Evolution of Chinese Clothing and Cheongsam

the refs: http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y246/lilsuika/refs.jpg

Alt: Timeline as 1 cohesive file at http://lilsuika.deviantart.com/

Chinese clothing has approximately 5,000 years of history behind it, but regrettably I am only able to cover 2,500 years in this fashion timeline. I began with the Han dynasty as the term hanfu (meaning: dress of ethnic Chinese people) was coined in that period. Please bear in mind that this is only a generalized timeline of Chinese clothing primarily featuring aristocratic and upper-class ethnic Han Chinese women (the exceptions are Fig. 8 (dancer) and Fig. 11 (maid, due to the fact I couldn’t find many paintings in the Yuan period)).

My resources are mainly the books: 5,000 years of Chinese Costume, China Chic: East Meets West, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation, and Hong Kong Museum of History. 5,000 years of Chinese Costume is an invaluable resource in English (though sadly currently out of print), I would highly recommend this book if you can get your hands on it.


Han Dynasty:

“In the Han Dynasty, as of old, the one-piece garment remained the formal dress for women. However, it was somewhat different from that of the Warring States Period, in that it had an increased number of curves in the front and broadened lower hems. Close-fitting at the waist, it was always tied with a silk girdle.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 32)

Wei and Jin dynasties:

“On the whole, the costumes of the Wei and Jin period still followed the patterns of Qin and Han.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 54)

“From the costumes worn by the benefactors in the Dunhuang murals and the costumes of the pottery figurines unearthed in Louyang, it can be seen that women’s costumes in the period of Wei and Jin were generally large and loose. The upper garment opened at the front and was tied at the waist. The sleeves were broad and fringed at the cuffs with decorative borders of a different colour. The skirt had spaced coloured stripes and was tied with a white silk band at the waist. There was also an apron between the upper garment and skirt for the purpose of fastening the waist. Apart from wearing a multi-coloured skirt, women also wore other kinds such as the crimson gauze-covered skirt, the red-blue striped gauze double skirt, and the barrel-shaped red gauze skirt. Many of these styles are mentioned in  historical records.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 65)

Southern and Northern Dynasties:

“During the Wei, Jin and the Southern and Northern Dynasties, though men no longer wore the traditional one-piece garment, some women continued to do so. However, the style was quite different from that seen in the Han Dynasty. Typically the women’s dress was decorated with xian and shao. The latter refers to pieces of silk cloth sewn onto the lower hem of the dress, which were wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, so that triangles were formed overlapping each other. Xian refers to some relatively long ribbons which extended from the short-cut skirt. While the wearer was walking, these lengthy ribbons made the sharp corners n the lower hem wave like a flying swallow, hence the Chinese phrase ‘beautiful ribbons and flying swallowtail’.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 62)

“During the Southern and Northern Dynasties, costumes underwent further changes in style. The long flying ribbons were no longer seen and the swallowtailed corners became enlarged. As a result the flying ribbons and swallowtailed corners were combined into one.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 62)

Sui Dynasty:

“During the period of the Sui and early Tang, a short jacket with tight sleeves was worn in conjunction with a tight long skirt whose waist was fastened almost to the armpits with a silk ribbon. In the ensuing century, the style of this costume remained basically the same, except for some minor changes such as letting out the jacket and/or its sleeves.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 88)

Tang Dynasty:

“The Tang Dynasty was the most prosperous period in China’s feudal society. Changan (now Xian, Shananxi Province), the capital, was the political, economic and cultural centre of the nation. […] Residents in Changan included people of such nationalities as Huihe (Uygur,) Tubo (Tibetan), and Nanzhao (Yi), and even Japanese, Xinluo (Korean), Persian and Arabian. Meanwhile, people frequently travelled to and fro between countries like Vietnam, India and the East Roman Empire and Changan, thus spreading Chinese culture to other parts of the world.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 76)

