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The Elegant Wei and Jin Period

Lady in the Wei & Jin Dynasty wearing a long robe with wide sleeves and overlapping hems. In China’s political history, the Wei and Jin Period was a period of volatility, which spanned over 200 years. Frequent changes in political power and incessant wars added to the suffering of the people, who were already devastated by natural disasters and plagues. The once dominant laws and orders collapsed. So did the once unchallenged power of Confucianism. At the meantime, the philosophy of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi became popular; Buddhist scripture was translated; Daoism developed; and humanitarian ideology emerged among the aristocrats. The aristocratic descendants aspired individualism and led the trend in all aspects of social life. This rank of “cultural elite” was engaged in making friends, making social commentaries and controlling public opinions. Their behavior posed a threat to the conservative and the imperial power, which tried to crush them by force. It is not unfitting to say that the life threatening danger and distress was unsurpassed in the Wei and Jin Dynasties. However, another typical image of the Wei and Jin literati was on that indulgence in drinking, merry making, and talking of metaphysics. The treacherous nature of politics forced these scholars to seek comfort and relief in these aspects. Facing the hypocrisy and constraint of traditional orders, they preferred a life of truth and freedom. They sought the carefree lifestyle, the maintenance of good health or indulgence in earthly pleasures. These aristocrats changed significantly in aesthetic taste and behavior, intentionally breaking away from traditional morality in their daily life. Some dressed themselves in free and casual elegance while the rest went to both extremes, sloppy or meticulous.

In this period, people were divided into nine classes by their ranks in court or their property. A clear-cut line was drawn to separate these classes, who may never marry each other. Not only the rich used every opportunity of weddings and funerals to show off their wealth, but the commoners also followed suit. There was a story in Shi-shuo Hsin-yu (A New Account of Tales of the World) that a scholar Ruan Ji (210-263) and his niece Ruan Xian, lived south of the road while some better-off Ruans lived north of the road. Every year on July the 7th of the lunar calendar, the northern Ruans took out their clothing to be aired under the sun, showing off their silks and brocades. In response to this Ruan Ji took out his shoddy underwear made of coarse homespun cloth and sunned it on a bamboo pole. This behavior itself was sarcasm against the showing off and the Confucian formalities with clothes.

The “Seven Gentlemen of the Bamboo Forest” refers to the seven gentlemen of the Wei and Jin Period, including Ruan Ji and Ruan Xian. Today we can still see on wall paintings how they once dressed – the front of the garment dragging to the floor, exposing the chest, arms, shins and feet. This is a rare scene among the literati of the Chinese feudal society, because only the lower class exposed their arms and legs. Moreover, their characters were no less defiant than their clothes. In paintings, Liu Ling, Ji Kang and Wang Rong of the “seven gentlemen” had their hair done in children’s buns, cynical of all the tradition and customs of the world. As far as Chinese folk garments are concerned, the taste of the literati significantly expanded the aesthetics of ancient China. The Chinese classical sense of beauty started out as something quite simple: soft hands and supple skin, sweet smile and beautiful eyes formed the ideal beauty of the Spring and Autumn Period, praising the unpretentious and natural beauty. By the Wei and Jin Period, descriptions of female beauty moved on to include the hairstyle, the dresses and the ornaments. The more sophisticated aesthetics of the Wei and Jin Period brought about great progress in dress and ornaments. Southern Dynasty lady wearing double-bun, a long robe with wide sleeves and low collar and shoes with high shoe tips

In the Wei and Jin Period, especially during the Eastern Jin Period (317-420), the aristocratic women went after an uninhibited life style along with the collapse of the Eastern Han feudal ethical code. These women looked down upon the role society imposed on them, and immersed themselves in socializing, sightseeing, and studies of art, literature and metaphysics, completely defying the feudalistic “virtues” of women. This carefree life style brought about the development of women’s garments in the direction of extravagant and ornate beauty. Wide sleeves and long robes, flying ribbons and floating skirts, elegant and majestic hair ornaments – all these became the trend of Wei and Jin garments.

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