Friday, 20 July 2012

From Liening-fu to Blue Jeans: Revisiting Chinese post-war and post-Deng getups

From Liening-fu to Blue Jeans: 
Revisiting Chinese post-war to post-Deng getups

"Clothing is a kind of cultural language. It represents one's personal taste, social status as well as a person' s attitude towards himself or herself and life. Macroscopically speaking, it also reflects a nation's rise and decline together with a change of ideology. In the past six decades, China has undergone a dramatic transition and the clothes its people wore are a good way to display the dramatic changes."

These are the words stated in a writeup regarding China's contemporary culture and its fast-changing pace as a society. Quite strange at first to think how China, then a backward, agricultural nation described by many as a place full of pigtail-haired men and women in Cheongsams end up joining alongside ones largely described as epitomes of Modernity, that also in it affects way of life-especially those of clothing.

In fact, this writeup tackles on how Chinese clothing changes after the war, thinking that Chinese clothing isn't about Cheongsam or Hanfu. How about Liening-fu or the ever-recognized Zhongshan suit, known by most as the "Mao Coat"?

Anyways, here's the writeup this writer made out of brainstorming. Enjoy.


During the early days of China's  socialism, most attires and related getups were obiously copied from military attires especially after the popularity of the Zhongshan Suit that was worn during the Guomindang era. Women also tend to create female versions of such getups that inclulcate equality, as China tries to rebuild its image from the ashes of war.

The popularity of Zhongshan suit somehow tends to inculcate patriotism through clothing. That, since it was based from Military attires in Europe and in Japan, it was modified and made it entirely based from the aspirations and ideals of Chinese, all in a modern form that replaced Manchu-era getups. 

As the  four pockets were said to represent the Four Cardinal Principles cited in the classic Book of changes and understood by the Chinese as fundamental principles of conduct:

*a sense of shame.

While the five centre-front buttons were said to represent the five powers of the constitution of the Republic and the three cuff-buttons to symbolise the Three Principles of the People.

*people's livelihood. (or Socialism)

Such sentiment embodied in the Zhongshan suit, especially during the war brought popularity especially in the rebel-controlled areas, wherein most wore Zhongshan suits made from handspun cloth.

However, during those early times lies the influx of Soviet-made goods and technology also brought culture to the Chinese in pursuit of promoting pro-people modernization. Such influx of goods created copies of attires that, along with the Zhongshan suit were popular-especially to women.

One example was the Lenin suit (Leining-fu).

Named after V.I. Lenin, it features double lines of buttons, slanting pockets and a belt, more of a military trenchcoat worn by women.

To Chinese women, the said getup looked modest that others may tend to look at it as militaristic or fit for cold weather-since that said getup was obviously a trenchcoat being modified and named after V.I. Lenin.

However, it doesn't mean that the popularity of Soviet dresses in China are limited to military-inspired getups. The Bulaji for instance was popular and classy in its appearance as a dress especially after Chinese women arrived after studying in the Soviet Union. 

Bulaji or платье in Russian, meaning one-piece dress in English, was popular in China in the 1950s after a heroine in a legend from the Soviet Union called Katyusha, and Zoya, a national hero during World War II in the Soviet Union. One-piece dresses were also popular in the Soviet bloc as well as in America during those times. Yet China, in keeping with its idealistic intention such as Equality rather stresses unisex clothing despite the popularity of the Bulaji dress.

In fact, this writer thinks that since Bulaji became popular in mainland, Cheongsam remained popular outside of it, especially Hongkong and in Taiwan. Oftentimes, some designers in the Mainland were experimenting designs such as fusing bulaji and Cheongsam.

But the tide of following Soviet culture end negated after Mao's disillusionment as well as dispute with Khrushchev. It also laid the comeback for glorifying wartime frugality and intensified expressions of equality such as Unisex clothing.

Consciously or unconsciously, most chose to wear military uniforms, or Mao suits, in green, grey and blue. With the progress of women's roles in society and family, it seemed quite natural that more women wore men's suits at the time. As well as the youth, in preferring military versions of Zhongshan suits that was. with the upper and lower pockets were concealed with a flap and had no external button.

And to think that China, being a developing Socialist nation during those days, and intensified by popular fervor during the Cultural Revolution, the creation of Zhongshan and Lenin suits rather stresses functionality all in sympathy with the proletariat such as loose-fitting trouser suits, all lacking in ornamentation.

And in inculcating patriotic sentiment also includes the creation of dresses and suits out of "patriotic wool"- that is,  woven from leftover threads swept from workshop floors combined with a small amount of good wool. Others may tend to think of it as low quality and easy to break due to the fabric made out of leftover threads and remains of good quality wool and making it as "fit" for everyday clothing such as this suit.