“…all the national minorities and foreign envoys who thronged the streets of Changan also contributed something of their own culture to the Tang. Consequently, paintings, carvings, music and dances of the Tang absorbed something of foreign skills and styles. The Tang government adopted the policy of taking in every exotic form whether or hats or clothing, so that Tang costumes became increasingly picturesque and beautiful.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 88)

“Women of the Tang Dynasty paid particular attention to facial appearance, and the application of powder or even rouge was common practice. Some women’s foreheads were painted dark yellow and the dai (a kind of dark blue pigment) was used to paint their eyebrows into different shapes that were called dai mei (painted eyebrows) in general.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 89)

“In the years of Tianbao during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign, women used to wear men’s costumes. This was not only a fashion among commoners, but also for a time it spread to the imperial court and became customary for women of high birth.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 89)

Song Dynasty

“The hairstyle of the women of the Song Dynasty still followed the fashion of the later period of the Tang Dynasty, the high bun being the favoured style. Women’s buns were often more than a foot in height.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 107)

“Women’s upper garments consisted mainly of coat, blouse, loose-sleeved dress, over-dress, short-sleeved jacket and vest. The lower garment was mostly a skirt.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 107)

“Women in the Song Dynasty seldom wore boots, since binding the feet had become fashionable.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 107)

“Although historians do not know exactly how or why foot binding began, it was apparently initially associated with dancers at the imperial court and professional female entertainers in the capital. During the Song dynasty (960-1279) the practice spread from the palace and entertainment quarters into the homes of the elite. ‘By the thirteenth century, archeological evidence shows clearly that foot-binding was practiced among the daughters and wives of officials,’ reports Patricia Buckley Ebrey […] Over the course of the next few centuries foot binding became increasingly common among gentry families, and the practice eventually penetrated the mass of the Chinese people.” (Chinese Chic: East Meets West, pg. 37-38)

Yuan Dynasty:

“Han women continued to wear the jacket and skirt. However, the choice of darker shades and buttoning on the left showed Mongolian influence.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 131)

“After the Mongols settled down in the Central Plains, Mongolian customs and costumes also had their influence on those of the Han people. While remaining the main costume for Han women, the jacket and skirt had deviated greatly in style from those of the Tang and Song periods. Tight-fitting garments gave way to big, loose ones; and collar, sleeves and skirt became straight. In addition, lighter more serene colours gained preference.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 142)

Ming Dynasty:

“The clothing for women in the Ming Dynasty consisted mainly of gowns, coats, rosy capes, over-dresses with or without sleeves, and skirts. These styles were imitations of ones first seen in the Tang and Song Dynasties. However, the openings were on the right-hand side, according to the Han Dynasty convention.” ((5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 147)

“The formal dress for commoners could only be made of coarse purple cloth, and no gold embroidery was allowed. Gowns could only in such light colours as purple, green and pink; and in no case should crimson, reddish blue or yellow be used. These regulations were observed for over a decade, and it was not until the 14th year of Hong Wu that minor changes were made.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 147)

Qing Dynasty

When China fell under Manchurian rule, Chinese men were forced to adopt Manchurian customs. As a sign of submission, the new government made a decree that men must shave their head and wear the Manchurian queue or lose their heads. Many choose the latter.

On the other hand, Chinese women were not pressured to adopt Manchurian clothing and fashions. “Women, in general, wore skirts as their lower garments, and red skirts were for women of position. At first, there were still the “phoenix-tail” skirt and the “moonlight” skirt and others from the Ming tradition. However the styles evolved with the passage of time: some skirts were adorned with ribbons that floated in the air when one walked; some had little bells fastened under them: others had their lower edge embroidered with wavy designs. As the dynasty drew to an end, the wearing of trousers became the fashion among commoner women. There were trousers with full crotches and over trousers, both made of silk embroidered with patters.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 173)

The Manchurians attempted several times to eradicate the practice of foot-binding, but were largely unsuccessful. Manchurian women admired the gait of bound women but were effectively banned from practicing food-binding. Hence, a “flower pot shoe” later came into creation and it allowed its wearer the same unsteady gait but without any need for foot-binding. 

