An ancient Chinese dress code travels overseas
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2022-12-19  ·   Source: NO.51 DECEMBER 22, 2022

Twenty-two-year-old Wang Chuyan, a Chinese American vlogger based in Seattle, the United States, is riding a new trend: mixing and matching modern clothes with traditional Han Chinese dress, or hanfu.  

The latter refers to the historical dress of the Han ethnicity, the majority of people in China, said to date back more than 4,000 years. In recent years, when Chinese people talk about hanfuthey usually picture a long flowing robe with loose sleeves and a belted waist. However, it is actually a diverse term including different wardrobe trends from different dynasties. 

In daily life, Wang often wears either an entire hanfu set or a blend of Chinese and Western elements. Known as Mochihanfu on TikTok and Instagram, she has been posting videos of herself dressed to the nines in an assortment of ancient Chinese styles, with matching makeup, since last year. Her TikTok account now has over 628,900 followers. She has also attracted many fans on Chinese lifestyle and e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book) and Bilibili, a popular video-sharing platform mainly targeting Gen Zs. 

"I love hanfu and I love sharing it with the world. So I make videos for people to learn about this ancient type of dress—and that allows me to learn more as well," Wang told Beijing Review. 


A screenshot of Wang Chuyan during her online interview with Beijing Review in Seattle, the U.S., on November 14 (FILE)  

In touch  

Even though Wang was born and grew up in the U.S., she's always had solid ties with her Chinese heritage. Her mother is Chinese and started sharing with her daughter stories about ancient China from an early age. Wang herself also watched many Chinese costume TV dramas and other vloggers' hanfu-related content. Her interest in the ancient dress code kept growing and eventually propelled her to start filming her own videos. "Through hanfu, I get in touch with my cultural and ethnic roots. I also love the history behind it," she said. 

Wang's bedroom features multiple clothing racks packed with dozens of dresses—their number continuously on the rise. She buys most of these on Taobao, an online retail marketplace of China's tech behemoth Alibaba.  

"Hanfu is different from what people wear in modern times, especially today. All the embroidery, silks and details are majestic and diverse. It is so divine and gorgeous; I've never seen anything like it before, which appeals to me on a very deep level," she said.  

The hanfu revival is part of the China Chic movement, an overarching term characterizing the rise of China's native fashion trends. As this fad continues to spread its wings, many of China's younger generations choose to wear hanfu on public outings. And that's exactly what Wang does—in the U.S. 

"I often go on hanfu dates with my friends and we'll walk around Seattle, 'showing off' our beautiful clothing. I love it when people compliment my outfit and I will tell them about the history behind it. I'm surprised by the amount of positive feedback I have gotten from people on the street,” she said. 

She also frequents local vintage fairs where many visitors dress up in costumes from times long gone. Wang is easy to spot among the many women wearing bustle dresses—a bustle being a padded undergarment used to add fullness at the back of women’s dresses in the West around the mid-to-late 19th century. When asked about her garb, she will stop and introduce it to passers-by. Many people also ask to take photos with her. 

"It is refreshing to put on hanfu. I feel proud of the Chinese culture and also be able to convey my pride to other people," Wang said of these experiences. 

Wang is all about "innovating and collocating." From her viewpoint, modern clothing is becoming more and more uniform, but hanfu spans multiple dynasties and thus offers a much wider stylistic range. "It's fun to incorporate hanfu into your daily wardrobe. You can wear as many pieces as you want, and you can customize [the outfit] to make it your own," she added. Wang has posted several videos of her Chinese-Western collocations on social media platforms. In the videos, she creatively merges modern garments with hanfu items such as a round-collar robe or bijiaa sleeveless and collarless vest popular in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). 

"The bijia is one of my favorite pieces in my collection; it was part of the Ming summer wardrobe. It helps you stay cool during the summer heat and looks great with crop tops and wide-legged pants," she explained in one video. 

Wang's social media posts also see her dress up as legendary figures from ancient China, including Mulan, a young maiden disguising herself as a male warrior to take her ailing father's place in the army. Before filming, Wang often checks the historical records to make sure she's right about the style and the makeup look of the character.  

Many of Wang's friends are now able to identify with hanfu. "A lot of my friends are Asian. They're interested in what I do and excited to be part of the hanfu culture," Wang said. 

With similar hopes, many Chinese people who study or work overseas have also become passionate hanfu promoters. Bonnie Yu, who majors in oil painting at Boston University in the U.S., is the founder of the Boston University Chinese Traditional Clothing Club. "Some native people still [wrongly] assume hanfu to be exclusive to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) or mistake the style for the fashion of other Asian countries. We are trying to make it more widely known," Yu told Beijing Review.  


Wang pairs a modern sweater with a pleated skirt from the Song Dynasty (960- 1279) at her home in Seattle (COURTESY PHOTO) 

Breaking boundaries 

Wang's videos have attracted a growing overseas audience. "Through TikTok, it is easy to introduce Chinese culture to Western audiences, especially young people. I feel a lot of overseas viewers are open to hanfu, which is good," she said. 

According to her, some viewers have asked her in the comments, "You look beautiful. Would I be allowed to wear hanfu at a fair—even if I am not Asian?" She always encourages these people to give the garb a try. There are also Asian viewers commenting about how they find Oriental styles beautiful and gain more collocation inspiration from her videos. 

Wang considers hanfu to be the most approachable way for people, especially Westerners, to learn more about Chinese culture. "While you are learning about the history of the clothing, you can also learn about the culture behind it," she said. And to learn more about hanfu herself, Wang is now working hard on improving her Chinese reading skills. 

She hopes to grow her following. "I would love to see more Chinese Americans take on the mixed style, and for more people in the U.S. to take hanfu as something stylish and share it with the next person," Wang said. 

"Hanfu is bringing big change to the fashion world and I can't wait for it to become more popular. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds," she said. 

(Print Edition Title: Contrast and Connect) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon  

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