Delving into Wuxia: the intricacies and symbolism of costumes and cosplay in ancient Chinese fashion
Last December, as another year - and another decade - came to a close, I began my journey into Wuxia. For the uninitiated, “wuxia” - which translates to “martial heroes”- is a genre of fiction centered on the pseudo-stories and adventures of martial artists in ancient China. With origins in fantasy literature, Wuxia’s growing popularity as a subset of Chinese pop culture has seen it be embraced in other forms of media including animation, live-action dramas/films, and video games.
My introduction to this fantastical world of brilliant stories, strong characters and emotive resolutions happened in 2018 with live-action drama Nirvana in Fire, a Count of Monte Christo-esque story of revenge, political powerplay and personal tragedy. However, the blooming curiosity in my heart for Chinese period dramas became a cultural obsession when I began watching The Untamed on Netflix. What started as a simple way to occupy time led to a fall deep down a rabbit hole into Wuxia. Soon, the idea of values and traditions being reflected in Chinese fashion – particularly via TV and film - took root.
Questions began swirling. How connected is fashion on screen to the heritage and history of China? How much of the costume choices in Wuxia is fantasy? Where’s the balance between realism and fantasy? How symbolic is a costume? Is it possible to combine ancient roots with modern Chinese fashion trends, or does that tamper with the culture? The questions were endless…
To understand about the significance of ancient Chinese fashion, we first need to go back to its advent. The same big ask was made easy by Jen, known as Ziseviolet on Tumblr. Having been fascinated by the ancient Chinese clothes she saw in TV shows, films, and art, as a little girl, she started the blog in December 2014 as a way to share own passion and educate more people about ancient Chinese fashion.
Jen took me through the evolution of Chinese fashion. Speaking about the long history attached to traditional Chinese fashion, she explained “Chinese clothing has approximately 5,000 years of history behind it. The term hanfu - the dress of ethnic Chinese people - was coined in the Han dynasty“.
Jen‘s blog summarizes a brief timeline of Chinese fashion. She explains that, in the Han dynasty, the one-piece garment remained the formal dress for women. The female attire during this period was decorated with xian – long ribbons which extended from the short-cut skirt- and shao, which refers to pieces of silk cloth sewn onto the lower hem of the dress, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom to resemble the tail of a swallow.
In the Wei and Jin periods that followed, the women wore generally large and loose garments; the upper garments with broad sleeves and fringed cuffs were opened at the front, and were tied at the waist. The lower garments began diversifying in terms of colours (crimson,striped,multi-coloured), cut (barrel-shaped, double skirt) and material used (gauze).
Similar to the Wei and Jin periods, in the Southern and Northern Dynasties men no longer wore the traditional one-piece garment, while women continued to do so. The difference came from the fact that women’s attire was no longer decorated with xian and shao. The long-flying ribbons were no longer seen, and the swallow-tailed corners became enlarged, thus combining two decorations into one.
Next came the periods of the Sui and early Tang, where short jackets with tight sleeves were worn in conjunction with a tight long skirt with the waist fastened almost to the armpits with a silk ribbon. The Tang dynasty, the most prosperous period in China’s feudal society, saw the spread of Chinese culture to other parts of the world such as Vietnam, India and the east Roman Empire, accelerating the evolution of Chinese fashion to include exotic forms of clothing including hats. The Tang dynasty brought focus to the face, pioneering the use of makeup such as powder and rouge.
Just as the Tang dynasty introduced the use of makeup, the Song dynasty focused on hairstyles, with the high bun being the favoured style among women. In this period, women’s upper garments consisted mainly of a coat, blouse, loose-sleeved dress, over-dress, short-sleeved jacket, and vest. The lower garment was mostly a skirt. The following Yuan dynasty saw the use of jackets and skirts in light, serene colours.
During the Ming dynasty, women’s garments consisted mainly of gowns, coats, rosy capes, over-dresses with or without sleeves, and skirts – imitating styles of those first seen in the Tang and Song Dynasties. During the Qing dynasty under Manchurian rule, Chinese men were forced to adopt Manchurian customs, and decreed to shave their heads as a sign of submission.
On the other hand, Chinese women were not pressured to adopt Manchurian clothing and fashions. Women wore skirts as their lower garments, and red skirts were for women of position. As the dynasty drew to an end, the wearing of trousers became the fashion among commoner women.
From the Tang dynasty until the 1920s, women preferred a flat and straight cut for their wardrobe. Later, they began embracing their curves and paying attention to the make of their dresses to ensure that they accentuated the figure.
