It’s a crowded Sunday morning at southern Beijing’s Panjiayuan market, the Chinese capital’s largest outdoor antique and curio bazaar. From ancient coins to Mao memorabilia, the ocean of bric-a-brac on display, much of it sepia-tinted with age, shines bright in the sun.
But on this morning, China’s long history is on show beyond the products for sale. Walking amongst the browsing locals and tourists are a dozen or so young Chinese, dressed in a variety of flowing robes from different periods in imperial China.
This is not a publicity stunt for a new product but the earnest attempt by a growing band of Chinese youngsters to revive pride in their country’s ancient culture, by way of their choice of dress.
What often strikes Indian visitors to China is the overwhelming dominance of Western-style clothing. Walking along Beijing’s streets, there appears to be no Chinese equivalent to sarees and salwar kameezes. Almost everyone wears Western style trousers and shirts; jeans or skirts.Equated with feudalism
Following the communist accession in 1949, traditional clothing in China became equated with feudalism and the country’s imperial past. It was thus eschewed in favour of the Mao suit. Since economic reforms began in the late 1970s, the once ubiquitous Mao suit has largely given way to the knock-off Armani suit, but traditional clothing remains something the majority of Chinese men and women have only ever seen on televised historical dramas.
The one exception is the occasional spotting of a Qipao or Cheongsam, an elegant, high-collared dress that became popular across China in the 1920s. The caveat, however, is that more often than not Qipao-sporting women are waitresses or service staff at speciality restaurants rather than fans of fashion.
This is a state of affairs that 28-year-old Feng Maofeng is determined to change. A former advertising sales executive, Feng quit her job in 2006 in order to devote herself full-time to the promotion of traditional Han clothes and culture.
“I felt a powerful contradiction in my life. The commercialisation that has overtaken China disturbed me and in my life too just making money as an end did not seem to have any significance,” she explains of her decision.
Feng was born in Qufu, the birthplace of the philosopher Confucius. From as far back as she can remember she felt attracted to the traditional robes of China’s Han dynasty (200 B.C. to 220 A.D.) and would ask her grandmother why people no longer dressed in that manner. “My grandmother simply replied that those were old clothes not suitable for modern times but I didn’t understand why.”
It was two years ago that Feng began to search for like-minded people on the Internet. Over time, chat rooms on popular Internet services like QQ were able to rally up to 8,000 members around the topic of Han-style clothes and culture.
Feng began to organise regular weekend activities in which her friends and supporters would gather in public places wearing Han-style clothes. The idea was to simply attract attention and curiosity. The oldest amongst her group is a 70-year-old grandmother, the youngest a six-year-old child.
“We have over 50 minority ethnicities in China and they all have their traditional clothes. Han Chinese form more than 90 percent of China’s population, but we are the only ones who don’t have our own way of dressing,” she says.
In addition to sporting traditional outfits, Feng’s club also spends time learning classical musical instruments, appreciating poetry and other ancient arts.
There is an unmistakable romanticisation of China’s past in this group. They see traditional Chinese culture as promoting a set of values that is superior to the ones currently prevalent in China. “Loyalty, honesty, wisdom and politeness,” is how Feng describes the difference between the value systems of yesteryear with the commercial crassness she says is the credo of contemporary China.
In some ways, the political and social environment in China at this moment in time is in sync with Feng’s ambitions. As the extravaganza of the Olympic opening ceremony in August demonstrated, Chinese authorities are seeking to stir nationalistic pride by harking back to the glories of ancient China.
Even Confucius, much reviled during the Maoist period for his “backward” philosophy, is making a come-back in the rhetoric of the country’s leaders as they strive to stress the importance of stability and harmony — key Confucian concepts — rather than the chaos of revolution promulgated by Mao. Still not accepted
Nonetheless, despite the increasing resonance that Han nostalgia has with growing swathes of Chinese society, the majority of people still tend to view Feng and her band of friends with scepticism and even ridicule.
At the Panjiayuan market, several of the stall-owners gawk at the group open mouthed before bursting into sniggers. When asked what he thinks of the outfits, one salesman confesses that he’d mistaken Feng for a waitress.
Thirty-two-year-old Jiao Yu, a college teacher participating in Feng’s activity on this day, admits that most people he meets when dressed in Han robes either mistake him for a foreigner or an actor. “They ask me if I am Korean or Japanese or if I’m acting in a play,” he smiles ruefully. Jiao wore his traditional clothes to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. “Everyone thought I was one of the performers,” he says.
But, although often dismissed as an exotic curiosity, Jiao is not put off because there have been occasions when he’s been able to inspire others to join in the cause. “Once I met a man who was the head of a company and after listening to me he declared that he would make it compulsory for all his employees to begin to wear traditional clothes. I was so happy that day.”
Feng agrees. “Touching even one person is important.” As she speaks, a dimpled seven-year-old comes running up to her and asks, “Auntie, where did you get these clothes? They’re so pretty.”
6 months ago