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Age-old Han attire sees modern appeal develop overseas

By JIang Yijing | China Daily | Updated: 2019-10-16 08:39
Malaysian Chinese people in traditional Han attire attend a Huaxia Culture Camp activity in Kuala Lumpur last month.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Ding Ding recalls introducing her students in London to hanfu, or ancient clothing worn by China's Han ethnic group, in 2013.

Before the class, in order to teach her students, the teacher from Shanghai had to learn more about it herself. "I learned about our history while researching the clothes," says the 35-year-old. "Sometimes, living abroad leads us overseas Chinese to feel a certain loss of identity-who we are and where we're heading. Wearing Han-style clothing helps guide me."

Ding joined the UK Han Culture Association in 2014. Overseas Chinese founded the group in 2007 to introduce and promote Chinese culture in Britain. She became the association's chair two years later. Ding appreciates the compliments she receives when she wears hanfu.

"I am both happy and proud to get such responses from my foreign colleagues," she says. "It shows their recognition of our traditional garments. And this appreciation will lead them to explore more deeply, to go beyond the beauty of fashion to the culture behind the clothes, such as traditional Chinese music and rites."

The association hosts cultural activities around Chinese festivals. It organizes tea ceremonies, guqin (Chinese seven-stringed zither) performances and lectures on rituals. On average around 20 to 40 overseas Chinese and foreigners attend each event.

Ding's association displayed Han-style clothes at a Chinese food festival in London's Potters Fields Park in early September. It ran a booth to introduce the traditional attire. Visitors could try costumes on for photos.

Ding recalls one Cuban woman was particularly enthusiastic.

"She expressed her passion for Chinese culture and loved the snacks we had prepared. Her reaction was not only a pleasant surprise to us but also touched me and inspired me to continue. We hope Han clothes, as well as our traditional culture, will become better known in London."

Her association is but one of many such organizations around the world.

The Sydney Hanfu Association's former president, 27-year-old Jiang Li, who led the group over 2015-17 before returning to her hometown of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, says the association, which grew from an online chatroom in 2011, has doubled in size to 400 members since she left.

Jiang believes hanfu is a particularly accessible form of Chinese culture. Playing traditional music, creating calligraphy and painting traditional ink works require mastery, but enjoying Han-style clothing is as easy as getting dressed.

The group's activities in Sydney's parks often attract about 50 participants and 100 to 200 onlookers. They don Han-style clothes and practice rituals.

Members observe traditions such as moon worship during Mid-Autumn Festival and riddle solving during Lantern Festival. They also practice a type of Chinese horseback archery.

Jiang, who had lived abroad for eight years, says wearing hanfu and joining the association's activities alleviated her homesickness and reinforced her cultural identity.

Jiang says eastern Australia is home to about 2,000 hanfu enthusiasts, who join events organized by clubs, most of which are formed at universities.

Such groups exist at the University of New South Wales, the University of Newcastle and the University of Sydney. That's not to mention the Chinese Culture Association of Melbourne and the Queensland Hanfu Association.

Jiang will meet 20 friends from these groups, who will fly in from Sydney or other parts of China to Wuhan, Hubei province, on Nov 8 to attend the seventh Chinese Ritual Music Conference.

Hanfu is also popular among overseas-born Chinese like Malaysian Kong Chee Huat. The 44-year-old and five friends co-founded a club in Kuala Lumpur over a decade ago.

"Living in a cultural melting pot like Kuala Lumpur, we found that we Chinese to some extent do not clearly show our identity," he recalls. "The Indians and Malaysians wear traditional clothes for their festivals, but the Han people didn't. So, we wanted to revive our tradition."

Kong and his friends bought the Han-style clothes online and organized the Huaxia Culture Camp, a three-day activity held every September since 2008.

About 150 participants wear hanfu, read ancient Chinese classics, such as the Book of Changes, and practice traditional art and rituals.

"China, where my ancestors come from, has been a country of rites and music, where people behaved in a polite way and showed great respect to each other," says Kong. "As descendants of the Han people, we should carry on this legacy, behave with proper manners and undertake regular introspection."

They have organized different activities for Malaysian Chinese, giving classes about ancient attire, teaching tailoring techniques and practicing horseback archery. It has continued to grow, and many middle school students attend the event, which is now held twice a year and attracts 100 teenagers each time.

"To celebrate Lunar New Year, we kneel on cushions like our ancestors did and share festive food," says Kong. "Cultural identity and recognition bring people together. I believe that, as long as we keep organizing the camp's activities, more Chinese will join and develop an interest in our traditional culture and benefit from it personally."

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