Republic Era

“Ever since the Tang Dynasty, the design of Chinese women’s costumes had kept to the same straight style: flat and straight lines for the chest, shoulders and hips, with few curves visible; and it was not until the 1920’s that Chinese women came to appreciate ‘the beauty of curves’, and to pay attention to figure when cutting and making up dresses, instead of adhering to the traditional style.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 214)

“The most popular item of a Chinese woman’s wardrobe in modern times was the qi pao. Originall the dress of the Manchus, it was adopted by Han women in the 1920s. Modifications and improvements were then made so that for a time, it became the most fashionable form of dress for women in China.

Two main factors account for women’s general preference for the qi pao: first, it was economical and convenient to wear.” (5,000 years of Chinese Costume, pg. 214-215)

Women traditionally bound their breasts in the Ming and Qing dynasties with tight fitting vests and continued to do so in the early 20th century.

“The vests were called xiaomajia ‘little vest’ or xiaoshan ‘little shirt” “used by Chinese women as underclothing for the upper part of the body.” (Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation: Finnane pg 162) “Doudu [is] a sort of apron for the upper body […] in former times the doudu had been worn by everyone, old and young, male and female. The young wore red, the middle-aged wore white or grey-green, the elderly wore black. A little pocket sewn into the top was used by adults to secrete them money and by children their sweets. When a girl got engaged, she would show off her embroidery skills by sending an elaborately worked doudu to her fiancé, decorated with bats for good forturne and pomegranates, symbolizing many sons.” (Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation: Finnane pg 162)

A ban on bound breasts began in 1927, in which the government started advocating for the “Natural Breast Movement”. Despite this, bound breasts still widely continued into the 1930s. The government also banned earrings as it fell under the criteria of deforming the natural body. The 1930s also saw the introduction of the western/French bra come to Shanghai.

“The little vest was designed to constrain the breasts and streamline the body. Such a garment was necessary to look comme il faut around 1908, when (as J. Dyer Ball observed): ‘fashion decreed that jackets should fit tight, though not yielding to the contours of the figure, except in the slightest degree, as such an exposure of the body would be considered immodest.’ It became necessary again in the mid-twenties, when the jacket-blouse—a garment cut on rounded lines – began to give way to the qipao. At this stage, darts were not used to tailor the bodice or upper part of the qipao, nor would they be till the mid-fifties. The most that could be done by way of further fitting the qipao to the bosom was to stretch the material at the right places through ironing. Under these circumstances, breast-binding must have made the tailor’s task easier.” (Finnane 163, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation)

Successful eradication of bound feet would not come until the 1949 when the People’s Republic of China came into power.


Under the People’s Republic of China, very few mainland women wore the cheongsam, save for ceremonial attire. Clothing became de-sexualized for mainlanders.

It was the flip side in Hong Kong, as the cheongsam continued its function as everyday wear which lasted until the late 1960s. The cheongsam in the 1950s and 1960s became even tighter fitting to further accentuate feminine curves. Western clothing became the default after the late 1960s, though the cheongsam continued to survive as uniforms for students (who donned a looser and androgynous version), waitresses, brides, and beauty contestants.

21st century

Designers today are creating new forms of the qipao/cheongsam. The fish tail appears to be a current popular trend.


The Ancient Town of Fenghuang, China

The town of Fenghuang is located in the Hunan province in China along the banks of the Tuo Jiang River. The town is exceptionally well-preserved and relatively untouched by modern urbanization.

The legacy of the Ming And Qing dynasties are preserved within the town, spanning 300 years of ancient heritage. In the ancient town zone, preservation of over 200 residential buildings, 30 streets, and hundreds of other ancient features and landmarks of the town has continued for hundreds of years.

