Dress and identity in the Qing

I have been reading Guojun Wang’s Staging Personhood: Costuming in Early Qing Drama.

I am not particularly a student of drama, or of costume, but in the Twentieth Century a lot of attention was paid to dress and hair. From queue-cutting in the early Republic to the Sun Yat-sen suit to Maoist restrictions on dress to the modern Xi Jinping uniform (to cite only some Chinese examples), dress and appearance were always part of creating and changing identity. In the modern period there are lots of sources on all this, but what about the premodern period? How do you get at what people were wearing and what they thought about it without evidence from newspapers and film magazines and photos and propaganda posters? Well in the Qing you can look at theater costumes, which are sometimes pictured often described and sometimes mentioned in decisions to censor plays.

The Manchus, of course had required Han Chinese men to shave their foreheads, grow a queue and adopt new dress as a symbol of loyalty to the dynasty, and these restrictions showed up on stage as well. Wang points out on the very last page of the book that while historians are likely to think that Manchu-ness mattered in the Qing, literature scholars are less likely to think that. Although the book does not dig very deeply into the broader context of any of the issues of discourse and representations it raises, there is a lot of good stuff in here.

The book does not dig very deeply into gender in the Qing, but there is a chapter on the play Lovebird’s Reversal, (pg 61) which centers on a young man who avoids being beheaded by the Manchus by dressing as a woman (and thus avoiding the rules on male dress and to some extent leaving himself out of history) and a woman who avoids being raped by Manchu troops by dressing as a man. After she passes the civil service exams their parents fix them up and they only discover their gender on their wedding night.

The book does not dig very deeply into how Qing subjects understood themselves in history, but there is a lot on “historical” costuming on stage. At least some gentlemen supposedly joined theater troops specifically so they could keep wearing Ming dress and stay out of China’s modern transformation.(pg.49) There is a  section on Korean envoys, who’s “Ming dress” at first evoked tearful nostalgia but later in the dynasty evoked laughter since the envoys seemed to be wearing stage costumes. (p.51) Later in the dynasty rebels would sometimes use costumes as makeshift uniforms.

All this is interesting and fun, but the part of the book I liked best was the long section on Peach Blossom Fan  the classic, and wildly popular, story of Ming loyalism and nostalgia. Needless to say, clothing is a big part of how identity is represented in the story, from the hermits who dress in plain clothes as part of their rejection of Qing society and time to the gradual decline of Ming ritual (and clothing) as the dynasty declines. The death of the loyalist general Shi Kefa  is perhaps the most dramatic example, as he strips himself of his official Ming garb before throwing himself into the river where his body will be eaten by fish. His clothes, and thus his Ming identity are left behind and eventually rot away in the tomb that is built for them. (p. 168.) There is a lot of interesting stuff in this book.




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