Traditional Chinese Clothes of Poor People

Updated July 19, 2017

Stark class divisions existed throughout China's long history. These divisions were marked and accentuated by clothing. While the expense of silk made it perennially unavailable to poor people, imperial edict limited the choice of colour among the Chinese peasant class. The cost of clothing meant that ceremonial clothing and their impracticalities were an extravagance the poorest Chinese could not afford.

Cut and Style

The cut of Chinese peasant clothing has been relatively consistent for several thousand years. From the Shang dynasty of 1600 B.C. until the 12th century, a loosefitting tunic or cloak known as the hanfu was predominant. The one-piece version was known as the ch'ang p'ao, while the two-piece version was called the shenyi. The gendered shenyi was developed during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, with men's tunics reaching to the knees and women's extending to the ankles. Their voluminous sleeves and narrow cuffs were both elegant and practical, allowing for freedom of movement and the storage of small personal belongings. During the winter months, padded jackets were worn over the top for warmth.

Pre- and Post-Mongol Invasion Materials

While silk fabrics were used beginning at least in 3500 B.C., China's poorest people were never able to afford them. Instead, their clothes were woven from harsh but durable hemp and ramie. The Mongol invasion's decimation of Chinese silviculture and contemporaneous introduction of the cotton plant had an egalitarian effect on Chinese attire, making cotton the most widely used fabric for all classes after 1289 A.D.

Colours and Dyes

Peasant clothing included very few colours, most commonly black, brown, blue, yellow and red. Throughout most of Chinese history, that was due to the expense of the materials needed for bold colours. Poor people could obtain dyes from only commonly available vegetative and mineral sources. During the Sui dynasty, however, an imperial edict further accentuated the class divide. The emperor decreed that peasants could wear only black and blue, with all other colours reserved for the aristocratic classes.

Advent of Foot Binding

During the Sung dynasty, circa 1100 A.D., the practice of foot binding began. The aesthetic of the time dictated that feminine beauty necessitated small feet, often only 3 inches in length. This was achieved by wrapping the rapidly growing feet of 5- and 6-year-old girls in tight bandages, resulting in the permanent warping and compression of the bones of their feet. While this practice was not as common among poor Chinese classes as in the aristocracy, it was still often practised.

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About the Author

Canaan Downs began working as a grant writer for nongovernmental organizations in 2003. While in the Himalayas, he managed the Tibetan Medical Digitalization Project, and he also writes for "The Climber" magazine, the "New Zealand Alpine Journal" and Downs received his Master of Arts in religious studies at Victoria University of Wellington.