Why Qing Dynasty Clothing Isn’t the Best at Communicating the Idea of ‘Ancient China’

Xena: Warrior Princess is nominally set during the time of Hercules (i.e. before the 8th century B.C.), but in practice, the TV show is all over the place historically. Thus, when Xena travels to ‘Chin’ (i.e. China), um, they don’t wear clothes that people would have worn in 8th century B.C. China, or even 8th-century A.D. China. Since I’m commenting on the clothing and hair only and nothing else, I think it is sufficient to skim this clip rather than watch the whole thing.

For anyone who has the slightest clue about historical Chinese clothing, the clothing is glaringly anachronistic. More anachronistic than the European clothes that Xena: Warrior Princess characters wear? Perhaps not. But I think there are reasons that these particular anachronisms were chosen. Namely, it is bloody obvious that the characters are wearing clothing from the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 A.D. to 1912. When I first saw that Xena clip, I found it jarring that they were dressed in the style of the Qing dynasty.

To anyone who has watched Chinese historical dramas, these costumes scream ‘Qing Dynasty!’

To see an example of a Chinese historical drama set during the Qing Dynasty which has an English character (wearing period-appropriate clothing), check out this video. (That Englishman also sometimes wears Chinese clothing.) That gives you a rough idea of what type of European clothing corresponds to the time of the Qing Dynasty.

This is obvious to anyone who has paid even the least amount to historical Chinese clothing because the Qing dynasty represented a major change in Chinese fashion. No matter how little the costume designer for a Chinese historical drama cares about historical accuracy, they will make sure that the costumes in a Qing dynasty drama will look approximately like the clothes people wore during the Qing dynasty, and that historical dramas set before the Qing dynasty will feature costumes that look really different. Otherwise, they will confuse the audience. It’s the same reason that Hollywood costume designers wouldn’t have actors wearing togas in a drama set in 18th-century France, or petticoats + corset + panniers in a drama set in 1st century A.D. Rome, unless there was a good reason for a character to be wearing a toga in 18th-century France, or petticoats + corset + panniers in 1st century A.D. Rome.

A painty of Madame du Pompadour in the 18th century


A painting of the death of Seneca in the 1st century A.D. I think most of you can figure out based on the clothes alone which of the above scenes takes places in 1st century Rome and which one takes place in 18th century France.

Having those Xena: Warrior Princess characters dressed in Qing Dynasty costumes is the equivalent of having the characters dressed as if they were going to attend an 18th-century salon hosted by Madame de Pompadour in terms of how jarring it is to me. Then again, maybe there is a Xena episode where they all dress as if they are going to an 18th-century salon, heck, Madame de Pompadour might even be a character (I don’t know Xena that well).

Now might be a good time to explain how Chinese clothing before the Qing dynasty looked different from Chinese clothing during/after the Qing dynasty. Since I’ve already linked to a video of a Qing-dynasty era historical drama, I think it’s time to share a video from a drama set at a time before the Qing dynasty. So here you go, footage for Tang Dynasty Dragon Duo (2004), which, as you might have guessed, is set in the Tang Dynasty. The costumes in Tang Dynasty Dragon Duo (2004) look an awful lot like Japanese kimono, don’t they. That’s not a coincidence; kimono started out as a Japanese emulation of Tang Dynasty Chinese clothing. Nor are the Japanese alone; many Asian cultures emulated the pre-Qing-Dynasty Chinese clothing.

The basic pattern for Chinese clothing before the Qing Dynasty when something like this: some kind of undergarment, a lower garment which could be a skirt or trousers (and the choice of skirt vs. trousers was not gendered – it was unremarkable for a woman to wear trousers and a man to wear a skirt), the main layer which was a loose-fitting robe with wide sleeves that is folded left over right and held together with a belt, and if needed, an outer layer which could be a cloak or a jacket. If you want more details, Wikipedia explains it all.