Because of its unique geographical location, Fenghuang never suffered from the destruction of any natural disaster or suffered invasion from any wars. Even during the war of resistance against Japanese invasion, the isolated town of Fenghuang did not suffer occupation. In 1949, Fenghuang was peacefully liberated.

In the following 50 years, Fenghuang was spared any large-scale construction that occurred in nearby districts. As the people of Fenghuang cherish their valuable heritage, the local government has conducted strict control over all construction, continuing the preservation and the authenticity of the ancient town.


Forget Google Glass, Android Wear, Smartwatches or contact lenses that give you night vision. Instead let’s talk about the awesomeness that is this 17th century Chinese abacus ring. It’s wearable tech from the Qing Dynasty, perhaps the world’s oldest smart ring.

Measuring a mere 1.2 centimeter-long by 0.7 centimeter-wide, the miniature abacus is a fully functional counting tool, but it’s so tiny that using it requires an equally dainty tool, such as a pin, to manipulate the beads, which are each less than one millimeter long.

"However, this is no problem for this abacus’s primary user—the ancient Chinese lady, for she only needs to pick one from her many hairpins."

[via Fashionably Geek and Gizmodo]

The Greatest Pirate Who Ever Lived


In 1801, a pirate named Zheng Yi was busy raiding Canton. Aside from the prerequisite plundering and rum-drinking, he had given his men one specific order: to break into a local brothel and bring him the prostitute Zheng Yi Sao (郑一嫂), or “Zheng Yi’s wife”.

One might expect a sinister fate to have awaited Zheng Yi Sao upon her deliverance to the pirate captain (rape, swiftly followed by murder, being the most obvious). In actuality, Zheng Yi’s intentions were considerably more gentlemanly.

He intended to marry her. And recognizing that her current future prospects were rather limited, Zheng Yi Sao accepted.

But Zheng Yi Sao didn’t intend on spending the rest of her days as some plunder-hungry pirate’s eye candy. She wanted to become a pirate as well, and she did – one of the greatest pirates to have ever lived.

Read more


John Thomson: Chinese Women, 1869-72.

John Thomson (1837-1921) was a pioneering Scottish photographer who, after traveling through various parts of Asia, settled in Hong Kong in 1868 and operated a studio there for the next four years. Using Hong Kong as his base, he traveled extensively throughout China and was the first known photographer to document the people and landscapes of China for publication in the western market. Returning to England, he published a four volume book entitled “Illustrations of China and its People” in London, 1873-1874.

Images courtesy of Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.


China and Japan share in the tradition where homosexuality was present until a relatively late period until they came into contact with the Western world. Just a note, this post refers to homosexual men for the most part as in many cases, lesbianism didn’t have the same “cultural importance” in that time as homosexuality in men. So… sorry? But there is a rather famous instance of lesbianism which will be addressed a bit later in the post.

For China, that would be the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and for Japan it would be between the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji period (1868-1912). In some cases, people will list Western culture as encroaching into Japan as early as the Muromachi period (1337-1573) which is famous for the Warring States era of Japan.

Homosexuality in China used to be a fairly regular thing. In terms of its tradition, it was more or less like the cases seen in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and Japan (Ancient and Feudal; basically until Western influences entered Japan).

The terminology remains somewhat the same whether it’s talking about homosexuality in Greece or China or Japan; usually being related to pederasty. Pederasty is basically, older wiser man meets younger more beautiful man. Pederasty existed typically in cultures where there is a hierarchical institution so for China, it was often the court and nobility but for Japan, it became more common in the theater troupes or the military.

This post is going to be fairly long.