In this time, the most popular item of a Chinese woman’s wardrobe was the qi pao. Originally the dress of the Manchus, it was adopted by Han women in the 1920s. Modifications and improvements were then made so that for a time, it became the most fashionable form of dress for women in China, continuing to be a trending design even today. As Jen explains, “Fashion is a big part of Chinese heritage and culture. Even today, Chinese people will still wear traditional clothing (mainly Tangzhuang and Qipao) during special occasions, such as lunar new year, weddings, and parties. Many Chinese couples still wear traditional red wedding clothes for their wedding ceremony.”
So, if people are still tied to wearing traditional attire during special occasions, what about the rest of the time? Are there ways to blend traditions into modern fashion? Hong Kong fashion brand Shanghai Tang uses traditional silhouettes, mandarin collars, and frog buttons. Chinese brand Heaven Gaia takes inspirations from traditional flowing silhouettes and watercolor paintings. Luxury fashion brand Guo Pei goes a step ahead to merge Western silhouettes with Chinese embroideries and motifs such as dragons and phoenixes. It turns out innovation is abundant in Chinese fashion; they move forward with the times while still staying rooted to their rich culture.
Despite the flawless incorporation of traditional elements into modern fashion as well as the wealth of knowledge regarding hanfu and ancient Chinese fashion available online, the most popular source of this fashion for many people – like it was for me- is film. But, how much of the fashion presented in these mediums is realistic?
On the balance between realism and fantasy when it comes to Chinese fashion, Jen says, “When it comes to Wuxia dramas specifically, the fashion and costumes choices tend to be less realistic than non-Wuxia historical dramas. I would say that 50% of the fashion and costume choices in Wuxia dramas are inspired by realistic portrayals of the time period, and the rest is artistic/creative liberties.”
On the creative liberties taken, she adds, “Most Chinese dramas that supposedly take place in ancient times do not have historically accurate costumes - the designs are usually exaggerated or changed in some way for aesthetic effect. For example, the super flashy Tang Dynasty clothing in The Empress of China - a type of “stylized hanfu” clothing - is very common in modern TV shows, games, and art - and is often referred to as guzhuang/古装 (lit. “ancient costumes”) to differentiate it from the historically accurate hanfu.
Jen relents that inaccuracies aren’t always a bad thing if it enhances the visual aspect of the drama. She also add that she believes the accuracy of hanfu in Chinese dramas is in fact improving.
She uses the 2019 Chinese television drama The Legend of Haolan as an example that does it relatively right. She explains, “This drama is set during the Warring States period, and the costumes are stylistically accurate for the time period, consisting mainly of cross-collared one-piece robes such as Quju and Zhiju. The costumes accurately utilize deep and rich colour tones, and make use of embroidery and patterns in line with the earthy palette and style of Warring States clothing. They’ve also put a lot of effort put into the accessories, from the beautiful dangling jade Jinbu (waist ornaments) to the impressive headgear for men!” She admits that the accuracy is still only around 60%, but commends the drama for its presentation of ancient Chinese fashion.
We move over to another Tumblr user - Gin, aka wuxia-hero. Having started their blog in 2015, Gin loves Chinese historical dramas and the elements of fashion associated with these dramas. A Singaporean-Chinese university student and writer, Gin’s description of what attracts people to Chinese dramas is poignant. ”There’s always a romantic kind of aspect in historical dramas... not in the relationship way, but in a poetic way. I’ve always been more interested in historic dramas because the stories are often rarely about plain romance. There is always something bigger outside of the main couple, like corrupted governments, searching for a higher power, defeating fate. These are things that are actually still relevant in today’s society and to me it really gets one thinking about what that says about history as a whole. It seems like we rarely learn from the past.”
How important is clothing to both a character and a story? Does the fashion affect the appeal of a character? “I love finding out more about the historical significance of certain robes and hairstyles. Every piece of clothing the character is wearing already tells the audience about what kind of character this person is.
“For example, some hairstyles are only reserved for royalty and certain types of robes can only be worn by a person of a significant social standing. The wardrobes for Ballad of the Desert and The Classics of Mountains and Seas are some of my favourites.
“In xianxia dramas, which is a more mythological version of historic dramas featuring magic, demons, ghosts and Chinese folklore, the wardrobe is often one of the most fun to observe because it’s like traditional clothing but with so many more elements to it.”
