All Hans on deck
Shi Qing is a sophomore from Beijing Foreign Studies University. The 20-year-old student likes to dress herself similar to maids in old Chinese paintings.
The clothes, called hanfu (),the costume of the Han people, generally feature wide sleeves, crossing collar-bands and layered loose robes, held in place with a fabric belt.
Shi was not unfamiliar with the style of clothing, which can be found frequently in TV series. But she used to see them as ancient, and never expected it to become her favourite dressing code.
Shi's initial interest in hanfu came about by chance half-a-year ago when she logged onto a website dedicated to the revival of Han clothing. She find out hanfu was the costume of the Han people for more than 3,000 years before it fell into decline with the arrival of the Qing (1644 to 1911).
"I would have worn them earlier if I had known it was our national clothing, it looks gorgeous," Shi said with elation.
Before, the only traditional Chinese clothing she knew of was the qipao, or cheongsam, for women and the changpao, or long gown, for men.
Shocked and excited by her new discovery, the 20-year-old took to the clothing immediately and has been an ardent hanfu advocate ever since.
In the following month, Shi, a seamstress since her teens, spent most of her time hand-sewing her first hanfu. Upon completion, she wore it and joined a trip to the Temple of Heaven with dozens of friends of the same dressing code during the last National Day holiday.
There were curious stares and comments from passers by. Some mistook them as the cast for a TV series, while others thought they were tourists from South Korea. None came close to the truth.
Yet Shi and her fellow friends were undeterred, patiently explaining to as many interested parties as possible during the trip.
More than just clothing
"Without the Internet, the popularity of the Han costume would not have caught on so quickly," said Li Li, a pioneer of the hanfu campaign. He is one of the major characters behind Han Wang, or the Han Network (www.hanminzu.com), the first website in the world to promote the idea of bringing traditional Han clothing back into everyday life.
With an intense interest in ancient Chinese history, Li has been delving into the study of traditional Chinese culture since his teens. Li found out that the Han costume is an indispensable part of Chinese culture that has been neglected for more than 300 years.
"The name Hua Xia (the alias of China) explains this point," Li explained. "According to the origin of the name, Hua refers to the magnificence of our costume, which was the Han costume then. Xia is about the etiquette and customs we observe. They are inter-related."
With the Han costume sinking into oblivion as everyday apparel, Li believes that the etiquette and customs related to the clothing have also have been neglected.
Since 1994, the determined Li has been trying to revive the old etiquette by promoting the Han costume. Most of his efforts came to nothing until in early 2003 he, joined by several like-minded friends, set up the non-profit Hang costume website.
Within half a year, more than 3,000, including some overseas Chinese, registered. In September 2003, Wang Letian, a worker in Zhengzhou, capital city of Central China's Hennan Province, was front-paged in a local newspaper wearing a Han costume walking on the street. Since then, the revival of hanfu has gone beyond the virtual community to get the attention of the general public.
The idea spread further as more websites dedicated to the renaissance of hanfu were born. The number of registered users ballooned to more than 30,000 across the country by the end of last year.
Most of them are college students and graduates that have been working for a few years in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Zhengzhou, according to Li.
Costume for guqin
But there are also older enthusiasts like Yang Qing, a guqin (the seven-stringed zither) player in his 50s. Yang hosts a monthly gathering with a small concert for fellow guqin fans.
His initial interest in hanfu came about one year ago when some of the fans attended the concert in costume.
"Though I had no idea of what kind of costume it was, at the first sight, I knew I had found what I'd been looking for for guqin performers," Yang recalled.
As the vice president of the Chinese National Instruments Association, Yang had tried to find the best dress code for guqin performance. "One would wear a swallow-tailed suit to perform western music, but what would look right to wear when we play the time-honoured instrument?" the zither player asked.
All he could think of was the Manchu-style unlined jacket, the one similar to what Hong Kong kung fu star Jackie Chan wears for his public appearances. It is hard to explain, but Yang admits: "It doesn't feel right. The clothes and the instrument don't come together."
Yang soon got a hanfu for himself. "Some of my fans say I look like a resourceful pundit when dressed up this way. Otherwise I am just an ordinary old guy found on the corner of any street," Yang said, half jokingly.
For Yang, the long forgotten dress code is, like the guqin instrument, a lost cultural asset.
Yang is not alone thinking this way. In fact, this is the basic concept shared by hanfu advocators.
"Some have argued that the movement is too ethnic to be carried on, but it's not," purports Zhu Hao, an administrator of Tianhan, another website popular with hanfu enthuiasts.
"The Han costume is an aesthetic system that influenced much of Asia, specially East Asia. It can be said that it is a style more than just an ethnic thing. It is a symbol of the once glorious civilization of China," he enthused.
"In this globalized world, it's easy to lose your own identity," Zhu continues. "We need to find our own values that we really identify with, something in our blood to let us find (the values) from our ancestors."
Zhu believes that a Han clothing renaissance would bring a sense of identity back to the Chinese people. "I'm not saying that we should all stop wearing suits, T-shirt, jeans and other Western clothing completely. But it would be nice to wear our own costumes on Chinese New Year or other Chinese holidays."
"What we are working on is not only about bringing back a forgotten fashion," said Li. "Our driving force is the long lost pride and the eagerness to achieve self-respect while advancing our civilization," he concluded.
(China Daily 01/27/2006 page6)
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