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Shenyi and Broad Sleeves

the lady dress of the Han DynastyThe ancient Chinese attached great importance to the upper and lower garments on important ceremonial occasions, believing in its symbolism of the greater order of heaven and earth. At the mean time, one piece style co-existed starting from the shenyi of the Warring States Period, and developed into the Han Dynasty robe, the large sleeved changshan of the Wei and Jin Period, down to the “qi pao” of the contemporary times, all in the form of a long robe in one piece. Therefore, Chinese garments took the above-mentioned two basic forms.

Shenyi, or deep garment, literally means wrapping the body deep within the clothes. This style is deeply rooted in the traditional mainstream Chinese ethics and morals that forbid the close contact of the male and the female. At that time, even husband and wife were not allowed to share the same bathroom, the same suitcase, or even the same clothing lines. A married woman returning to her mother ’s home was not permitted to eat at the same table with her brothers. When going out, a woman had to keep herself fully covered. These rules and rituals were recorded in great detail in the Confucian Book of Rites.

The shenyi is made up of the upper and lower garment, tailored and made in a unique way. There is a special chapter in the Book of Rites detailing the make of the shenyi. It said that in the Warring States Period, the style of the shenyi must conform to the rites and rituals, its style fit for the rules with the proper square and round shapes and the perfect balance. It has to be long enough not to expose the skin, but short enough not to drag on the floor. The forepart is elongated into a large triangle, with the part above the waist in straight cut and the part below the waist bias cut, for ease of movement. The underarm section is made for flexible movement of the elbow, therefore the generous length of sleeves reaches the elbow when folded from the fingertips. Moderately formal, the shenyi is fit for both men of letters and warriors. It ranks second in ceremonial wear, functional, not wasteful and simple in style. Shenyi of this period can be seen in silk paintings unearthed from ancient tombs, as well as on clay and wooden figurines found in the same period, with clear indications of the style, and often even the patterns.

The belt hook is a kind of hanging hookMaterial used for making shenyi is mostly linen, except black silk is employed in garments for sacrificial ceremonies. Sometimes a colorful decorative band is added to the edges, or even embellished with embroidered or painted patterns. When shenyi is put on, the elongated triangular hem is rolled to the right and then tied right below the waist with a silk ribbon. This ribbon was called dadai or shendai, on which a decorative piece is atached. Later on leather belt appeared in the garment of the central regions as an influence of nomadic tribes. A belt buckle is normally attached to the leather belt for fastening. Belt buckles are often intricately made, becoming an emerging craft at the Warring States Period. Large belt buckles can be as long as 30 centimeters, whereas the short ones are about 3 centimeters in length. Materials can be stone, bone, wood, gold, jade, copper or iron, with the extravagant ones decorated with gold and silver, carved in patterns or embellished with jade or glass beads.

By Han Dynasty, shenyi evolved into what is called the qujupao or curved gown, a long robe with triangular front piece and rounded under hem. At the mean time, the straight gown or Zh?upao was also popular, and it was also called chan or yu. When straight gown first appeared, it was not allowed as ceremonial wear, for wearing out of the house or even for receiving guests at home. In Historical Records, comments are found on the disrespectful nature of wearing Chan and Yu to court. The taboo may have come from the fact that, before Han Dynasty, people in the central plains wore trousers without crotches, only two legs of the trousers that meet at the waist, similar to the Chinese infant pants. For this reason, the wearer may look disgraceful if the outer garment is not properly wrapped to cover the body. When dressing etiquette is discussed in Confucian classics, the outer garment is said not to be lifted even in the hottest days, and the only occasion allowing for lifting the outer garment is when crossing of the river. People of the central plains had to kneel before they sit. There were written rules on not allowing sitting with the two legs forward. This rule has to do with the clothing style of the time, when sitting in the forbidden posture may result in disgrace. Later on, along with the close interaction with the riding nomadic, people of the central plains started to accept trousers with crotches.

Historical evidence, be it Han tomb paintings, painted rocks or bricks, or clay and wooden figurines, all portray people wearing long gowns. This style is found most commonly in men, but sometimes in women as well. The so-called paofu refers to long robes with the following features. First of all, it has a lining. Depending on whether it is padded, the garment can be called jiapao or mianpao. Secondly, it most often comes with generously wide sleeves with cinched wrist. Thirdly, it has low cut cross collars to show the under garment. And fourthly, there is often an embroidered dark band at the collar, the wrists and the front hem, often in Kui (a Chinese mythical animal) or checker patterns. The paofu differ in length. Some robes can reach down to the ankles, often worn by men of letters or the elderly, while others are only long enough to cover the knees, worn mostly by warriors or heavy laborers.

Even after paofu became the mainstream attire, shenyi did not disappear – it remained as in women’s garments. First the front lapel elongated and developed into a shenyi with wrap-around lapel. As can be seen in the silk painting in the Changsha Mawangdui Tomb of Han Dynasty, the lady in the painting is dressed in a shenyi with wrap-around lapel, fully embroidered with dragon and phoenix and already a high achievement in the development of female garments.

By the Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), style of paofu evolved into loose-fitting garments with open sleeves (as opposed to cinched sleeves of the previous dynasties). These were called bao yi bo dai or loose robes with long ribbons, exemplifying the carefree style of the wearer. Men’s long robes became increasingly casual and simple, while women’s long robes became more elaborate and complex. Typical women’s garments were well exemplified in the painting of the Gu Kaizhi (circa. 345-409), the great painter of the time. Women wore dresses with decorative cloth on the lower hems of their dresses. These pieces were robe triangular, and hung like banners with rolled edges and embroidered decorative patterns. When the top of the lapel is wrapped up, these triangles create a layered effect and lend rhythm to the women’s movement. Wide sleeves and long hemline, together with the long silk ribbons tying the decorative cloth around the waist, add to the grace of the wearer. There are both similarities and differences between shenyi and paofu. They are both one-piece gowns but shenyi died out while paofu survived up until the present day. Even today in the 21st century, the mere mention of the changpao will bring up an image of a straight gown with side opening under the right arm, its simplicity in style enhanced by the elaboration of weaving and embroidery.

The style of paofu continually evolved in each dynasty. The Han Dynasty shenyi with wide sleeves, the Tang Dynasty round collar gown and the Ming Dynasty straight gown are all typical wide changpaos, mainly preferred by the intelligentsia and the ruling class. Time went by, and the changpao became a typical garment for those with leisure, as well as a traditional garment of the Han people.

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