On how much of a difference the costume choices make to the overall appeal of a character, Gin believes that it depends on the role. “There are some shows where the characters show up in whacky outfits (For example, the 14th Prince in The Eternal Love and the entire wardrobe for Go Princess Go). For the 14th Prince, it was sad because he was adorable, but all I remembered from the first season were the hideous yellow feathers he had on his outfit. The outfit doesn’t have to be 100% accurate, but I think that it should not be so jarring that it distracts you entirely from the characters themselves.”
A fan of xianxia drama Ice Fantasy, Gin commends the overall appeal of the characters. “The addition of colours besides neutral tones really added to the ‘fantasy’ kind of feeling and suited the show and characters well. The headpieces and other accessories in Ice Fantasy were also really well designed.”
But, where it wins on wardrobe, it loses on makeup. “Makeup also plays quite an important role when contributing to fashion in these shows. Ice Fantasy had brilliant costume designs and sets but, for some reason, the makeup was always off – harsh contour, and an unflattering scheme of the eyeshadow for certain characters like the Fire King”.
While showing more affinity to xianxia over wuxia, Gin still appreciates the intricacy of accessories such as jewelry and weapons in wuxia. Speaking of the swords in The Untamed, Gin says “There is a post going around about the weapons used in The Untamed. You can tell the team really put in a lot of effort into the design of the swords to reflect the characters.”
We’ve covered the history, cultural significance and the layer of appeal that fashion adds to historic Chinese dramas. Now comes the question of symbolism. How symbolic is a character’s costume design? How much do their clothes, headwear, and weapons lend to who they are and who they become in the story?
Symbolism, a way to connect what may seem mundane and unintentional to something with more depth. The answers come from Gabrielle, who runs fytheuntamed, a Tumblr fan account for The Untamed. Taking a deep dive into The Untamed and its symbolic value, she begins by breaking down the fashion of the protagonist -– who also happens to be her favourite character-of the series: Wei Wuxian (referred to going forward as WWX).
The story for The Untamed, based on popular LGBTQ+ novel Mo Dao Zu Shi, centres around WWX who goes from an easy-going, happy-go-lucky youngster to the most feared and hated villain within the world of the story.
Gabrielle begins by breaking down WWX outfit choices and colour schemes; in total he wears 18 different outfits. “He primarily wears just two colours throughout the show: red and black. I think it’s worth noting that the reds in his wardrobe are always either accents (belt, arm cuffs, hairpiece) or his innermost robes.
“Another thing to note is that while Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng ( WWX’s adopted siblings) clearly wear Yunmeng Jiang colours ( shades of purple) WWX doesn’t. You can debate that this is either his personal choice, or something that stems from his lingering insecurities over whether he truly belongs or not to the Jiang clan, either way, colour-wise, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
“There are only a few instances where we see him wearing colours that aren’t red and black. One of the most subtle yet important changes to his wardrobe happens in episode 17, when he and his siblings remain the only survivors of their clan’s massacre. For the first and last time, we see WWX with purple accents - that is, the colours related to the family he just lost, in his outfit.
“The next major change occurs after his resurrection when he is stabbed in episode 42. A sweet detail that many may not have picked up is that towards the end of episode 42 when WWX is once more in a complete outfit, he is wearing an overcoat that has some sort of embroidery on either side of the upper back. This is the first time we see this overcoat, and up close you can see that the thread used for the embroidery is light blue- not WWX’s choice of colour – but the colours are connected with the cloud motifs of the Lan clan – and this is the clan he marries into [in the novel].”
Here, Gabrielle makes an interesting observation towards symbolism and colour theory in Chinese culture. She notes that after his resurrection, WWX is mostly seen in black clothing without any accents (beyond those mentioned above), which in conjunction with white is associated with death and mourning respectively – taking into account that Lan Wangji (LWJ) wears white. WWX died and he is wearing black; LWJ was left behind mourning and he is wearing white.
This draws the perfect parallel with another set of “soulmates” in the show, Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. Gabrielle says, “Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen represent a what-if scenario of our leads’ story. Both are dressed in black and white again. They act as a visual representation of ying and yang, or rather, what happens when ying and yang becomes just ying or just yang.”
In the story, Song Lan and Xian Xingchen part ways, and their wardrobe shifts to reflect their emotional state. While Xiangchen roamed the world, Lan‘s white robes had black trimmings. That spark of colour matches Lan’s black attire. After going their separate ways, the trimmings disappear. His robes are now symbolic of mourning - robes that mourn the loss of his closest friend.
