Hi! I'm really fond of researching about hanfu and its history, and I found a lot of interesting information on this blog. But I can't help it and keep wondering about the reason for qipao/cheongsang not be considered a hanfu? When I researched about it the most common argument is the Manchu influence on it. However, there are a plenty of hanfu styles that were influenced by other cultures. Is there a more especific reason for not consider the qipao?
Hi, thanks for the question, and glad you like my blog! (x)
I want to start off with an important disclaimer:
The term “hanfu” as we use it today (defined as “traditional Han Chinese clothing”) does not have the exact same meaning as when it was used historically. As @audreydoeskaren explains in this post, “while it is true that the term “hanfu” was used in some historical texts, they were often used in opposition to clothing worn by foreign peoples...and not as a standalone term”. Today, there is no central organizing body or law that states exactly what is & what is not considered hanfu. Rather, such categorization is done by the members of the hanfu community - and the hanfu community is not a monolith. Ever since its inception in 2003, the hanfu revival movement has been a grassroots, bottom-up movement with members of various backgrounds, ideologies, and opinions. It is a movement that is built upon, and driven forward by, constant dialogue and debate among its members. Thus the question of what garments are considered hanfu is under continuous discussion, and is subject to the hanfu community’s views and ideas on culture, clothing, and history.
With that being said, it’s true that there is almost unanimous agreement within the hanfu community that qipao/cheongsam (I will refer to it here mainly as qipao because that is what I’m used to) is not considered hanfu. In my (non-expert & non-academic) opinion, there are two main reasons for this: 1) Unclear origins and 2) Western influence. Let’s examine each (Note: I will be referring a lot to posts by resident qipao expert @audreydoeskaren, who is much more knowledgeable about the subject than I am. Please check out her series on early 20th century Chinese womenswear if you haven’t already):
1. Unclear Origins
It is widely acknowledged that the qipao as we know it today was first popularized during the 1920s, but what led up to that - the origins of qipao - are actually unclear. It is most commonly touted as being derived from Manchu one-piece robes, but “origins of cheongsam are truly unclear and it’s very likely that the many theories attributing it to Manchu fashion were invented after its popularization” (x). The Wikipedia article on cheongsam states that the garment is “of Manchu origin”, but does not give any details on exactly when, why, and how it was adopted by Han women (as during the Qing dynasty Han women wore two-piece garments and did not wear Manchu one-piece robes). The article’s “Controversies on origin” section states that “the cheongsam is generally considered to be adapted from the one-piece dress of Manchu women during the Qing dynasty. However, there has been considerable debate on the origin of the cheongsam in academic circles”, and proceeds to give three alternative theories on the origin of the qipao.
Below, from left to right - 1. Manchu women’s one-piece robe during the Qing dynasty, 2. qipao from 1932, 3. 1930s-style qipao (x)
While there are various theories, the Manchu one-piece robe origin theory is still the most widely accepted, and thus is a major reason for why the qipao is not considered to be hanfu. @audreydoeskaren explains in detail the arguments for the Manchu origin theory here.
2. Western Influence
The qipao’s silhouette and style changed rapidly during its heydays in the 1920s-1950s. During these years there was significant Western influence on Chinese fashion, and that influence was reflected in the evolution of the qipao. Below is an (very simplified) illustration of the evolution of qipao style from the 1920s-1940s (x). Note how the silhouettes correspond to what was trendy in Western fashion at the time:
1920s - loose, flat, and boxy
1930s - long, slender, and streamlined
1940s - shorter, squared shoulders, and cinched waist
Arguably the greatest lasting impact of Western fashion on qipao was that of Christian Dior’s extreme hourglass New Look silhouette on 1950s & 1960s qipao. To achieve this new fashionable silhouette, qipao makers in the 1950s starting using Western tailoring techniques such as darts, shoulder seams, and zippers. Below - Dior’s New Look (left) & 1950s qipao (right):
The use of darts, shoulder seams, and zippers continues today to create the curvy, form-fitting silhouette of contemporary qipao. The westernization of the silhouette, along with the usage of these relatively modern tailoring techniques, are further reasons for qipao to be categorized separately from hanfu by the hanfu community. Even hanfu that use nontraditional techniques such as shoulder seams and zippers are not recognized as “authentic” hanfu by many in the hanfu community. Rather, they are categorized as modified hanfu/改良汉服 and/or hanyuansu/汉元素 (clothing with elements of hanfu).
Now as you mentioned, it is true that several hanfu styles were influenced by other cultures (one notable example is the Yuan dynasty’s Mongolian influence on Ming dynasty hanfu: 1, 2). Furthermore, while the qipao might possibly be derived from Manchu robes, it was ultimately mainly created, worn, and innovated by Han people. So why not consider qipao a type of hanfu? My view is that it is the combination of the abovementioned factors (unclear origins, westernization, tailoring techniques) that places qipao outside the classification of hanfu, from the perspective of the hanfu community. For more details on the differences between hanfu and qipao, please check out this article.
I want to be clear, however, that this separate classification is not a value judgment. Qipao may not be classified as hanfu under the current definition of hanfu, but that does not in any way take away from the qipao’s importance, significance, and value to Chinese fashion history & culture in general. The most iconic Chinese garment of the 20th century, the qipao reflects the tastes and values of its time, and to this day is an ubiquitous part of a Chinese woman’s wardrobe. There are many people (such as myself) who like and wear both hanfu and qipao.
In fact, it makes me happy to see that there appears to be a growing interest in reviving & taking inspiration from vintage qipao styles. I see this as a part of the general trend of interest in historical Chinese clothing that the hanfu revival movement belongs to. Below are a few vintage-inspired qipao that I find appealing (1/2/3/4/5/6):
For more information, please see my “qipao” tag.
Hope this helps!
(Note: if anyone wants to add information, share thoughts, or correct a mistake, please do! I welcome it ^^)