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Chinese painting of four women wearing long robes

Ming dynasty (1400s AD) painting by Tang Yin

Tunics and padded jackets and pants

People in China generally wore tunics (like long t-shirts). Women wore long tunics down to the ground, with belts, and men wore shorter ones down to their knees. Sometimes they wore jackets over their tunics. In the winter, when it was cold, people wore padded jackets over their tunics, and sometimes pants under them.

Silk and hemp

In early China, poor people made their clothes of hemp or ramie, which is a plant like nettles. Rich people wore silk, and, like the women in this picture, they often wore more than one tunic, in layers.

Read more about hemp cloth
Read more about Chinese silk
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During the Sui Dynasty, in the 500s AD, the emperor decided that all poor people had to wear blue or black clothes, and only rich people could wear colors. That didn’t last long though, as you can see from the picture of T’ang Dynasty farmers below.

More about the Sui Dynasty

Feather capes

In China’s version of the Cinderella story, her magic fish grants her a feather cape to wear to the Qingming Jie Spring Festival. I think that’s interesting because people also wore feather capes in the Americas.

Cherokee clothing

What were the hairstyles of ancient China?

three little clay figures; two hold hoes and one holds a shovel. They're good examples of medieval Chinese clothing: one wears a bright red knee-length tunic and has his hair in a bun. He is clean-shaven. One wears a knee-length blue tunic and a maroon jacket. His hair is the same. The third man wears tan pants and a white shirt, with a blue overshirt over one shoulder. He has a short beard.

Chinese clothing and hairstyles: Three farmers from T’ang Dynasty China, 700s AD

Most people in China, both men and women, wore their hair long. People said that you got your hair from your parents and so it was disrespectful to cut it.

Ancestor worship in China

Both men and women wore their hair up in a bun, fastened with wooden or ivory sticks. That kept your long hair out of your way.

What is ivory?

Did men shave their beards in ancient China?

Most men shaved their beards or grew a narrow beard on just their chin, but men in China often grew long mustaches.

When did Chinese embroidery get started?

Han Dynasty embroidery of a red and black dragon

Han Dynasty embroidery (200 BC-200 AD)

The invention of the steel sewing needle, about 200 BC, made it possible for the first time to do fine embroidery and fine sewing. The steel needles were so thin that they didn’t make big holes in the cloth.

More about needles and embroidery

So from the Han Dynasty onward, rich people liked to show off by having a lot of embroidery all over their clothes.

Did people in ancient China get tattoos?

Most people in ancient China thought tattoos were terrible, for the same reason that they didn’t cut their hair: because you got your body from your parents and it was disrespectful to change it. In China, people thought of tattoos as something foreigners did, like people from Central Asia or from Vietnam.

Chinese painting of a doctor treating a patient

Chinese village doctor treating a man by burning herbs on his back (Song Dynasty, ca. 950 AD., now in National Palace Museum, Taiwan) – or is the doctor trying to remove the man’s tattoos?

Tattoos may have become more common in the Han Dynasty when the new steel needles were invented. But when people in China did get tattoos, it was often because somebody forced them to.

More about Central Asian clothing

Chinese government officials and slave-owners sometimes tattooed criminals and enslaved people. Tattoos were a way of shaming people and marking them as property. Under the Song Dynasty, the army also tattooed draftees and prisoners of war. Apparently some people used moxibustion – burning bundles of herbs on your skin – to try to get rid of the tattoos.

More about moxibustion

On the other hand, some people did want to get tattoos. Soldiers sometimes got tattoos of Chinese characters with strong messages like “Serve loyally.” And in some Chinese stories, men do have big colored tattoos of dragons and fairies, though other people look down on them for it.

(More about tattoos in medieval China)

X-ray pictures of someone with bound feet and a diagram

X-ray pictures of someone with bound feet and a diagram

Foot-binding in medieval China

In the Song Dynasty, about 1100 AD, a fashion started at the emperor’s court for women to bind their feet. Women thought that to be beautiful they needed little tiny feet, only about three inches long. They got these tiny feet by wrapping tight bandages around the feet of little girls, about five or six years old.

Song Dynasty clothing

embroidered tiny shoe

An embroidered shoe for someone with bound feet

The bandages were so tight they broke the girls’ toes and bent them underneath their feet and then they had to walk on them like that. The girls spent most of their time crying for two or three years and then the feet stopped hurting so much. Women with bound feet couldn’t walk very well at all, and when they had to work in the fields often they would crawl.

Cinderella and bound feet

Some early versions of the story of Cinderella come from Song Dynasty China. In these versions, the point of the story is that the Prince loves Cinderella because she has the smallest feet of any girl in the kingdom, so the slipper will only fit her.

Read the Chinese Cinderella story

Foot-binding and child labor

But bound feet weren’t really all about beauty. Many families chose to bind girls’ feet because bound feet forced young girls to sit still all day, and then they would spin and weave more cloth for the family to sell. Making cloth was a way families could get money for food and rent, so foot-binding was popular for that reason too.

Read more about the Chinese economy

A video about foot-binding

Cotton comes to China

Then in the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols brought cotton to China. At first people didn’t want to grow cotton, maybe because the people running the silk industry wanted to keep people buying silk. But the Mongol invasions in the 1200s destroyed a lot of the mulberry trees that were needed to make silk.

The Mongols in China

The Mongol emperors, like Kublai Khan, turned to cotton to fill the gap. In 1289 AD they ordered the opening of special training centers to teach farmers how to grow cotton. And in 1296 they ordered that farmers who grew cotton could pay lower taxes.

History of cotton

Soon everyone liked cotton better than ramie or hemp. Cotton was warmer, and softer, and stronger, and cheaper. You could make it thin for summer, or you could make thick padded clothes out of it that were warm for winter.

Looking for tips for costumes of different periods? Check out these pictures of what women wore in each Chinese dynasty.

Learn by doing: check out some hemp clothing in a store
Later Chinese Clothing

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Chinese clothing:

China and Japan (Cultures and Costumes), by Paula Hammond (2003). For teens.

Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes, by Nina Simonds and others (Children’s Museum of Boston, 2002).

Chinese Clothing: An Illustrated Guide, by Valery Garrett (1994). Expensive, but there’s a lot of pictures. Some of it deals with a time period later than this site.

5000 Years of Chinese Costumes, by Zhou Xun and Gao Chunming (1987). This is for theater costumers and historians, and really goes into detail, with great pictures – but it’s not cheap. Get it through your library.

Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli (2004). A novel for young adults about footbinding in medieval China.

How to make Chinese costumes, Chinese food, and some ideas for activities
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