Beyond emotional symbols, Gabrielle also makes the point to mention more tangible notes of symbolism. She says, “Clothing in The Untamed, just like in real life, can also be used to communicate one’s status. Common folk in the drama tend to wear very simple clothing in earthy tones. The Jin clan show their wealth through their clothing, among other things. Jin Ling (WWX’s nephew) has golden strings in his hair and a lot of the detailing on Jin clothing is in golden thread. The way in which a clan adorns themselves can also be seen as a visual representation of their values. The Nie clan’s clothing is understated from afar, but very textured and detailed up close. The Lan clan, for whom material wealth is not paramount, dress simply.” With hairpieces, Lan Wangji’s becomes larger and more intricate as he gets older and becomes increasingly responsible.
On her Tumblr, Gabrielle has also reblogged another interesting post on the implications of hairstyles within this drama – the images and written analysis below.
The Untamed is spectacular when it comes to symbolism. But, it’s not the only example of it done well. Jen pointed out that the best example she could think of was the famous wuxia film Hero by Zhang Yimou. “In this movie, the main characters wear clothing with colours that are heavily symbolic: black, white, red, green, and blue. All the colours mean something to the story’s narrative.”
With the questions regarding symbolism behind me, it was time to look into creative expression of wuxia/xianxia beyond the screen. Reaching out to film-maker Michelle of Fish and Swallow Productions was the best way to find out about one of the most popular means of creative expression: cosplay.
“Cosplay, specifically, is the dressing up of a character with a preexisting design. As long as there’s no black-facing/brown-facing/yellow-facing involved and it’s done respectfully and in an informed manner, it’s fine to cosplay as a character outside of one’s ethnicity, within reason.
“Things like sacred ornamentation may be the exception to this – a Buddhist character might carry prayer beads for example, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to carry real prayer beads to a convention for your cosplay.”
She breaks down the argument of creative expression versus cultural appropriation with the simplest term: respect. “Respect in this instance doesn’t just mean appreciation alone, but understanding the cultural and historical context behind certain designs, when and where it’s appropriate to wear this in real life, and when you should abstain. An example would be a Lunar New Year festival for example – while it might be appropriate to wear a hanfu to a Chinese-centric LNY festival, it might not be appropriate to wear one to a Korean-centric LNY festival, or vice versa.”
Jen mirrors Michelle’s sentiments. “In my opinion, creative freedom is more important than historical accuracy when cosplaying, because cosplay itself is supposed to be a fun and creative activity. Cosplayers don’t need to be completely accurate to the period they are cosplaying, especially if the original source wasn’t completely accurate to the time period in the first place.
“However, cosplayers need to be careful about making sure they avoid glaring inaccuracies that would take the viewer completely out of the “world” the cosplayer is trying to create. Examples include visible zippers, modern accessories, and wearing the hanfu collar right over left.”
The hanfu movement in China has given birth to many brands that specialize in a kind of “fusion” fashion, combining ancient and traditional styles with modern trends. There is a word for this kind of fashion, too – it’s called hanyuansu (fashion with elements of hanfu). Gin, who doesn’t cosplay, adds to this other form of creative expression by incorporating elements of the accessories or clothing into her own wardrobe.
The final question is where to draw the line between creative freedom, modernity and cultural roots. My final expert is Jasmine who runs popular Tumblr blog hanfu-asks. Jasmine explains that historical accuracy doesn’t necessarily mean good cultural representation. ”Is it okay to just wear hanfu as long as it looks right? 99% of people are not wearing historically accurate hanfu -I don’t wear historically accurate hanfu either- because it’s almost impossible due to available materials and the kind of lifestyle we lead. But does that mean it’s wrong? I don’t think so.”
Alongside historical accuracy, Jasmine makes a strong case regarding lumping together Asian cultures and fashions. “I think my biggest pet peeve is Asian clothing being lumped into one style. There are huge differences between Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, and so on. Lots of people melt these cultures into “Asian clothing” It’s super racist. If you’re going to wear hanfu, at least tell the world it’s specifically hanfu.”
At the end of multiple engaging and intelligent conversations, what sticks out most about is the universality of this unique and traditional culture which pulls people in regardless of language or cultural barriers. It’s rooted in a fiercely-guarded heritage, but, like many contemporary topics, a little education goes a long way.
Malvika is an award-winning Indian-origin freelance journalist covering music and culture. Thanks to the wuxia community of Jen, Gabrielle, Gin, Jasmine, and Michelle for their assistance in this article.