Were there any changes in fashion over 2000+ years? Of course there were. Many, many changes. People who have studied the history of Chinese clothing can date clothes to the period within a dynasty (late Tang, early Ming, and so forth). However, merely watching a bunch of historical TV dramas hasn’t been enough for me to learn how to discern the clothes of various dynasties, until the Qing dynasty, because the Qing dynasty represents such a dramatic shift.

In the upper left, we see a man with Qing Dynasty style hair/clothes, and on the right we see a woman wearing petticoat + corset + panniers, which makes sense because these were both fashion styles of the same time period (18th century)

The most obvious difference is in the hair.

Before the Qing Dynasty, it was taboo for adults to cut their hair, with the result that just about all adults (except monks and nuns) had long hair (though not all TV dramas are historically accurate on this point). The hair could be worn loose or tied up in some fashion. Sometimes people wear braids (at least in TV dramas, I don’t know if this is historically accurate), but the braids are only a small portion of the overall volume of hair.

The Qing Dynasty, for those of you who don’t know, was when Manchurians ruled China, and they imposed Manchurian hairstyles on all Chinese men – shaving the front of their heads, and tying their remaining hair in a single long braid. Though Chinese women weren’t legally required to adopt Manchurian hairstyles, I’ve noticed that women tend to have much more braided hair in Qing-dynasty era dramas.

A bunch of men with Qing-Dynasty queues

But there is more. A lot more.

This is a painting in a Han Dynasty era tomb (i.e. over a thousand years before the Qing Dynasty)

I added a big thick black line to the left-over-right fold of the left person’s robe so that it is really obvious. Notice that it is a straight, diagonal line. Also, notice that the sleeve openings are very wide and that the clothes are loose-fitting.

Compare that to some Qing-dynasty era clothing:

A photograph from the Qing Dynasty, with the bright red line added by me

The qí​páo​ these women are wearing are, like the vast majority of pre-20th-century Chinese clothing, are folded left-over-right, but instead of forming a straight diagonal line like clothing before the Qing-Dynasty, it forms two bent lines. Sometimes, in Qing-dynasty clothing, it’s more of a curve than a bent line, but the point is that Qing-dynasty clothing generally lacks the single, simple diagonal line of older Chinese clothing.

During the Qing Dynasty, it also became much more common to wear clothing that closes in the middle, not in a left-over-right fold. Furthermore, whereas buttons were very rare (and, if they existed, very well hidden) in Chinese clothing before the time of the Qing, during the Qing Dynasty buttons became common and visible. You can see this in the next two examples.

Some other differences between pre-Qing and Qing dynasty clothing are that 1) Qing dynasty clothing often has high collars and 2) Qing Dynasty clothing is more tightly fitted (unlike the loose and flowing sleeves of Chinese people before the Qing Dynasty).

Male members of the imperial court during the Qing dynasty also have a distinct look. They tend to wear indigo blue and/or golden yellow colors, and look something like this:

Photo of Prince Gong

Are there more differences between Qing-dynasty clothing and earlier Chinese clothing? Yes, of course, but the above is sufficient to demonstrate that the dramatic change and to identify which Chinese historical dramas are set in the Qing Dynasty. To that effect, I’ve put together a little quiz, where you can test whether you can pick out which movies / TV dramas are set in the Qing Dynasty, which ones are set before the Qing Dynasty, and which ones are set after the Qing Dynasty (Chinese history didn’t stop when the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, y’know).

QUIZ

Drama #1
Drama #2
Drama #3
Drama #4
Drama #5
Drama #6
Drama #7
Drama #8
Drama #9
Drama #10
Drama #11
Drama #12
Drama #13
Drama #14
Drama #15

The answers are at the end of this post.

