Why The Return of Hanfu Represents A Generational Shift in China

On the streets of Shanghai, content creator Shiyin can be seen wearing a traditional outfit…

On the streets of Shanghai, content creator Shiyin can be seen wearing a traditional outfit from China’s Ming period. Popular on social media, she routinely shares fashion buys, beauty tips and lifestyle vlogs alongside all the latest from Gucci and Lancôme—but it’s her passion for Hanfu that really sets her apart.

“Chinese” clothing is often typified by the qipao (a close-fitting dress also called the cheongsam). However, Hanfu—which is defined as a type of dress from any era when the Han Chinese ruled—is seen in China as a more authentic form of historical clothing. Styles from the Tang, Song, and Ming periods are the most popular; flowing robes in beautiful shades, embellished with intricate designs and embroidery.

Right now, the movement is being led by China’s fashion-conscious youth—a little like how Regency-period hair and makeup has had a boost in popularity, thanks to Netflix’s Bridgerton—and the number of Hanfu enthusiasts almost doubled from 3.56 million in 2019 to more than six million in 2020. Among those you’ll find a purist minority who abhor any historical inaccuracies, and a majority who are attracted to its fantastical elements. Meanwhile, designs can cost between 100 yuan (roughly $15.50 ) to over 10,000 yuan ($1550), and bought from specialist brands such as Ming Hua Tang.

What is most interesting though, is the collective mood that’s being spurred on by Hanfu—after decades of aspiring to western trends, the younger generation is now possibly looking closer to home for a sense of traditionalism. On microblogging platform Weibo, #Hanfu has had over 4.89bn views to date, while on TikTok in China (Douyin), #Hanfu videos have been viewed more than 47.7bn times.

So, as interest in traditional cultural pursuits comes back around, is the past becoming cool once more? Here, Vogue meets Shiyin, one of the most popular figures in this rapidly growing subculture, to find out.