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

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Followers of the “Hanfu” movement bring to life the clothes they believe China’s ethnic Han majority wore before their country succumbed to centuries of foreign rule – and the pride of the past they evoke.

BEIJING — They assembled in silky, flowing dresses, their arms draped in puffy sleeves, many wearing tall black hats or intricate floral headpieces as a curlicue.

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

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

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

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

Hundreds of groups across China now practice Hanfu, especially on college campuses. Supporters say he has up to 1 million followers, mostly women, and mostly teenagers and 20s. Internet commerce has spread the trend, making it easy for stores to reach devotees even in small towns.

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

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

“The revival of Hanfu has had great significance in raising Han ethnic identity and pride,” Wang said over the phone.

Chinese officials adopted Hanfu costumes as part of the Communist Party’s idea of ​​tradition. Schools now often parade students in traditional scholarly robes for reimagined whimsical versions of coming-of-age ceremonies. When Xi hosted President Donald Trump in Beijing last year, they watched traditional Chinese musicians dressed in Hanfu.

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

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

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

Manchu emperors and then waves of Western and Japanese imperialists imposed their own styles and Han culture fell into eclipse, according to Hanfu proponents.

“Most members of the Hanfu movement I met were nationalists looking for 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 growing popularity and official acceptance of the movement, walking down a Chinese street in traditional dress takes a touch of daring. Most Hanfu followers only step out in their outfits on special occasions. Some of the most committed wear their Hanfu clothes almost every day, including at work.

At a Hanfu store in eastern Beijing on a recent weekend, newcomers and longtime customers rummaged through shelves of dresses, scarves, sashes and headpieces. When a man in his 20s donned a long black dress and a gold belt, the store erupted in awe.

“When we first opened, people often asked if we were filming a show or having a costume party,” said store owner Yue Huaiyu, who said she had been selling Hanfu clothes for more than a year. a decade. “They didn’t understand.”

Now, on the customer side, “there are more and more of them”.

Yet, as Hanfu spread, it also became more restless. Hanfu websites are vociferous with debates over what counts as authentic clothing.

“Much of the history and traditions cited by the movement are made up,” said Carrico, the author. “They are creating this story for themselves.”

People also fight over how much modification to fit modern tastes is acceptable. Gu Meng, a financial manager in Beijing who sometimes wears Hanfu at work, said he was unhappy with “Hanfu fundamentalists” who refused to modify their clothes to meet modern needs.

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

Above all, followers differ on whether Hanfu is primarily about ethnic affirmation, the inculcation of ancient values, or just a bold fashion statement in a dress embroidered with dragons or flowers.

“There are nationalists, then there are people who are only interested in looks and aesthetics, and there is another group attracted by ancient traditions,” said Fu Renjun, editor. of a website that promotes the revival of traditional Chinese culture. “In practice, people can be a bit of each of them.”

Like many Hanfu carriers, Gu, the chief financial officer, described the moment he discovered the move on the internet as a revelation. China was entering an era of confident national pride, and here was a look to match, Gu recalled.

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

The devotion of Hanfu followers to celebrating Han identity can turn into chauvinism and condescending attitudes towards Chinese ethnic minorities, such as Uyghurs and Tibetans. China’s policies toward these minorities have come under international criticism, but many Han Chinese see themselves as generous protectors of minorities.

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

For many Hanfu followers, building up 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 few of them were designed for more full-bodied women. But she became an internet sensation this year after posting photos of herself wearing ornate dresses and makeup inspired by images of the Tang dynasty, whose rule over China ended more than 1 year ago. 100 years.

“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 devotee of Hanfu was something of a paradox.

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

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