Read More


Politics of Men’s Hair in Chinese History (a condensed timeline)



Manchus And Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928 (Studies on Ethnic Groups in China) By Edward J. M. Rhoads

Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, Barbara D. Miller

The End of the Queue: Hair as Symbol in Chinese History by Michael R. Godley

China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation By Karl Gerth

Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600  By William Theodore De Bary, Irene Bloom, Joseph Adler


Social control (according to Merriam-Webster):

the rules and standards of society that circumscribe individual action through the inculcation of conventional sanctions and the imposition of formalized mechanisms


Ming Dynasty and dynasties prior (1644 and before)

“In Chinese consciousness of hair, moral discipline is more perceivable than sexual restraint. Cutting hair is more critical than the change of hair style. In the periods under consideration, hair cutting meant social control, not only supported by the conventionalized and morally approved fashions, but also regulated and supervised by the political authorities.” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, pg. 138)

“Long before the Manchu conquest, Han males had become accustomed to the practice of binding up their long hair on the top of their heads. This custom is inferred by such idioms as ‘to bind hair when starting school’ (sufa shoushu), or ‘to bind hair while being a soldier’ (Jiefa congrong). When a student was twenty years old, he ought to have a ‘caping ceremony’ (guanli) in which he changed his child’s headdress to an adult’s, demonstrating his entrance into the mature world. This tradition can be traced back to the Zhou dynasty (1100-256 B.C.) (SSJZS 1:945).” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, 124)

“Under the Ming regime, the ceremony was adopted by more social categories than the scholar-offical class (Zhang 3:1377-87). Ming men, once capped, let their hair grow long, and wore it in elaborate fashion under horsehair caps (Ricci 1953:78).” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, 124)

“One of the greatest obstacles confronting early Chinese Buddhism was the aversion of Chinese society to the shaving of the head, which was required of all members of the Buddhist clergy. The Confucians held that the body is a gift of one’s parents and that to harm it is to be disrespectful toward them.

The questioner said, ‘The Classic of Filiality says, ‘Our body, limbs, hair, and skin are all received from our fathers and mothers. We dare not injure them.’ When Zengzi was about to die, he bared his hands and feet. But now the monks shave their heads. How this violates the sayings of the sages and is out of keeping with the way of the filial!’” (Adler, pg 423)

"Although some modern writers have claimed that Chinese resisted hair-cutting because of their reluctance to part with a gift handed down from their ancestors, the heads of boys were, in fact, shaved even during the Ming Confucian revival, a practice which continued throughout the Qing.[32] It could, therefore, be that head-shaving was perceived by adults as an insult." (Godley)

“The cutting off of hair in fact accompanied castration in ancient China, and hair was cropped as a form of punishment right up to the eve of the Mongol invasion. From cases reaching the Board of Punishments in the early Qing, we do know that members of certain heterodoxical sects attached magical potency to their long hair.[33] As Philip Kuhn concluded in his study of the role of sorcery and ‘soul-stealing’ in the ‘queue-clipping’ outbreak of 1768, a century after the conquest, the tonsure was still far more important, symbolically, than the queue.” (Godley)

“This case shows how hair became a means of social control and a focus of cultural and political conflict. In traditional China men’s long and bound-up hair epitomized the Confucian norm of filial piety, Han culturalism, and magical power.” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, 138)

Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

“During the Qing dynasty, the shaved forehead and queue symbolized Manchu autocratic authority and its cultural dominance, though Han Chinese still held a moral and respectful attitude toward their hair.” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, pg. 138)

“The queue was the male hairstyle of the original Manchus, a variant of the way men of the northern tribes, including the Jurchen, had traditionally worn their hair; it involved shaving the front and sides of the head, letting the rest of the hair grow long, and braiding it into a plait.” (Rhoads, pg. 60)

“The regent Dorgon, uncle of the young emperor Fulin […] upon occupying Nanjing […] issued a decree formally requiring all Chinese to shave their foreheads and plait their hair in a queue like the Manchus. Chinese men had to conform to the new rulers’ hair style. Disobedience would be ‘equivalent to a rebel’s defying the Mandate (of Heaven)’ (ni-ming) (SZSL 17:7b-8).” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, 125)

