Editor’s Note: This feature is part of a wider CNN Style series on how culture in China is evolving in the Xi Jinping era.

Beijing, China CNN  — 

When Zhang Lingshan was a child, she would watch the Chinese period drama “Palace” on television, entranced by the characters’ ancient clothing. The costumes were colorful and regal, long gowns embroidered with lotus flowers and dragons, topped with intricate headpieces.

She didn’t know what these beautiful clothes were called – only that they were from some distant past.

“When I saw it, I really liked it,” she said. “They looked fairy-like, dreamy. I was completely drawn by the beauty of these clothes, and then eventually came to understand the culture of Hanfu, and I liked it more and more.”

Now aged 19 and living in Beijing, Zhang is a member of China’s growing “Hanfu” movement – a renaissance of the ancient clothing traditionally worn by ethnic-majority Han Chinese before the Qing dynasty. The movement, which started in the early 2000s as a fringe subculture on online forums and websites, has now stepped out onto the streets.

Ancient Chinese fashion is making a comeback
02:39 - Source: CNN

Though it’s still not mainstream, if you walk through major cities you may see a fan dressed in the sweeping robes, crossed collars and wide sleeves of Hanfu, which literally translates to “Han clothing.”

There are Hanfu shops, designers and researchers, and even photography studios that rent out accessories and outfits.

Hanfu outfits cost anywhere from $30 to a few thousand dollars, depending on the quality. Sales have soared in recent years – the Hanfu industry’s total market value is estimated to be worth 1.09 billion yuan (about $154 million), according to state-run media China Daily.

Tight-knit Hanfu communities and university clubs often meet up for themed activities like folk games or costume showings. Zhang and her friends sometimes visit places with ancient architecture, like Beijing’s Forbidden City, where emperors once resided, to take photos in costume and post them on social media.

Chen Zhenbing, chairman of the China Hanfu Association, fell in love with the clothing when he was 16 and handmade his first Hanfu suit back when it was still a niche interest. He recalled holding a 2005 Hanfu event that only attracted about 50 attendees – five years later, a similar event drew up to 500 people, he said.

Hanfu fans pose for photographs.

Nowadays, Hanfu events around the country can draw upwards of a thousand attendees.

He and many others see Hanfu as a way to celebrate Chinese culture and improve national self-esteem. For years, Chinese professionals looked to the West for their wardrobes, wearing dress shirts and suits as the country’s economy raced to catch up. Now, “we don’t think China is underdeveloped,” said Christine Tsui, a fashion columnist and researcher based in Shanghai. “So it’s the confidence of the younger people, the confidence of the country.”

And yet, there are others who take a more critical view of Hanfu’s popularity, seeing it as a reflection of a monoethnic nationalist surge under President Xi Jinping, who has repeatedly promoted “traditional virtues” and patriotism.

China officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups, of which 55 are minorities. Han, the majority group, makes up about 92% of the country’s population.

Critics of the movement like Kevin Carrico, a senior research fellow in Chinese Studies at Melbourne’s Monash University, argue that the popularization of Hanfu only reinforces Han cultural dominance, to the detriment of the millions of people making up China’s ethnic minorities.

In this context, he and other academics say Hanfu is no longer just an innocent fashion trend – but something to be weaponized in promoting a nationalistic political agenda.

A contested history

Some enthusiasts have developed guidelines to define “authentic” Hanfu. For instance, while many may consider the tight-fitting, high-necked “qipao” as an example of typical Chinese period clothing, in the Hanfu community, it’s not considered Han clothing because it originated from the ethnic Manchu people.

It can be a touchy topic – some Hanfu sites claim that Manchu leaders forcibly erased Hanfu during the Qing dynasty. “They forced the Han people to drop their costumes, and so this piece of China’s cultural identity almost died out in the 20th century,” reads one article in state-run media.

So for some Hanfu fans, wearing Han clothing becomes an act of cultural and historical reclamation.

A fan takes a break outside a gathering of Hanfu devotees at a park in Beijing.

But this narrative of Han suppression may not be entirely accurate, and determining “authentic” Hanfu is difficult, said Carrico, who studied and wrote about the phenomenon in his book “The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today.”

“There wasn’t any singular style of clothing prior to the Qing (dynasty) that was designated specifically for people of Han ethnicity,” he said in a phone interview.

Carrico argued that Han Chinese wore all types of clothing styles through the dynasties – so there isn’t one Hanfu style but dozens depending on the time period, geographic region and socioeconomic class.

