Cloth and Clothing in Ancient China

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The area that is now called "China" coalesced as a civilization from several centers of Neolithic culture, including among others Liaodong in the northeast; the North China Plain westward to the Wei River Valley; the foothills of Shandong in the east; the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River Valley; the Sichuan Basin; and several areas on the southeastern coast. These centers of Neolithic cultures almost certainly represent several distinct ethnolinguistic groups and can readily be differentiated on the basis of material culture. On the other hand, they were in contact with each other through trade, warfare, and other means, and over the long run all of them were subsumed into the political and cultural entity of China. Thus the term "ancient China" is a phrase of convenience that masks significant regional cultural variation. Nevertheless, some generalizations apply.

The domestication of silkworms, the production of silk fiber, and the weaving of silk cloth go back to at least the third millennium b.c.e. in northern China, and possibly even earlier in the Yangtze River Valley. Archaeological evidence for this survives tombs from that era; pottery objects sometimes preserve the imprint of silk cloth in damp clay, and in some cases layers of corrosion on bronze vessels show clear traces of the silk cloth in which the vessels had been wrapped. Silk was always the preferred fabric of China's elite from ancient times onward. As a proverbial phrase put it, the upper classes wore silk, the lower classes wore hempen cloth (though after about 1200 c.e. cotton became the principal cloth of the masses).

Depictions of clothed humans on bronze and pottery vessels contemporary with the Shang Dynasty (c. 1550-1046 b.c.e.) of the North China Plain show that men and women of the elite ranks of society wore long gowns of patterned cloth. Large bronze statues from the Sanxingdui Culture of Sichuan, dating to the late second millennium b.c.e., show what appears to be brocade or embroidery at the hemlines of the wearer's long gowns. Later depictions of commoners portray them in short jackets and trousers or loincloths for men, and jackets and skirts for women. Soldiers are shown in armored vests worn over long-sleeved jackets, with trousers and boots.

Clothes From The 19th Century
Ceramic statuette of a woman in empire-line dress. During the Tang Dynasty an empire-waisted dress tied below the bust-line and a short jacket became a popular ensemble. John S. Major. Reproduced by permission.

Chinese silk textiles of the later first millennium b.c.e. (the Warring States Period, 481-221 b.c.e.) testify to the possibility of making very colorful and elaborately decorated clothing at the time. Surviving textiles also demonstrate the widespread appeal of Chinese silk in other parts of Asia. Examples of cloth woven in the Yangtze River Valley during the Warring States Period have been discovered in archaeological sites as far away as Turkestan and southern Siberia. Painted wooden figurines found in tombs from the state of Chu, in the Yangtze River Valley, depict men and women in long gowns of white silk patterned with swirling figural motifs in red, brown, blue, and other colors; the gowns are cut in such a way that the left panel wraps over the right one in a spiral that goes completely around the body. The gowns of the women are closed with broad sashes in contrasting colors, while the men wear narrower sashes. Bronze sash-hooks are common in tombs from the second half of the first millennium b.c.e., showing that the style of narrow waist sashes lasted for a long time. Elite burials also demonstrate a long-enduring custom of the wearing of jade necklaces and other jewelry.

The Nineteenth Century China

Chinese fashion magazine cover during the post-Mao period.

Fashionable clothing returned to China in 1978, and by the 1980s the fashion industry surged with a re-establishment of fashion magazines, shows, and classes. John S. Major. Reproduced by permission.

Chinese fashion magazine cover during the post-Mao period.

Fashionable clothing returned to China in 1978, and by the 1980s the fashion industry surged with a re-establishment of fashion magazines, shows, and classes. John S. Major. Reproduced by permission.

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