“…a Han male’s queue reflected the Manchus drive to submit Hans to the minority’s political and cultural hegemonies and its symbolic standardization of the people’s political ideology.” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, pg. 124)

“Having accepted the Confucian notion that the ruler was like a father and the subjects like his sons, Dorgon emphasized the physical resemblance between the Manchus and the conquered Chinese. The affirmed purpose was to make Manchus and Hans a unified body. Being afraid of inspiring any anti-Manchu imaginations and actions, the Qing rulers enforced the hair cutting policy and persecuted hair growers without mercy.”  (Hiltebeitel and Miller, 125)

“A slogan of the tonsure operators was ‘Keep your head, lose your hair; keep your hair, lose your head’ (Wakeman 1975a:58), which epitomized the ruthlessness of the Manchu’s hair cutting.) (Hiltebeitel and Miller, 125)

“The only ones exempt [from the Queue Order of 1645] were men in mourning, young boys, Buddhist monks (who shaved off all their hair), and Taoist priests (who let their hair grow). All other Han males in Qing China were coerced into abiding by the requirement.” (Rhoads, pg. 60)

After Revolution of 1911-1912

“After the fall of the Qing court, short hair replaced the queue style, embodying nationalism and Westernization.” (Hiltebeitel and Miller, pg. 138)

“The men’s hairstyle, which the Qing originally required as a badge of subservience to Manchu rule, was, not surprisingly, the revolutionaries’ first target. Despite several years of open agitation by political and social reformers for its removal, the queue requirement had remained in effect until two months into the revolution. Even then the Qing had only permitted, but did not compel, its male subjects to cut their queue and wear their hair short in the Western (and Japanese) style of the day.” (Rhoads, pg. 252)

“The Republicans were not satisfied with this eleventh-hour, half-hearted measure; they insisted on universal, mandatory queue-cutting. Thus, in the four months between the Wuchang uprising and the Qing abdication, wherever the revolutionaries took power, one of the first decrees they issued was for the removal of the queue as a sign of loyalty to their regime.” (Rhoads, pg. 252)

“To the Republicans’ distress, their policy of universal mandatory queue-cutting did not always meet with general approval, not necessarily because the people were opposed to the revolution but because after more than two centuries, they regarded the Manchufied hairstyle as an integral part of their cultural tradition. As a result, the queue-cutting orders were often ignored; their unrealistically short deadlines, unmet.” (Rhoads, pg. 252)

“For most Chinese, the forcible removal of the queue was, as one observer put it, a ‘humiliating disfigurement.’ In their eyes, the queue was less a ‘badge of conquest’ and more a badge of nationality and identity (Crow 1944: 22). These Chinese had forgotten the original terms under which the hairstyle had been imposed and had no idea that it could signify allegiance to the Qing.” (Gerth, pg. 91)

“In Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan, as in many Chinese cities and towns, retention of the queue was viewed as an explicit sign of traitorous allegiance to the Manchus”. (Gerth, pg. 92)

“Although the queue was on the way out, there was, in fact, some opposition to ‘foreign hair.’ One Hunan official, who listed all the advantages of a queueless head, nevertheless resisted Japanese and Western styles. Some tried to pile their hair on top, while others adopted a half-cut which resembled a mop. A few had bets each way and, having experienced the moment of liberation, tied their braids back on.” (Godley)

“When the directives for voluntary compliance failed of their purpose, the revolutionary governments generally resorted to coercion. In Zhejiang, local officials in Jiaxing and  Hangzhou sent out soldiers armed with large shears to cut any remaining braids on sight; they posted such ‘queue-cutting brigades’ at the city gates to catch unwary villagers entering from the countryside.” (Rhoads, pg. 252)

“Queue-removal was something of an official crusade in the early years of the Republic. It was deemed a prerequisite for voting in one province, while as late as 1914 Beijing authorities renewed their pressure on the recalcitrant inhabitants of that city. Now it was the police that cut the queues off anyone arrested.” (Godley)

“By the late 1930s… [though the queue]… could be glimpsed occasionally in such remote places as a market town in Anhui, it had become a noteworthy rarity. Otherwise, the hairstyle of Chinese men had been completely ‘de-Manchufied.’” (Rhoads, pg. 253)

In the style of Lang Shining (Giuseppe Castiglione),

The Fragrant Concubine

Italy/China: Qing Dynasty, 18th Century.