Some Hanfu enthusiasts acknowledge this historical diversity. For instance, Chen said round-collar robes were preferred in the Tang dynasty, while layered wrap dresses were more popular in the Ming dynasty. Still, he said there are a few common design features that characterize Hanfu – a cross collar, no buttons and typically three layers of inner garments and an overcoat. Motifs that are frequently used include embroidered cranes, dragons, swirling clouds and delicate flowers.

This fluidity between the different styles is why 23-year-old Lu Yao, who lives in Beijing, prefers to use the term “Huafu,” which refers to Chinese clothing more generally without the ethnic connotations.

Hanfu was too narrow a term, she said, pointing out that Chinese culture was full of “fusion and integration” between diverse ethnic groups.

However, many fans take pride in the Han distinction of “Hanfu.”

“To some extent, the revival of Hanfu is the revival of Han culture, and the revival of Han culture is also the revival of Chinese culture,” said Chen, who now owns a Hanfu store and helps organize events. “I think the Han nationality is the most powerful and unified nationality in the world, with the most sacred and noble culture. No nationality can compare with the Han nationality.”

‘Ethnic flattening’

Chen echoes the kind of nationalist surge that has swept through China in recent years. Much of this rhetoric harks back to a supposed golden era in China’s history, centuries ago.

When Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he promised “a great revival of the Chinese nation,” and regularly quotes the ancient philosopher-teacher Confucius. Schools are seeing an increased emphasis on Chinese culture, literature and history, which “teaches the youth to see things through the China lens,” said Wessie Ling, an associate professor in fashion studies at the UK’s Northumbria University.

But academics like Carrico and Ling fear an emphasis on Hanfu and Han culture could further edge out minority groups and flatten China’s ethnic diversity.

Ethnic marginalization and suppression is a particularly prominent concern in today’s China. For the last two-and-a-half-years, China has been detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang. Beijing describes the measures as “voluntary de-radicalization camps” and “vocational training centers.” Critics call them “re-education camps.” Critics and former detainees say they are actually forced political “re-education camps” and compare them to internment camps.

Some Uyghurs claim the camps are part of a wider and systemic program of “cultural genocide” by Beijing, intended to eliminate their religion and culture and bring them closer to China’s majority Han population.

In recent years, Chinese media has showcased numerous examples of Uyghur schoolchildren and adults dressed in Hanfu during celebrations and public performances.

“While Uyghur clothing is being discouraged in schools, or only allowed under strict parameters set by the authorities, Chinese clothing is being increasingly pushed on Uyghurs students,” said non-profit organization Uyghur Human Rights Project in a 2018 report.

According to the report, “assimilative policies” carried out by the government include “pressuring Uyghurs to publicly perform modern dances, sing Communist ‘Red Songs,’” and “wear pseudo-traditional Chinese Hanfu robes.”

The Xinjiang government has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

Carrico says this is more evidence of forced assimilation – of “erasing groups’ culture and heritage, and imaginarily making them Han.”

Matthew Chew, a Hong Kong Baptist University professor who studied the sociology of Chinese national dress takes a different view – Hanfu still isn’t mainstream enough to be worn by most Han people in daily life, let alone prevalent enough to be forced onto ethnic minorities, he said.

“It’s still a minority subculture,” Chew said in a phone interview. “The risk (of ethnic suppression) is really low.”

Besides, he added, “there are nationalists who are not ethnonationalists. Some who don’t base their love of the country on ethnic criteria.” There are more harmless forms of nationalism, he argued.

Women rehearsing for a performance at a gathering of Hanfu fans in Beijing.

Other Hanfu fans like the Beijing teenager Zhang take issue with the politicization of Hanfu. “I simply like this clothing, it’s beautiful,” she said, adding that it was “nonsense” to link Hanfu with nationalism.

“We should have a more relaxed attitude towards Hanfu,” she said. “Don’t make something that you like so exhausting.”

Tsui, the fashion columnist, echoed this sentiment – people just wear Hanfu “for their own dreams,” she said. Besides, she added, Han people make up more than 90% of the Chinese population, so “it’s not weird” that Hanfu is so popular.

“It’s part of globalization,” she said. “We all wear T-shirts, but can you say we are all Americanized?”

Whether or not Hanfu is inherently political and racialized, the ongoing debate reflects the complexity of fashion and trends. Fashion doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it shapes and is shaped by social, economic, and political events. And the crucial question here, experts argue, is whether Han dominance in the popular imagination of what being “Chinese” means, comes at the expense of other ethnic narratives.

“This country is not opening up any more, it’s closing down – so the emphasis of the dominant culture is once again reinforced,” said Ling. “We hear a lot about representation of ethnicities… but the people in power in China are the Han Chinese.”

This article has been updated with photos of Hanfu fans.