Ancient Headwear of China: A Symbol of Elegance and Social Status

Chinese dressed in hanfu clothing.

There has been a revival in Hanfu clothing in China. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Some teenagers wear ripped jeans and brow-raising shirts to tell the world they are a rebel, and some decorate themselves in glam fashion, showing everyone that they’ve made it in the world. Fashion is truly a statement. Likewise, people in ancient China embodied the concept that fashion is tied to your individuality, particularly in terms of social status. Intriguingly, headwear was closely tied to social standing or one’s profession. Let’s dive back and talk about some of the ancient headwear worn by the Chinese.

Guan: Headwear for Chinese officials

Traditionally, guan encompasses all forms of headwear and is commonly called shoufu or “clothing for the head.” According to Chinese text, the earliest iteration of guan is made from leather, fashioned in the form of animals, and adorned in feather panaches. Guan has different styles but shares similar components in all designs, which are called zhangtong, yanti, er, and hong.

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Zhangtong, “front face,” is where decors are ingrained, sewn, or etched. At the bottom band of guan is yanti, which is decorated with sewn patterns, jade, or precious gem. Er is the earlike part of the headwear that protrudes up from the yanti. And there’s the hong, a fashionable sash from two sides of the guan functioning mainly as a stabilizer for the head.

In ancient China, headwear was closely tied to social standing or profession.
In ancient China, headwear was closely tied to social standing or profession. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Accompanying the headwear is a hairpin that goes across a topknot of hair to keep the guan in place. Starting from the 7th century, woven fabric materials slowly replaced leather as the main material for the construction of guan, except for formal ritual headwear of the upper classes.

Right until the era of the Tang and Song dynasties, guan was connected to an official’s status. There’s the Xiezhi Guan for judges resembling a goat, the Gaoshan Guan identified for its squared and rising mountain shape, the Yuanyou Guan worn by nobilities, Feng Guan or the phoenix crown for women of status, Mian Guan reserved for people of utmost importance such as the emperor, and so on.

Mian Guan was reserved for people of utmost importance such as the emperor.
Mian Guan was reserved for people of utmost importance such as the emperor. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Jin: Headwear for all

Jin is made from cloth. Unlike the formal nature of guan, jin is closer to the heart of the common man as it is typically matched with everyday clothing. It is distinctive with its black silk ribbon scarf and net kerchief. This headwear rose in popularity during the middle ages, which slowly sidelined guan as the ancient Chinese’s main headwear.

Gradually, its design leaned more toward a formal look, which resembles guan styles. Aside from the materials used, jin is different from guan because of the absence of a hairpin as a stabilizer. By the end of the Han Dynasty, jin was favored more by the literati and warriors.

The resurgence of ancient clothing in modern China

Today, one movement is taking China by storm — the hanfu movement. Translated as “Han clothing,” the idea is to revive the ancient clothing from past Han ethnicity eras. Whether the hanfu that an enthusiast wears hails from Ming, Song, or Tang dynasties, Shoufu (headwear), Tiyi (clothes), Zuyi (shoes and socks), and some accessories complete the set.

The author of the book The Great Han, Kevin Carrico, said that Hanfu is a combination of history and fantasy, stating that it is “very much taking a modern concept and projecting it into the past.”

Thanks to social media, the Hanfu movement has been growing steadily. Dai, a public relations manager at Chong Hui Han Tang, said to Reuters that “everyone wants to share what is beautiful, and has spread the word via platforms like Little Red Book, Weibo, and Wechat.” Some wear hanfu as a fashion statement, and some for its historical significance. As told by one hanfu lover to Nextshark, “It’s to propagate China’s traditional culture.” Something that the communists almost extinguished.

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