Oil on paper, framed; 27 by 19 1/2 in., 68.6 by 49.5 cm.

photo: Sotheby’s.


This is another portrait of Xaing Fei, or Fragrant Concubine, the same woman who was painted in European plate armor for these portraits. Her story is fascinating, and more can be read about her at that link.

This painting was sold to William Haynsworth in 1987 for 1.2 million dollars.


Woman’s domestic semi-formal coat.
Chinese (Han), Qing dynasty, late 19th century. China. Silk damask embroidered with couched gold and silver wrapped thread and silk floss, applied silk ribbon.

Han woman’s domestic semi-formal coat (ao) in lavender silk damask with woven designs of narcissus and peaches; neck, front, hem and sleeves edged with blue silk satin ribbon with peaches embroidered in gold couching and black silk satin ribbon with peonies, butterflies and phoenix; right side front closing with blue silk loops and knotted buttons. | MFA


Strong Chinese Women: Qiu Jin, 1875 – 1907

Qiu Jin (Chinese: 秋瑾, pinyin: Qiū Jǐn) was a Chinese revolutionary, feminist and writer. She was executed after a failed uprising against the Qing Dynasty. 

Born in Xiamen, Fujian Province, she grew up in her ancestral home near Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. Once married, Qiu found herself in contact with new ideas so in 1904, she decided to study in Japan, leaving her two children behind. She was fond of martial arts, and known by her acquaintances for wearing Western male dress and for her left-wing ideology.

After returning to China in 1905, she started publishing a women’s magazine which encouraged women to gain financial independence through education and training. At the time it was still customary for women in China to have their feet bound at the age of five, the result being that the feet were crippled leaving women’s freedom of movement dependent on other people. These helpless women were, however, more desired as wives, so their families continued the practice to protect their daughters’ future security. Qiu felt that a better future for women lay under a Western-type government instead of the government that was in power at the time, so she joined forces with her cousin to unite many secret revolutionary societies to work together for the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty.

On July 12, 1907, the authorities arrested Qiu at the girls school where she was a principal. Tortured she refused to admit her involvement in a plot, but the police found incriminating documents and a few days later she was publicly beheaded in her home village. Qiu was acknowledged immediately by the revolutionaries as a heroine and martyr, and she became a symbol of women’s independence in China.

While Qiu is mainly remembered (in the West) as revolutionary and feminist, one aspect of her life that gets overlooked is her poetry and essays. Having received an exceptional education in classical literature, reflected in her writing of more traditional poetry (shi and ci) Qiu composed verse with a wide range of metaphors and allusions; mixing classical mythology along with revolutionary rhetoric.

For example, in a poem Ayscough translates as Capping Rhymes with Sir Shih Ching From Sun’s Root Land, we read the following:

Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea’s winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand, like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands, all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
I grieve to think of the bronze camels, guardians of China, lost in thorns.
Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name.
I simply make my war horse sweat. Grieving over my native land
hurts my heart. So tell me; how can I spend these days here?
A guest enjoying your spring winds?


Hair ornaments such as hair pins, hair clasps and crowns were everyday embellishments of women in old China. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911), women’s hair ornaments expressed traditional Chinese thought and culture in exquisite, sophisticated techniques.

Woman’s Semi Formal Domestic Overcoat

Early 1900s

Qing Dynasty

In early 1900, it became fashionable for young brides to wear pastel shades on their wedding day, instead of the customary red-color garments. A narrower silhouette for jackets and the sleeves became fashionable, and front closures replaced right-side closure of the earlier period.


