

Hanfu practitioners say they are apolitical, although they point to instances where hanfu gets support from the government.

The Communist Youth League organized a Chinese National Costume Day for the first time last year, urging people to share their ethnic outfits online. Hanfu also aligns with President Xi Jinping’s call to promote traditional Chinese values.

What keeps people reaching for their hanfu outfits is often more personal.

Since starting to wear hanfu, Li Doudou has attended a class on traditional tea ceremonies. She is also planning to learn to play the guqin, an ancient seven-stringed zither.

“The biggest change for me personally is it gives me more self-confidence,” she said. “When I wear hanfu, I feel like I’m the most beautiful person in the world.”