Traditional Chinese Clothing

0DSCDyk156Qi Xi, the Chinese Valentine’s Day that is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, is also known as Qi Qiao, the festival of skills. On this day, women pray and perform rituals in the hope that they could improve their skills in clothes making. As I have already written about the origins of Qi Xi, this year’s piece will be an introduction to those wonderful Chinese traditional garments that required such skills from tailors and weavers in their making.

Head Gear

The concept of hats came into being in China after the Han Dynasty. Upon reaching the age of 20, men from the nobility donned the Guan, not so much a hat as a vessel for housing one’s hair. The hair was arranged into a Ji (bun) on the top of the head, the Guan placed over it, and secured with Ying (silk strings), on either side, which were tied together under the chin. A Ji Zan (hair pin), usually made of bone, ivory or gems, was inserted across the middle of the Guan to keep the bun in place. Variations of this style of headdress include wrapping the bun in a piece of cloth before placing the said device over it, the Bian, made of leather, and Mian with dangling pieces of jade ornamentation, reserved for the highest aristocracy.

40250921670828283The Guan wasn’t worn by children, commoners, criminals and ethnic minorities. Commoners wore the Ze, head banners arranged in variaous styles, including the Mo Tou, tied at the front and above the head, Pu Tou, tied at the back of the head with the cloth split into two tails, which later evolved into the Wu Sha (black gauze) hat worn by officials.

Women tended to dress their hair elaborately rather than wear hats. Noble women wore the Feng (meaning “phoenix”) Guan, ceremonial headdresses embroidered with pheasants and phoenixes. During the Ming Dynasty, these were worn only by women of the imperial household, whilst those of official rank wore a variation adorned with pearls, pheasants and flower-shaped hair pins. Not to be confused with headdresses of civilian women in later periods during wedding ceremonies, which also came to be referred to as Feng Guan. This type is still worn today by women who opt for the traditional style wedding. Children wore colourful cotton hats made in the shape of animals that expressed wishes for their health and luck.


Traditionally the Chinese gentry wore long robes that reached the ankles, over undergarments, the Zhong Yi. Shorter garments, the Ru, came down only to the knees and were worn by the lower classes. Robes could have one or two layers, the single-layered Chan, or double-layered Xia, padding would be inserted between the two layers to for extra warmth in winter.

0There were two styles of Ren, traditional collars, Zhi Ling, collars that meet in the middle, worn by women or men on leisurely occasions, or Jiao Ling, cross collars, left half crossing over the right half, knotted under the right armpit. People who crossed their collars the other way, so-called Zuo Ren, were tribesmen of different ethnicity, or later, rebels and non-conformers.

Sleeves of traditional robes were long and wide, covering the hands when they are down. Guang Xiu or Da Xiu (wide sleeves) can be a useful place for storing, or concealing items, equally handy as an acting prop on stage to express different emotions. There are numerous Chinese literary terms describing different ways the sleeves move, that can denote different moods, or states of mind.

These loose robes were tied around the waist with sashes. There are two types of sashes, Da Dai, for the purpose of securing one’s robe, and Ge Dai, for holding pendants and other ornaments, which was then tied around and over the Da Dai. The Da Dai should be secured around the abdomen, knotted at the front centre and the remaining length be allowed to hang naturally. A coded system of colours distinguished one’s station.

There is a longer section at the back of the robe, which can sometimes trail the over the floor, called the Jü, a feature of men’s wear as well as women’s. Apart from being good for grabbing for dramatic effect, the light, graceful and flowing appearance of the Jü has been eulogized in many works of literature.

Only the wealthy could afford garments made of leather, wool cloth or Bo (woven silk). The poor wore hand-woven clothes made out of Jie, coarse fibres such as hemp and various kinds of animal hair. Robes of cloth woven from Jie, which were of a finer texture than the rough materials themselves, were often adopted by poor scholars.

20080913_0369c251bc6eb6ad68b1XaCf5Yv1MygdThe outer lower garment, the Xia Shang, looks essentially like a long skirt, and was worn by both men and women, usually with three panels of cloth at the front and four at the back. Trousers, as we know it today were rarely worn. The Kua, worn under the Xia Shang, from the Ming Dynasty on wards, had two leg holes, like modern trousers, but no crotch. The rich could afford Kua made of silk. A shorter version of coarse material, called the Qiong Kua, were worn by the poor.

A popular ornamental lower garment, worn over the Xia Shang, was the Bi Xi, which resembles a very narrow apron. As its name suggests, it reaches down to just covering the knees and is hung from the Da Dai sash.

What I have talked about here is traditional clothing for the people of central China, mainly the Han Chinese. It’s clear that the ancients spared no effort in dressing themselves. I hope you have enjoyed this article and will be inspired to create a new patten, crank up the sewing machine, make a new outfit, and generally improve your skills.


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