Blog #2: Cosmopolitan Chinese Identity in Comics: Representations of Traditional Clothing (Hanfu).

I have analyzed quantitative data that I collected from a large comic convention in Shanghai last summer, and made preliminary findings on the current revival of traditional clothing fashion (Hanfu) in contemporary China. The Hanfu fashion, as a new trend of popular culture among urban youths, has made visible influence in the fashion industry over the last 5 years, transforming itself from an old-fashioned, yet controversial, style into a widely accepted dressing choice. With assistance from my faculty mentor, Prof. Joseph Lee, I am able to incorporate my oral and ethnographic materials into my summative investigation. By comparing my first-hand observation with the scholarly literature on Chinese popular culture, I am able to contextualize the current trend of Hanfu fashion as a newly emerged  urban style that juxtaposes tradition and modernity in an affluent and cosmopolitan society.

Historically, the Hanfu fashion was part of a larger national movement to revive Chinese cultural identity. Lately, this artistic dressing style has been welcomed by urban youths as a favorite way to express their individualism. My study argues that the Hanfu fashion not only entails a new urban dressing style, but also has a profound impact on contemporary Chinese cultural industry, especially the growth of the ACG (Animation, Comics and Gaming) culture. Nowadays, large-scaled comic conventions are one of the most important sites for the Hanfu fashion fans to get dressed up as traditional Chinese, share ideas and exchange interests. Besides the clothing fashion, a growing numbers amount of Chinese animations and games have used the Hanfu elements as their dominant theme, portraying characters in the traditional clothing style.

Empirically, my study relies on the first-hand field observation from the comic convention in Shanghai as well as from my years-long experience as a freelance Hanfu designer. In fact, the majority of Hanfu fashion designers and consumers are young people between 12 and 25 years old, and the average cost of a whole Hanfu suit costs about US$22 to 35, which is very affordable for middle-class and lower middle-class consumers. The traditional clothing is relatively cheap to produce compared with the conventional clothing, but some elaborately designed traditional styles cost or sell for over US$1,200. Given the affordability, urban school and college students are keen to adopt the Hanfu dressing in everyday life. It is common for them to wear Chinese traditional clothing in public. Nowadays, it is not surprised to see young people, in major Chinese cities, wearing long sleeved skirts inside shopping malls and tourist sites. However, just five years ago, people’s awareness of Hanfu was far less than it is now. To better understand this unique stylistic change of fashion against the backdrop of larger socioeconomic and cultural transformations in China, I review several scholarly publications on modern and contemporary Chinese arts.

The first book that I consulted is entitled The Return of Hanfu (Beijing, 2016), written by Chinese journalist Na Yang and others. Full of illustrations and historical background, this publication provides us with a general account of the revive of the Hanfu fashion since 2004. Yang’s findings help me to identify several significant Hanfu movements that took place in China since the 2000s, all of which have shaped today’s Hanfu culture. My research of the Hanfu fashion draws attention to a similar trend of integrating modern artistic techniques into the Chinese comic art during the early 20th century, a topic of discussion in Wendy Gan’s Comic China: Representing Common Ground(Philadelphia, 2018). Wendy Gan singles out Shanghai as the cross-cultural center between East and West since the 19th century. Comic artists from that early period profoundly influenced today’s ACGculture. A scholarly article about the life of early-20th-century cartoonist Zikai Feng in Shelley Drake Hawks’ The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China(Washington,2017) enables me to argue that the first generation of Chinese comic artists learned and absorbed the variety of comic art forms from Japanese manga and Western comics. Rather than coping the Japanese and Western styles, artists such as Zikai Feng developed his own unique technique to portray ordinary workers who were trapped in Shanghai’s modernized landscape, thereby commenting on the brutality of urbanization. Today, what is happening in China is similar to what happened in Feng’s period. Borrowing from the Japanese popular culture has become an integrated part of the influential Chinese ACG culture. Many young ACG artists study thoroughly the styles of their Japanese counterparts, and utilize their techniques to narrate the Chinese story for a domestic audience.

Furthermore, the new generation of both Chinese Hanfu and ACG artists are not necessarily trained at professional art academies. Thanks to the proliferation of social media technologies, the artists can easily learn the basic techniques and utilize the newly available software to improve their computer graphic designs. As a result, minors and college students turn to the Hanfu fashion and ACG as their hobby, and they make up the majority of the ACG artists. Taking myself as an example, I have worked as  an independent ACG artist since I was 15 year old. It was convenient to get commission for my artistic products from companies on the Internet, as long as my works attracted much online attention. This convenience, however, has a downside. The current Chinese market demand for the Hanfu fashion designers does not reach the same professional level of many well-funded conventional fashion design companies. Consequently, a poor awareness of the intellectual property of the Hanfu artists prompts many companies to pirate the original designs of proper artists, causing numerous commercial disputes. The legal protection of the Hanfu fashion arts and products should be a new area of concern among scholars and government officials.

Several questions emerge from my current research. First, when a popular cultural trend like the Hanfu fashion becomes so influential in contemporary China, what does this cultural trend tell us about the socio-cultural values and norms of today’s young consumers?  Second, given the lack of legal protection of the Hanfu artists’ intellectual property, what are some potential limitations on the growth of this upcoming Hanfu market in China? Third, since the Hanfu fashion is closely connected with other modes of urban popular culture, both online and offline, I think that I need to problematize the conventional scholarly understanding of the conceptual term Hanfu. I ought to develop a more holistic definition of this analytical term that represents the deliberate mixing style of various dressing styles among young consumers’ fashion, and the impacts of this traditional fashion in Chinese animation, comics and gaming. Only by doing so can I better understand the co-existence of tradition and modernity in today’s Chinese young consumers’ values and behavioral norms.


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