The History of Chinese Clothing — The Times of Medieval Empires

Tang Tai-Zong and Empress Zhangsun
Tang Tai-Zong and his ministers

These pictures are stills from the TV drama “the Times of Zhenguan” (贞观之治). “Zhenguan” (贞观) was the year-title (年号) of the reign of Tang Tai-Zong (唐太宗) who was the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty and an excellent statesman. This TV drama is about the history of the reign of Tang Tai-Zong.

In the Sui (隋) and Tang Dynasties, the round-neck garment (圆领袍) became the habiliment of officials. The round-neck garment was from the Middle Asia, and it started to be introduced to Chinese people in the Northern Dynasties (北朝) which were built by nomadic nations. Yang Jian (杨坚), who belonged to the Huaxia nation but became the prime minister of the Northern Zhou (北周) Dynasty, dethroned the last emperor of the Northern Zhou, and built the Sui Dynasty in AD 581. In 589, the Sui Dynasty annexed the Chen (陈) Dynasty which was the last one of the Southern Dynasties (南朝) which were built by the Huaxia nation. In 618, the Tang Dynasty took the place of the Sui Dynasty. In the north, because of the long time(AD 317-581) of the reign of nomadic nations, the northern people of Huaxia were influenced by many customs and cultures of other nations such as round-neck garments, chairs and tall-footed beds (床). However, in the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the orthodox culture and customs of the Huaxia nation remained mainly as before such as kneeling-sit (跪坐) and low bed (榻). Nowadays, Japanese still keep kneeling-sit and low bed, which was actually influenced from cultural exchanges in the Tang Dynasty.

The style of the Tang Dynasty was much different from the style of the Han Dynasty, because the Tang Empire imported and accepted many foreign things. From tri-colored glazed pottery, we can see many pottery figurines wearing western style clothing. Foreign sports were welcome by the Chinese in the Tang Dynasty. Noble ladies liked polo matches. Yang Yuhuan (杨玉环), a famous beautiful but tragic woman, was an excellent polo player.

These pictures are stills from the movie “The Night Banquet” (夜宴). This movie is set in the period of Five Dynasties and Ten Countries (五代十国). From AD 907 to 979, was a time that was very tumultuous, with many wars. Many families became glorious during this time, but declined soon afterward. This period was between the preceding Tang Dynasty and the following Song (宋) Dynasty. The people of this period kept the clothing style of Tang Dynasty and its many customs. Just as the empress in this movie, the noble women during this time liked to play polo. They also enjoyed riding horses and taking a leisurely stroll. Middle Asian cultures and customs influenced them very deeply. But, there weren’t such women around any longer because Confucianism’s views had been hardened into stone, and a woman’s individuality was purposely oppressed. This hardened trait became obvious since the Song Dynasty. Confucian classic works include Poetic Classics (诗经), a collection of 305 poems of Zhou Dynasty. Many of these poems show open and amorous feelings. The Song Dynasty’s Confucianists though, couldn’t accept these feelings, and they distorted the meanings of these lines. Because of the natural romantic character of the Huaxia people, the women in the Pre-Qin Period could show themselves openly and could love bravely without worry. But the Qin Dynasty oppressed and destroyed this type of open thought and feeling. The women in the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties were influenced by foreign nations, so they had different customs of open thoughts and free feelings.

The two pictures above are stills from the TV drama “The Uncanny Cases of Song” (大宋奇案) (Part I). This drama is about a well-known uncanny case of the Northern Song (北宋) Dynasty. In the TV drama, Song Zhen-Zong (宋真宗, the third emperor of the Northern Song Empire, who was on the throne from AD 997 to 1022) loved a young beautiful woman named Li Yu (李玉). Song Zhen-Zong let her be one of his concubines. One of Song Zhen-Zong’s concubines was Liu E (刘娥), a very influential concubine. She couldn’t bear a son for the emperor, so she was worried that she would be replaced by Li Yu. Yet though she thought this way, the emperor didn’t dislike Liu E any less. They actually loved each other deeply even before Song Zhen-Zong became the emperor. But Liu E couldn’t understand the emperor’s heart. When Li Yu was pregnant, Liu E pretended to be pregnant. The day that Li Yu gave birth to a child, Liu E sent her trusted subordinates to get the child by machinations and bribes. They purposely wrapped a dead cat in swaddling clothes, and slandered Li Yu to be connected with misfortune. Song Zhen-Zong was a superstitious emperor and thought this misfortune was bad luck, but he didn’t have the heart to punish Li Yu. Liu E sent subordinates to try to assassinate Li Yu. Upon hearing of this attempt on her life, Li Yu had to leave the imperial palace secretly. Now Liu E wrongly thought Li Yu was dead. Liu E wanted a maidservant to put the son of Li Yu to death, but the maidservant was kind and gave the child to an old minister who was righteous and kind. Liu E pretended to give birth to a child, but in fact, the child was the son of the emperor and a woman who was trusted by Liu E. Because of Liu E’s deception, Song Zhen-Zong wrongly thought Liu E bore him a son, so he let Liu E become an empress and the child become his heir. Many years later, the child died accidentally, so ministers suggested to select a royal child to be an heir. With the help of Bao Zheng (包拯) who was a famous upright official, the old minister persuaded a royal member to send the son of Li Yu to the imperial palace as the son of the royal member. The son of Li Yu was a clever boy, and the emperor liked him very much. The child was ordered to be the heir of the emperor. Bao Zheng then told the truth to the emperor. The emperor was very angry, and went to blame Liu E. When the emperor met Liu E, he was angrier and spit blood. Finally, the emperor died, and he never met Li Yu again. The new emperor finally met his real mother Li Yu, and he decided to punish Liu E. But Li Yu was a kind and gentle woman. She forgave Liu E for her evil ways. Liu E didn’t want to live alone and in shame any longer, and she eventually killed herself. For the past thousand years, many people often talk about this story. They remember how some in this beautiful story extolled righteousness and kindness, and condemned evil. They wish all kind persons would have a happy ending.

Yike Jiang avatar