And like its earlier decades, the most common colours were dark blue, grey or khaki. There were also a range of jacket and shirt styles, primarily distinguished by the detailing of the collar and pocket. Such clothing during those days stresses ideology and patriotic sentiment that nearly replaced traditional ones assailed as "feudal."

Except this:

This wedding outfit was made during the last decades of the Cultural Revolution. As most couples tend to wear unisex clothing, other than uniforms, this garment, although labeled bourgeois by many, was purchased and worn as a wedding dress by an actress. Quite deviant so to think of about wearing a red jacket inspired by cheongsam and making it adjusted to cope with the "modern times" despite being described as "bourgeois" and such. (Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/54. Photo by Sue Stafford.)

Even this:

Inspired by the Soviet-era Bulaji, the Jiang Qing dress was made by Jiang Qing, otherwise known as Madame Mao by the western media.

The youth, especially known as the Red Guards, preferred military-style Zhongshan suits no matter how baggy or unfit in its appearance yet stressing militant, revolutionary fervor.

Quite strange as others may see Chinese clothing during those times as different from what the foreigners think of. But those times China tend to modernise itself while stressing militant, revolutionary fervor that was, prevailing. The creation of unisex clothing served as its evidence how those times Mao's aspiration as important and making it realized by emphasising rural development as pretext to modernization as different from the Soviet point of view.

And coming to think that since Zhongshan (or Mao) and Lenin suits were popular, western media tend to reinterpret it too negative to think those times as different from the prevailing trend, that is from the west what Chinese or any other Socialist nations during those decades be assailed as decadent. Sorry to say so, but true.

But as the revolutionary fervor end by Deng Xiaoping's "reaction" (that others called it as modernization and opening to the west), lies a drastic change that, despite the prominancy of then-prevailing getups, also pave way for the popularity of getups people tend to call it as decadent.

As according to one article:

Such reaction made after the Cultural Revolution, as evidenced by the massive influx of foreign-made goods again affected attitudes in clothing. Again, quite nice at first as a new wave of designs became popular other than Soviet-era ones old people tend to enjoy with; this time wearing blue jeans, Pierre Cardin-inspired suits  rather than khaki or olive green trousers.

To think that during those decades, even during Hua Guofeng's (pre-Deng) some Chinese designers step-by-step trying to modernize Chinese clothing by putting some western taste in it, as according to one article regarding the picture shown:

In fact, the popularity of those getups challenged the prevailing ones that most called for spiritual rejuvenation. Quite strange though that in midst of the changing times, China tries to keep its image as different from the Soviet Union or any other Socialist country those times; yet most Chinese opted to accept and create something that would possibly challenge the west in terms of culture and perhaps in creating goods for export other than toothpaste or softdrinks.

Obviously, the influx of foreign good also became a setback for old companies in returning to China. Lever Bros. for instance returned as Unilever, others followed suit yet the current system imposed controls and regulation that perhaps made in pursuit of keeping firm over foreign businesses despite open doors.

Once, during the fad of Pierre Cardin-inspired getups such as coats, entitled as "Fantastic Garb",  with its flared trousers featured, these items during those early decades of "opening to the world" were looked down upon from the high plane of ethics and politics, with wearers of flares were regarded as hooligans. During those times it was not unusual to see teachers take a pair of scissors to students’ bell-bottomed pants out of "morality", to think that some elders in the Communist Party Politburo called for Spiritual Rejuvenation to counter those fads including those of Clothing.

Well, despite the trends during those times old people, especially those in the countryside tend to cling to their ways and to their suits as expected.

And come to think that most garments are produced by large state-run corporations and joint-venture companies established with overseas capital, such institutions follow demands that is popular with Government agencies have played an active role in developing China's fashion industry whether it is in a form of suit and trousers or dress, as long as the clothing as proudly made in China with others tend to scorn it with. 

After all China tries to develop and modernize, this time deviant from its former principles despite flying the red flag.


In assessment, quite nice to see those attires China tried to create upon especially during its early formative days. Yes, it stresses militancy and trying to fulfill its very own idealism such as equality through clothing. And also being an artist who made this writeup, those getups were fit for the weather such as a cold one as different from a weather in southeast Asia that is, tropical and swarthy.

For sure there are some who tends to look at this article with scorn and assail this writer in writing about Chinese clothing or rather say all about China in midst of the standoff in Spratlys or any other crap gunpowder-minded people tackle upon these days, in fact to those who are narrow-minded such sentiment isn't patriotic but chauvinistic in the way being spoken to; not noticing that being chauvinistic are also being assailed too.

But on the other hand, this writer also drew some that is partially inspired from those getups.
Sorry to say so but true.