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A resistance to blending into the background, not some type of full-fledged politically fueled patriotism, draws the Gen Z eye to hanfu. As we live in an ever-faster-trending digital era, the question beckons: how can traditional clothing design better suit a modern lifestyle?

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When the 汉服 (hàn fú) craze first burst into public sight in 2018, many regarded the trend as a symbol of young China’s surging cultural confidence, driven by a mix of rising nationalism, entrepreneurial acumen, and social (media) hype amongst China’s Gen Z.

Fast forward to 2022 and not only does the trend decline to bow down, but it is looking at the masses, ever-evolving in trendy and trending strength.

The enduring popularity of hanfu among young Chinese indicates a further and deeper attachment to their cultural heritage, breaking the shackles of a once Western-centric beauty standard.

Disclaimer: we may have gone slightly overboard on the use of the actual term hanfu. #onemoretimeforthe…

Popular dramas set in imperial times have contributed their fair share to the rise of the traditional dress biz. Image: online

The Body of Work

Hanfu, meaning Han Chinese dress, is based on the age-old fashion traditions of the largest of all 56 ethnic groups in China: the Han (covering some 92 percent of the population). With the help of social media, a hanfu revival movement has emerged out of a desire to express national identity and the growing confidence of self-expression by Chinese youths. Shanghai-based content creator and popular key opinion leader (KOL) Shiyin is one of its poster girls, regularly sharing Instagram posts of herself decked out in flowing robes decorated with sumptuous needlework; China’s Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo reports that #hanfu had garnered over 4.89 billion views as of December 2021.

The traditional dress code declined in popularity under Manchu rule during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) as it represented the Han ethnic minority who were back then Manchu political rivals. Today, the garb is being reclaimed by millennial and, especially, Gen Z women, gradually moving from a subcultural aspect towards popular culture.

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Evolving throughout several dynastical eras in Chinese history, the cultural clothing appears in different variations, which conveniently offers more choice for modern adoptees. Popular styles include the Tang (618-907), Song (907-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. The Ming is known for its luxurious materials, including satin and silk, that often use gold leaf to enhance their sense of abundance. The layered silhouette is also accompanied by detailed embroidery that requires a high level of craftsmanship. The Tang panache is popular for its vibrancy, often employing bright colors. “It’s lively yet cute; and youthful,” wrote one aficionada on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque platform.

According to a 2019 report from Guangzhou-based market research firm iiMedia, the number of self-identified hanfu enthusiasts “saw a 73 percent jump to 2 million between 2017 and 2018.”

That number almost doubled from 3.56 million in 2019 to over 6 million in 2020. And in 2019 alone, the hanfu industry made over 4.52 billion RMB (645 million USD) in sales. Fan following hit 6.89 million in 2021, with over 70 percent of fans being Gen Zs aged 16 to 24, and—big biz fact–overall hanfu sales had reached 10.16 billion RMB (1.597 billion USD),” according to the December 2021 iiMEdia stats.

Popular hanfu aficionada, and store owner, Zheng Qi poses as a “plump” Tang Dynasty (618-907) court lady. Image: China Daily

Let’s Get Physical… And Digital

In the past couple of years, young Chinese have elevated the dress code from a niche hobby to a generation’s tool of cultural expression while transforming it into a passionate consumer market. Driven by a mix of KOL-propelled hype and heritage-inspired fashion knowhow, the rise of hanfu is a tale of young Chinese acknowledging their cultural heritage and taking a post-hegemonic attitude to carving out their own style path.

China’s passion for hanfu has also turned this trend from just another online phenomenon into one of the hottest cultural themes nationwide. At Shanghai Fashion Week SS21 last year, hanfu shows were scheduled as a central part of events. Since 2018, the annual Xitang Hanfu Culture Week has been attracting more than 100k visitors every year and has become a hot hub for the spotting of new trends in the genre. Introducing dynastic carnivals, runway shows, weddings, coming of age ceremonies, the festival advocates the rule, integrity, balance, and harmony of the Han clothing culture.

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On Douyin, basically the OG TikTok, the #hanfu hashtag has thus far garnered over 300 million views; yet actual fashion content is only a minor slice of that pie. The tag mostly covers posts about traditional cultural hobbies people practice whilst dressing up in tradition, such as martial arts or finger dances or tea pouring or… Which once again brings us to the topic of the related KOL, taking their content from cultural clothing  to a full-scale revival of Chinese traditions. Shiyin, who actually was featured by American Vogue‘s March 2021 issue as the face of China’s hanfu movement, now has launched a short video series revealing Chinese luxury traditions of yore. Just an example.

According to Alibaba, over 20 million people got their hands on some imperial style last year on e-commerce giant Taobao. In July 2019, Alibaba launched its Gutao app, a social platform dedicated to hanfu shopping to meet skyrocketing consumer interest. Big biz fact: Shisanyu, a label founded in 2016, climbed to the top of the site’s best-selling brands list last year and is now worth $16 million.

Seventh edition of the Xitang Hanfu Festival in 2019. Image: online

The Future… Is Fusion

For many fervid fans, wearing hanfu is a nod to their cultural identity and symbolizes their inspiration to delve deeper into that heritage.

China’s younger generations want to wear something according to their own traditions, those outside of the consolidated Western beauty standards. Though there is a sense of national pride (in the cultural sense) involved, a resistance to being dragged across the board, a resistance to homogenization, not some type of full-fledged politically fueled patriotism, draws the Gen Z eye to hanfu.

Another advantage of hanfu is “how the embroidery, wide sleeves, and loose robes will make you look elegant, no matter what your body shape may be,” according to another devotee who wishes to remain anonymous.

As we live in an ever-faster-trending digital era, the question beckons: how can traditional design better suit a modern lifestyle?

Image: Little Grass (Bili BIli)

The trend of blending traditional Chinese elements into one’s daily fashion routine is here to stay –among the younger generations. On prevalent short-video platform Bilibili, popular hanfu KOL content now includes “everyday hanfu guides” and “genderless, streetwear hanfu.” as more and more youngsters match their dynastical throwback pieces with Balenciaga sneakers and Supreme hoodies. Travel vlogs entitled “Wearing hanfu in Rome/London/…,” where young bloggers tszuj up their global wardrobe game by adopting traditional dress as their go-to uniform when visiting Western tourist destinations, have also become a popular genre.

Referred as  汉洋折衷 (hàn yáng zhé zhōng), aka the middle way between Chinese and Western styles, within hanfu circles, this concept of eclecticism summarizes the right recipe of striking out on your own fashion journey for young China today:

Pairing traditional Chinese poise with a bit of Western pizzazz.

It’s red-hot fusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIS ARTICLE IS AN EDITED VERSION OF ELSBETH VAN PARIDON’S FEATURE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN BEIJING REVIEW, VOL.65, ISSUE 7.

 

FEATURED IMAGE: still from THE 2016 TV DRAMA THE IMPERIAL DOCTRESS — HANFU IN THE MING DYNASTY
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Elsbeth van Paridon
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