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Chinese Women's Fashion: Traditional Ethnic Costumes
56 Ethnic Groups
China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, the largest—the Han majority—comprises 91.9 percent of China's more than 1.3 billion people.
Naturally, the differences among them—such as language, livelihood, religious beliefs, and cultural practices as well as the terrain and climate where they live—have been reflected in their costumes and fashion.
The Shanghai Museum's Chinese Ethnic Minorities Arts and Crafts Gallery shows the variety of costumes worn in different dynastic eras and into the 20th Century in a representative sample from the various ethnic groups.
Many of the costumes incorporate worked metal, lacquer, and even pottery. Fashion and costumes worn by those from colder areas were naturally heavier and darker colored. Similarly those in warmer areas were of lighter colors and textures.
Ethnic influence in fashion
Different techniques of weaving, dyeing, and embroidery were used in different parts of the country by distinct ethnic groups.
The popular curved front over-flap fastening on the right shoulder (see photo, right) with loops and toggles in the Manchu tradition, was generally adopted for Han Chinese clothing by the 19th century.
Similarly, the use of contrasting borders on all Manchu garments after the mid-18th century was a distinctly Chinese fashion, as was the use of wide sleeves ending with turned-back inner facings. Both were preferred in Manchu women's garments in the 19th century and both were adaptations based on Han Chinese styles.
Defining Ethnic Groups
After the communist revolution in China, social scientists were appointed by the new government to classify the various ethnics groups in the country. Influenced by the Soviet Union's thinking that ethnic groups could be identified based on common language and history, 56 groups were defined without reference to other criteria.
However, the results were somewhat artificial, especially in more remote areas where ethnic identity varied from village to village and from valley to valley across the wide express of China, especially in hilly, less populated regions. Villages who considered themselves of very different identities with different cultural practices and histories were lumped under the same ethnic name. The Zhuang ethnic group—the second largest group with 18 million population—is one such example; the ethnic group largely served as a catch-all collection of various hill villages in Guangxi province.
In some cases ethnicity based on language made sense, such as Uygurs who speak a Turkish language and are almost entirely practitioners of Islam. The Uygurs also benefited from the Soviet idea that people of the same language should be united and somewhat self-governing. As a result most ethnic Uygurs live in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a first-level administrative subdivision of People's Republic of China.
Like Chinese provinces, autonomous regions have their own local governments and theoretically have more legislative rights than provinces. (Those backing the independence of Tibet, which is an autonomous region, might not think of Tibet as having autonomy, however.)
An autonomous region is a minority entity which has a higher population of one particular minority ethnic group. There are five autonomous regions in China: the Xinjiang (Uygurs), Inner Mongolia (Mongols), Tibet (Tibetans), Ningxia (Huis), and Guangxi (Zhuangs). In addition to autonomous regions there are 22 provinces, 4 municipalities, and 2 special administrative regions.
Hats and bag worn by Chinese ethnic minority groupsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Over the centuries many ethnic groups have been assimilated into the Han majority which dominates the eastern and central parts of the country.
The Han Chinese valued woven cloth as a symbol of wealth. Weaving was a time consuming process, and silk weaving was especially important to the Han Chinese economy. Han garment construction methods reflected economic concerns by minimizing the amount of cutting and fabric needed.
On the other hand, Han Chinese deliberately used excess fabric to indicate wealth and prestige. Garments were created using abundant quantities of cloth either through length and width, or excessively long and full sleeves as a statement of social standing.
The legend of Mulan, the maiden who performed heroic deeds in battle while dressed as a male soldier, appeared in China sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries and now is well known in North America. Part of classic Chinese literature, the story now appears in American children's picture books and animated film.
"Bird-and-Flower" embroideryClick thumbnail to view full-size
Certain ethnic groups focused more on embroidery than others. Differences in embroidery style can be identified between four major provinces in China: Suzhou (known as Su Xiu embroidery), Hunan (Xiang Xiu), Guangdong (Yue Xiu), and Sichuan (Shu Xiu).
The Su Xiu embroidery style is known for its patterns and uses 40 needlework types and up to 1,000 different threads. Xiang Xiu is distinct for highly contrasted black, white and gray patterns. Yue Xiu uses bright, primary colors and has a woven texture, and Xiang Xiu (the oldest) is delicate, refined and emphasizes even stitches.
Chinese embroidery has been found in tombs as early as 500 B.C. and is almost always silk because of the high quality of the threads.
These exquisite embroidered shoes with upturned toes are reminiscent of Turkish or Persian influence. The Dong minority group is located mostly in the mountainous regions of southwest China.
Classic Mandarin Gown
This is the classic Chinese dress, cheongsam, known in Mandarin Chinese as the qipao and in English as the Mandarin gown, a one-piece, body-clinging dress that gained its high-fashion renown in 1920s Shanghai.
It originated in the Qing Dynasty as a loose fitting, slightly A-line "banner" dress worn by Manchu women and only later developed into the tight-fitting Shanghai version.
Future of ethnic groups
The Chinese government has encouraged assimilation among different ethnic groups, which is nowhere more apparent than in Tibet. As a result of the classification and of tourism, however, even less well known ethnic groups have been developing greater homogeneity. Likewise, differences in customs and fashions are likely to persist.
Map of China
This map of China from The Shanghai Museum painstakingly identifies the location of 56 ethnic groups in China. Most of the minority groups (non Han Chinese) are located in the east and central part of the country. Well-known groups in the United States include the Tibetans (large gold area to the west) and Mongolians (Inner Mongolia is the lighter green area in the north central).
Side note: The shape of the country is often described by the Chinese as a rooster – the head is upper right, tail feathers to the west, and feet are Taiwan and Hainan Island.
56 Ethnic Groups
References and Credits
All of the photographs in this article were taken at The Shanghai Museum in China. References for content include:
- The Shanghai Museum, Chinese Ethnic Minorities Arts and Crafts Gallery
- Visual Soucebook of Chinese Civilization prepared by Patricia Buckle. http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/index.htm