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Chinese Women's Fashion: Traditional Ethnic Costumes

Updated on June 4, 2012

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.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
Woman's garment with applique design and silver adornments.  Lahu ethnic group.  2nd. half 20th Century.Woman's dress with short skirt accented with woven motif. Li ethnic minority group (Tongshi Hainan). 2nd half 20th Century.
Woman's garment with applique design and silver adornments.  Lahu ethnic group.  2nd. half 20th Century.
Woman's garment with applique design and silver adornments. Lahu ethnic group. 2nd. half 20th Century. | Source
Woman's dress with short skirt accented with woven motif. Li ethnic minority group (Tongshi Hainan). 2nd half 20th Century.
Woman's dress with short skirt accented with woven motif. Li ethnic minority group (Tongshi Hainan). 2nd half 20th Century. | Source

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.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
Ceremonial Dress.  Miao ethnic minority.  2nd half 20th Century. Striped dress from D'ang minority group (Yunnan).
Ceremonial Dress.  Miao ethnic minority.  2nd half 20th Century.
Ceremonial Dress. Miao ethnic minority. 2nd half 20th Century. | Source
Striped dress from D'ang minority group (Yunnan).
Striped dress from D'ang minority group (Yunnan). | Source

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 groups

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Hand-plaited bamboo hat from She ethnic group. 2nd half 20th century.Bamboo hat.Rattan shoulder bag from Drung ethnic minority group (Gongshan, Yunnan).  2nd half 20th Century.
Hand-plaited bamboo hat from She ethnic group. 2nd half 20th century.
Hand-plaited bamboo hat from She ethnic group. 2nd half 20th century. | Source
Bamboo hat.
Bamboo hat. | Source
Rattan shoulder bag from Drung ethnic minority group (Gongshan, Yunnan).  2nd half 20th Century.
Rattan shoulder bag from Drung ethnic minority group (Gongshan, Yunnan). 2nd half 20th Century. | Source

Han Chinese

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" embroidery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Woman's outfit embroidered with "bird-and-flower" motif.  Tujia ehnic minority.  1st half 20th Century.Close-up of "bird-and-flower" motif.Close-up of "bird-and-flower" motif.
Woman's outfit embroidered with "bird-and-flower" motif.  Tujia ehnic minority.  1st half 20th Century.
Woman's outfit embroidered with "bird-and-flower" motif. Tujia ehnic minority. 1st half 20th Century. | Source
Close-up of "bird-and-flower" motif.
Close-up of "bird-and-flower" motif. | Source
Close-up of "bird-and-flower" motif.
Close-up of "bird-and-flower" motif. | Source
Shoes with upturned toe and couching embroidery.  Dong ethnic minority.  2nd half 20th Century.
Shoes with upturned toe and couching embroidery. Dong ethnic minority. 2nd half 20th Century. | Source

Embroidery

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.

Embroidered baby carrier from Zhuang minority group.  1st half 20th Century.
Embroidered baby carrier from Zhuang minority group. 1st half 20th Century. | Source

Cheongsam

Green gauze cheongsam.  Manchu. Qing dynasty(1644-1911).
Green gauze cheongsam. Manchu. Qing dynasty(1644-1911). | Source

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.

This map of China indicates the location of  different ethnic groups.  (See legend.)  Note the similarity to a  "rooster" in the outline of the country.
This map of China indicates the location of different ethnic groups. (See legend.) Note the similarity to a "rooster" in the outline of the country. | Source

56 Ethnic Groups

Legend showing the locations of all 56 ethnic groups in China, listed in order of population size.  For example, Tibet is considered to be the fourth largest ethnic group in China.  (From Shanghai Museum.)
Legend showing the locations of all 56 ethnic groups in China, listed in order of population size. For example, Tibet is considered to be the fourth largest ethnic group in China. (From Shanghai Museum.) | Source

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
  • Wikipedia
  • Visual Soucebook of Chinese Civilization prepared by Patricia Buckle. http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/index.htm

The Shanghai Museum

Photos of ethnic fashion were taken at The Shanghai Museum.
Photos of ethnic fashion were taken at The Shanghai Museum. | Source

Comments

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    • Robes Rouge profile image

      Robes Rouge 

      4 years ago from Xiamen, Fujian

      i love historial article about qipao (cheongsam), i have professional knowledge about qipao cheongsam, and as qipao fan/editor for over ten years, you might like to know more about qipao here: http://www.elegantstory.com/ or visit my fanpage http://www.facebook.com/qipao

    • profile image

      vera 

      4 years ago

      I have this old (I believe,rattan hat) with symbols of happiness, prosperity and health. I would like to know more about it. Any idea who would be able to help me? I have pic. Thx

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Suzette, I am nearly speechless with gratitude for your delightful comments! I wrote this hub shortly after our 10-day guided tour of China. I photographed the displays at the gorgeous Shanghai Museum, pictured above. And since our return, I have been reading about China both in nonfiction and fiction. And I agree with you, I too am amazed at the huge diversity among the Chinese people. Of course the 56 groups are somewhat artificial in the attempt the government made to classify its people. Often the divisions are political as in the case of the only two "special administrative regions" (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau former European territories, now operating semi-independently.

      Thank you so much for you comments!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      How interesting! This is a stupendous article. Thank you so much for writing this. I never realized there were so many ethnic groups in China, and viewing their different clothing is stunning. Your photographs are beautiful - did you tour China or live in China? We tend to lump all the Chinese together as one people - I will never do that again after reading this article. The dresses and clothing are stunning. I love the hats and the shoes - so different and unique. This is one of the best hubs I've read here on HP. Your presentation is beasutiful and your explanations are done so well and are so interesting. I enjoyed learning of the beautiful clothing of the Chinese ethnic groups!

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      6 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Hi Peggy, thanks for your comments and votes! I am going to have to figure out how to share hubs by others with my followers. That's news to me.

      Ytsenoh, I was amazed at the number of ethnic groups in China and that they were more or less artificially defined by the government. Of course, these days the Chinese wear mostly western clothing, at least in the cities. I suspect the more colorful attire is seen in the countryside and on ceremonial occasions.

      brandrocker, thanks for your positive comments!

    • brandrocker profile image

      brandrocker 

      6 years ago

      No clue about this ethnic fashions! We had a few ideas about the Japanese traditional dresses.n But this is the first time I read about China. Thanks. Nice read!

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 

      6 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      Very interesting about a topic we know more about now. Thank you. It's interesting to me the number of different identified identified ethnic groups that exist. I think the fashions are so unique and beautiful. Great job on composing your subject. Really enjoyed this.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      How very interesting! These Chinese fashions are so very beautiful. Thanks for telling us about all of the ethnic differences. Enjoyed your photos as well. Up votes and SHARING.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      6 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Welcome MsDora. I agree it's amazing for a country to have that many ethnic groups. I wonder if the same criteria were applied to the United States, how many ethnic groups we would identify. For one, my sister who lives in Austin, Texas, might argue that "Texan" is an ethnic minority.

      China is waking up to the value of their tourist trade and some advantages of that may be that antiquities will be protected and minorities (such as Tibetans) can be allowed their distinct identities.

      Best wishes to you.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 years ago from The Caribbean

      Interesting facts about China. 56 ethnic groups? Influence of tourism in Tibet? Symbolism in fashion? All topics which attract attention. I like a teaching hub. Voted beautiful and interesting.

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