A retro fashion statement in 1,000-year-old dresses, with nationalist bangs

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BEIJING – They gathered in silky flowing dresses, arms draped in puffed sleeves, many wearing high black hats or intricate floral headdresses as adornment.

If they looked like time travelers teleported from a Chinese Imperial ritual a thousand years ago, that was just the intended effect.

These hundreds of retro-style dressers, gathered on a university campus in Beijing last weekend, are followers of the “Hanfu” movement. They are dedicated to reviving the clothes they believe China’s Han ethnic majority wore before their country succumbed to centuries of foreign rule – and taking pride in the past they evoke.

“Hanfu is a social scene, and that’s why I’m there, but it also has deeper levels of national feeling,” said Yin Zhuo, 29, a computer programmer, who joined the activities day. in a long blue dress and red cape with faux fur fringe.

As the Chinese government bans countless social activities, nationalist leader Xi Jinping has promoted the revival of traditional virtues, making this period a golden period for fans of Hanfu – which means Han clothing – and giving it a cachet. official and permission to develop.

Hundreds of groups across China now practice Hanfu, especially on college campuses. Promoters say he has up to a million followers, predominantly women, and predominantly in their teens and twenties.

Internet commerce has spread the trend, making it easy for stores to reach devotees, even in small towns.

“The numbers are certainly and rapidly increasing,” said Wang Jiawen, who, under the pseudonym Jia Lin, has been a prolific promoter and researcher of Hanfu in southern China.

Hanfu enthusiasts who met last Saturday were celebrating 15 years since Wang Letian, an electric utility worker, walked through Zhengzhou, a city in central China, dressed in old-fashioned dresses , an event recorded on the Internet then emerging in the country. The movement claims, with some poetic exaggeration, that Mr. Wang’s march was a milestone in its modern renaissance.

“Reviving Hanfu has been of great importance in uplifting Han ethnic identity and pride,” Mr. Wang said over the phone.

Chinese authorities have kissed Hanfu costumes as part of the idea of ​​the Communist Party tradition. Schools now often parade students dressed in traditional scholar dresses for whimsically reimagined versions of coming-of-age ceremonies.

When Mr. Xi greeted President Trump in Beijing last year, they watched traditional Chinese musicians dressed in Hanfu.

“Hanfu is maturing, and the country and the government are giving more support,” said Jiang Xue, director of a mobile apps company in Beijing, who wore a pink dress inspired by Ming dynasty dresses from years ago. centuries. The hand-embroidered rabbits and flowers were her own touch.

“Xi has always promoted the revival of traditional culture, and that naturally includes clothing,” she said.

Hanfu is based on the idea that the ethnic majority of China’s Han – who make up more than 90 percent of the country’s population – should show their pride by wearing clothes like those worn before the northern Manchu armies occupied and ruled China as the Qing Dynasty from 1644.

The Manchu emperors, then waves of Western and Japanese imperialists, imposed their own styles and Han culture was eclipsed, according to Hanfu supporters.

“Most of the Hanfu movement that I met were nationalists seeking the pleasure of wearing traditional clothing,” said Kevin Carrico, senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University in Australia who wrote a book on movement.

Despite the movement’s growing popularity and official acceptance, walking down a Chinese street in a traditional dress requires a dash of daring. Most Hanfu followers only go out in their outfits on special occasions. Some of the more engaged wear their Hanfu clothes almost every day, including at work.

At a Hanfu store in eastern Beijing, one recent weekend, newcomers and longtime customers rummaged through displays of dresses, scarves, scarves and headdresses. When a man in his twenties donned a long black dress and a gold belt, the store burst into awe.

“When we first opened, people often asked us if we were shooting a show or having a costume party,” said Yue Huaiyu, the store owner, who said she had been selling Hanfu clothes for over a year. ‘a decade. “They didn’t get it.”

Yet, as Hanfu spread, he also became more aggressive. Hanfu’s websites are boisterous with a debate about what counts as authentic clothing.

“Much of the history and traditions cited by the movement are invented,” said Mr. Carrico, the author. “They create this story for themselves. “

People are also fighting over how acceptable modifying to accommodate modern tastes is. Gu Meng, a financial director in Beijing, who sometimes wears Hanfu to work, said he was unhappy with “Hanfu fundamentalists” who refused to change their clothes to meet modern needs.

“I have repeatedly asked the store why they couldn’t add a pocket on the back for my phone and cigarettes,” he said, referring to a Hanfu store he frequents. “They think I’m a heretic.”

Mostly, followers differ as to whether Hanfu is primarily about ethnic assertion, instilling ancient values, or simply making a bold fashion statement in a dress embroidered with dragons or flowers.

“There are nationalists, then there are people purely in appearance and aesthetics, and there is another group drawn to ancient traditions,” said Fu Renjun, editor of a website that promotes the revival of traditional Chinese culture. “In practice, people can be a little of each of these. “

Like many Hanfu carriers, Mr. Gu, the chief financial officer, described the moment he discovered the movement on the internet as an eye opener. China was entering an era of confident national pride, and here’s a look to match it, Mr. Gu recalls.

“The Han have become an oppressed ethnic group,” said Mr. Gu, wearing a powder blue silk robe. “For me now I think maybe it’s kind of a pushback.”

The dedication of Hanfu followers to celebrating Han identity can turn into chauvinism and condescending attitudes towards China’s ethnic minorities, such as Uyghurs and Tibetans.

China’s policies towards these minorities have come under international criticism, but many Han Chinese see themselves as generous protectors of minorities.

“Our nationalism is positive energy,” said Hanfu researcher Mr. Wang. “In ethnic politics, the Han should, to put it simply, be the big brother, and only then can we properly guide and protect the little brothers and sisters of ethnic minorities.”

For many Hanfu followers, building an impressive wardrobe ultimately seems more important than building a nationalist movement. And China’s long history allows for great creativity in fashion for all body types.

Zheng Qi, a 39-year-old clothing designer from southwest China, said she gave up wearing Hanfu dresses after becoming a mother a few years ago and found that few were designed for women. more full-bodied.

But she became a internet sensation this year after posting pictures of her wearing ornate dresses and makeup inspired by images from the Tang Dynasty, whose reign of China ended over 1,100 years ago.

“I thought of the Tang Dynasty look because it was perhaps the only dynasty in Chinese history that relatively accepted a plump or fuller look,” she said.

For her, being a follower of Hanfu was something of a paradox.

“On the one hand, we love our own culture, but our personalities are very modern,” Ms. Zheng said. “If our personalities were very traditional, I don’t think we would go out into the streets wearing Hanfu because it’s unconventional.”

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