Giuseppe Castiglione

Xiang Fei in European Armour

China, Italy (1760)

National Palace Museum, Taipei

Portrait Week on medievalpoc is drawing to a close, and I wanted to share what is possibly the most fascinating piece of art I have come across during my exhaustive research. The images of this painting are ones I lifted from embedded PDF documents, and only low-quality photos and reproductions exist online. Some version appear to have been somewhat altered, with lightened skin and different angles to the swaggering pose:


This is a portrait of the semi-legendary Fragrant Concubine, (unreciprocated) beloved of the Qianlong Emperor circa 1759, painted by Jesuit Missionary Painter at the Chinese Imperial Court, Giuseppe Castiglione, also called Lang Shining. Although art historians like to claim the origin and authorship of this portrait is “shrouded in mystery”, many sources are discounted because they are not white or Western enough.

The Fragrant Concubine is is a figure who blends history with legend in a way that has yet to be unraveled. She is said to have been an Uighur.  The Uighurs are a Muslim Ethnic group concentrated in the Northwestern Chinese Province of Xinjiang (“New Territories”), an area that reaches into Central Asia and that was not incorporated into Qing China until the eighteenth century. According to legend, after the glorious defeat of the Uighurs in Altishahr in 1759, the triumphant Manchu general Zhahui returned to Beijing with war booty, including the remarkable consort […] said to emit a natural fragrance and became known as the Fragrant Concubine.

Although given to the Quinlong Emperor as a concubine, she resisted any intimate contact with him and carried small knives in the sleeves of her clothing in order to revenge the loss of her homeland. But he emperor was so entrances with her that he is said to have built a Muslim mosque and bazaar just beyond the southwest corner of the Beijing Palace…and a tower just inside the walls from which she could supposedly ease her homesickness by watching her fellow Muslims conducting business and going to the mosque.

(Mungello p 68, 69)

Although Mungello casts aspersions on whether or not Fragrant Concubine’s story is verifiable [because legends romanticize her death], he readily admits that records prove a woman named Rong Fei entered the imperial harem in 1760, died a natural death in 1788, and her tomb was found an excavated in 1979. In additional commentary on the painting itself, he asserts

The portrait of the Fragrant Concubine in Western Armor presents a masquerade of a strutting male pose characteristic of numerous portraits of European monarchs. This probably reflects the European origins of the painter. However, why this military pose should be applied to the Fragrant Concubine…is a question that art historians have yet to answer.

Despite Mungello’s assertions that “feminists” made overmuch of Rong Fei’s story, historical documents prove these aspersions to be false; Rong Fei did in fact receive special favors aver other concubines; the Muslim enclave outside the Palace was real.

Mungello’s determination that Xiang Fei’s resistance to the emperor’s sexual advances are fictional due to records of the daughter she bore flied in the face of Uighur sources that demonstrate proscription in their faith of marriage to non-Muslims, and how that played a role in her resistance.

As for this portrait, according to some sources it is Rong Fei who commissioned this portrait (and possibly another), she herself dictating the armor and the military pose. This painting was displayed in a bathhouse among ten legendary beauties painted by Guiseppe Castiglione in 1914, causing a popular sensation.

According to James A. Millward, there is a second portrait painted by Castiglione of Xiang Fei in European armor riding with the Emperor.Through exhaustive research, I was able to find a poor reproduction embedded in a PDF, which I lifted and attempted to restore a bit:


Unfortunately, according to Kwangmin Kim, the only extensive writing on Rong Fei/Xiang Fei and the origin of these portraits remains untranslated into English.

Evidence is suggestive that this was an accustomed mode of dress for Xiang Fei, and allusions to the untranslated documents make it clear that this woman was a focal point and mediator between the Han Chinese and the newly conquered Muslim territories. Her contributions to China and specifically the Uighur are also recounted in Uighur oral traditions as well as historical documents and the untranslated texts by Yu and Dong (1985).