Is there a word for ‘clothing that Chinese people wore before the Qing Dynasty?’ Yes, there is a word, but it’s a newly coined word – by that, I mean it was only coined in the 21st century. That word is hàn​fú​, alternatively known as huá​fú​. It’s kind of like how, according to Liza Dalby’s book Kimono: Fashioning Culture, the Japanese word kimono was only coined during the Meiji Era, over a thousand years after Japanese had started wearing kimono style clothing. And the reason that the word ‘hàn​fú​’ now exists is that there is a movement in China to wear hàn​fú​ more often. Here are a couple of English-language articles about the ‘Hanfu Movement’: one, two

If I lived in China, I’d seriously consider acquiring an ensemble of hàn​fú​ clothing and wearing it on occasion. As a resident of the United States, I’m not considering it because 1) it could be interpreted as offensive cultural appropriation (AFAIK I don’t have any Chinese ancestry) and 2) generally, people in the United States, even here in San Francisco, wouldn’t appreciate it as much as people in China.

I think hàn​fú​ is growing in popularity in China because young people grow up watching TV shows and playing electronic games with characters wearing hàn​fú​. Granted, TV shows/movies with people dressed in hàn​fú​ are nothing new, but in the past twenty years – especially in the past decade – the quality of the costumes and cinematography has gone way up, so these clothes look more appealing. I’m sure you could see the difference in the quality of the costumes between the older and newer TV dramas in the quiz above. As someone who has seen more than a few Chinese historical dramas, I can also feel the appeal of wanting to dress more like some of my favorite characters.

So far, all of my examples have either come from ‘pure’ historical drama or wuxia, which technically is speculative fiction but is less speculative than what most English speakers think of when they encounter the term ‘speculative fiction’. Okay, I also slipped a time travel drama in there (or rather what would have been a time travel drama if time travel wasn’t banned in China, and time travel is still implied in the version which got past the censors). (Fortunately, time travel isn’t censored in written works and theater, so Chinese people can enjoy all of the time travel novels they please). *Ahem* What was I saying? Oh yeah, I wanted to talk about xianxia and dongfang xuanhuan, genres which definitely fall under the umbrella of what English speakers call ‘Fantasy’. How do characters dress in those stories?

I am sure that, somewhere, there is a Qing Dynasty themed xianxia or dongfang xuanhuan story, in which the characters dress in Qing Dynasty clothing. But in all of the xianxia and dongfang xuanhuan dramas that I know about, most of the characters wear hàn​fú​, even though they are so deep into speculative fiction territory that historical accuracy isn’t a thing anymore. Take, for example, Fighter of the Destiny, which isn’t even set in our world, but is set in pseudo-China (just as many fantasy stories are set in pseudo-Europe). Desolate Era is nominally set in the Xia Dynasty but, uh, they have airships, so clearly there is no commitment to historical accuracy, yet they are still mostly wearing hàn​fú​ (though I notice that at least one character wears a robe folded right-over-left instead of left-over-right). To me, the fact that even in the most fantastic of fantasies, Chinese people still imagine characters (mostly) wearing hàn​fú​ speaks volumes.

So, let’s get back to Xena: Warrior Princess.

I notice that one character in that clip is wearing something which might count as hàn​fú​: Xena herself.

Xena, on the left, wears something which could be recognized as hanfu.

The Qing Dynasty was when English speakers started having regular contact with Chinese people. Thus, from the perspective of English-speaking cultures, the clothes Chinese people wore during the Qing Dynasty is ‘authentic’ Chinese clothing. Since Xena: Warrior Princess is aimed at an English-speaking audience, Qing Dynasty clothing was the best choice to convey the idea of ‘China.’

But I have no doubt that, if the intended audience had been Chinese, these characters would have been wearing hàn​fú​, because that is what conveys the idea of ‘ancient times’ to Chinese people.

***

QUIZ ANSWER KEY:

1: Qing / 2: After 1912 / 3: Qing / 4: Hanfu / 5: Qing / 6: After 1912 / 7: Qing / 8: Hanfu / 9: Qing / 10: Hanfu / 11: Hanfu / 12: Qing / 13: After 1912 / 14: Hanfu / 15: Hanfu

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