Editor’s Note: This feature is part of a wider CNN Style series on how culture in China is evolving in the Xi Jinping era.

Beijing, China CNN  — 

When Zhang Lingshan was a child, she would watch the Chinese period drama “Palace” on television, entranced by the characters’ ancient clothing. The costumes were colorful and regal, long gowns embroidered with lotus flowers and dragons, topped with intricate headpieces.

She didn’t know what these beautiful clothes were called – only that they were from some distant past.

“When I saw it, I really liked it,” she said. “They looked fairy-like, dreamy. I was completely drawn by the beauty of these clothes, and then eventually came to understand the culture of Hanfu, and I liked it more and more.”

Now aged 19 and living in Beijing, Zhang is a member of China’s growing “Hanfu” movement – a renaissance of the ancient clothing traditionally worn by ethnic-majority Han Chinese before the Qing dynasty. The movement, which started in the early 2000s as a fringe subculture on online forums and websites, has now stepped out onto the streets.

Ancient Chinese fashion is making a comeback
02:39 - Source: CNN

Though it’s still not mainstream, if you walk through major cities you may see a fan dressed in the sweeping robes, crossed collars and wide sleeves of Hanfu, which literally translates to “Han clothing.”

There are Hanfu shops, designers and researchers, and even photography studios that rent out accessories and outfits.

Hanfu outfits cost anywhere from $30 to a few thousand dollars, depending on the quality. Sales have soared in recent years – the Hanfu industry’s total market value is estimated to be worth 1.09 billion yuan (about $154 million), according to state-run media China Daily.

Tight-knit Hanfu communities and university clubs often meet up for themed activities like folk games or costume showings. Zhang and her friends sometimes visit places with ancient architecture, like Beijing’s Forbidden City, where emperors once resided, to take photos in costume and post them on social media.

Chen Zhenbing, chairman of the China Hanfu Association, fell in love with the clothing when he was 16 and handmade his first Hanfu suit back when it was still a niche interest. He recalled holding a 2005 Hanfu event that only attracted about 50 attendees – five years later, a similar event drew up to 500 people, he said.

Hanfu fans pose for photographs.

Nowadays, Hanfu events around the country can draw upwards of a thousand attendees.

He and many others see Hanfu as a way to celebrate Chinese culture and improve national self-esteem. For years, Chinese professionals looked to the West for their wardrobes, wearing dress shirts and suits as the country’s economy raced to catch up. Now, “we don’t think China is underdeveloped,” said Christine Tsui, a fashion columnist and researcher based in Shanghai. “So it’s the confidence of the younger people, the confidence of the country.”

And yet, there are others who take a more critical view of Hanfu’s popularity, seeing it as a reflection of a monoethnic nationalist surge under President Xi Jinping, who has repeatedly promoted “traditional virtues” and patriotism.

China officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups, of which 55 are minorities. Han, the majority group, makes up about 92% of the country’s population.

Critics of the movement like Kevin Carrico, a senior research fellow in Chinese Studies at Melbourne’s Monash University, argue that the popularization of Hanfu only reinforces Han cultural dominance, to the detriment of the millions of people making up China’s ethnic minorities.

In this context, he and other academics say Hanfu is no longer just an innocent fashion trend – but something to be weaponized in promoting a nationalistic political agenda.

A contested history

Some enthusiasts have developed guidelines to define “authentic” Hanfu. For instance, while many may consider the tight-fitting, high-necked “qipao” as an example of typical Chinese period clothing, in the Hanfu community, it’s not considered Han clothing because it originated from the ethnic Manchu people.

It can be a touchy topic – some Hanfu sites claim that Manchu leaders forcibly erased Hanfu during the Qing dynasty. “They forced the Han people to drop their costumes, and so this piece of China’s cultural identity almost died out in the 20th century,” reads one article in state-run media.

So for some Hanfu fans, wearing Han clothing becomes an act of cultural and historical reclamation.

A fan takes a break outside a gathering of Hanfu devotees at a park in Beijing.

But this narrative of Han suppression may not be entirely accurate, and determining “authentic” Hanfu is difficult, said Carrico, who studied and wrote about the phenomenon in his book “The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today.”

“There wasn’t any singular style of clothing prior to the Qing (dynasty) that was designated specifically for people of Han ethnicity,” he said in a phone interview.

Carrico argued that Han Chinese wore all types of clothing styles through the dynasties – so there isn’t one Hanfu style but dozens depending on the time period, geographic region and socioeconomic class.

Some Hanfu enthusiasts acknowledge this historical diversity. For instance, Chen said round-collar robes were preferred in the Tang dynasty, while layered wrap dresses were more popular in the Ming dynasty. Still, he said there are a few common design features that characterize Hanfu – a cross collar, no buttons and typically three layers of inner garments and an overcoat. Motifs that are frequently used include embroidered cranes, dragons, swirling clouds and delicate flowers.

This fluidity between the different styles is why 23-year-old Lu Yao, who lives in Beijing, prefers to use the term “Huafu,” which refers to Chinese clothing more generally without the ethnic connotations.

Hanfu was too narrow a term, she said, pointing out that Chinese culture was full of “fusion and integration” between diverse ethnic groups.

However, many fans take pride in the Han distinction of “Hanfu.”

“To some extent, the revival of Hanfu is the revival of Han culture, and the revival of Han culture is also the revival of Chinese culture,” said Chen, who now owns a Hanfu store and helps organize events. “I think the Han nationality is the most powerful and unified nationality in the world, with the most sacred and noble culture. No nationality can compare with the Han nationality.”