A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

Umbrellas are very common in daily life. Whether it’s a hot sun or a downpour, an umbrella is definitely your best assistant. Not only that, in the modern hanfu shooting, the appearance rate of the ancient style oil-paper umbrella is extremely high.

The demand for shade from the sun and rain has been there since ancient times, take a look, the the history of ancient Chinese umbrellas, to see what kind of umbrellas the ancients used.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese UmbrellasA Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

 

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Pre-Qin Period

The early Chinese umbrellas were called “Gai (盖)” or “Deng (簦)“, made of grass, pieces of bamboo, etc., with a handle to hold, much like the current umbrella, but it could not be put away.

Chinese umbrellas made of silk first appeared in the Western Zhou period, silk umbrellas are expensive, generally used by the nobility, are mainly decorative items and symbols of power for the dignitaries, noblemen, and the scholar.

The common people could not afford to buy silk umbrellas, so they mostly used Douli (斗笠), or Suoyi (蓑衣, straw raincoats) in their lives.

Suoyi has an important feature and symbol of ancient Chinese costume: Shang Yi Xia Chang. The top is called “Suoyi Pi (蓑衣披)”, which is draped over the shoulders. The lower garment is a short skirt around the waist, called “Suoyi Qun (蓑衣裙)”, which is basically similar to the hanfu dress. Some of them are slightly longer and connect from the chest to the waist, somewhat like modern women’s halter skirts.

 

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Qin and Han Dynasties

During this period, umbrellas were mainly popular among the privileged classes, and were a symbol of status in addition to protection from the sun and rain. The umbrellas mounted on vehicles were also called San Gai (伞盖), and the common people did not have the power to use them, and certainly could not afford them.

The painted bronze chariot horse unearthed in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang had an umbrella with an elaborate design that could be manipulated to tilt the mechanism to shade the sun at different angles, and used the world’s first lotus leaf seat and the world’s first gear.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

As for the umbrella in the hand, generally crank umbrella, why bend the handle? When the nobles went out, their attendants held the umbrellas for them, but the attendants were of low status and could not walk alongside them, so the crank-handled umbrella was specially designed to enable the umbrella holder to follow, which was a great effort to show the identity of the nobles.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

Copper maid with umbrella

During the Qin and Han dynasties, almost every household had Douli and Suoyi, which had become a commoner’s daily utensil by then.

 

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Wei, Jin and North-South Dynasties

Ancient umbrellas in the Wei, Jin and North-South dynasties, like the previous dynasties, were used more as a symbol of identity and status, and only a specific class could use them.

The ancient book “Yu Xie (玉屑)” mentions that in the Northern Wei Dynasty, the oil paper umbrella was invented to facilitate walking and horseback riding.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

Frescoes of the Wei and Jin Dynasties

This was made possible by the improved papermaking technique of Cai Lun in the Eastern Han Dynasty.

The use of paper became popular and people started to use cheap paper instead of expensive silk to make umbrella tops, and coated the paper with tung oil so that it would not melt in water and was used to avoid rain.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

 

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Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties

During the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties, the use of umbrellas became more common, and people used them not only to protect themselves from the rain, but also to protect themselves from the sun and the heat.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

The rulers of the Sui and Tang dynasties made very specific regulations on the use of umbrellas. At that time, the royal family and officials above the third rank generally used purple umbrellas and red umbrellas, while the lower and middle class scholars were already popular in using green umbrellas, so they did not try to prohibit them.

People also made full use of various natural materials given by nature to make raincoats, such as palm silk, which is a kind of fiber on the bark of palm trees, and can be woven into raincoats after processing, commonly called “Zong Yi (棕衣, palm clothes)”.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

Xue Yu Tu (雪渔图), painting from the Five Dynasties period

 

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Song and Yuan Dynasties

By the Song Dynasty, the use of umbrellas had become very common, when the use of Qin Juan San (青绢伞, green lustre umbrella) was prevalent among officials of all sizes, and was also used in wedding rituals.

According to statistics, the famous painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河图)” in the Northern Song Dynasty, there are 42 umbrellas, which can be seen the popularity of umbrellas at that time.

According to Wu Zimu’s “Mengliang Lu (梦梁录)”, there were many kinds of umbrellas with various shapes and colors, and the umbrella industry in Lin’an, was well developed and was the center of umbrella production at that time.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

Along the River During the Qingming Festival

The sun umbrellas seen today have already appeared in Bianjing, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, and are commonly used by merchants. In the “Along the River During the Qingming Festival”, many stores along the streets had large open sun umbrellas, and many vendors did business under the large umbrellas on the open spaces on both sides of the streets.

There is no hierarchical restriction on the use of Douli and Suoyi. Li Di’s “Feng Yu Gui Mu Tu (风雨归牧图)” of Song Dynasty depicts such a scene.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

On the way to graze the cattle, the wind and rain are blowing heavily, and two shepherd boys are walking against the wind, while one wearing Suoyi, leaning down and pulling tightly on the Douli, while the other shepherd boy’s Douli is blown off by the wind and hurries to pick it up.

 

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Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the Ming Dynasty, umbrellas for different levels of officials were carefully defined, and different levels used different colors and styles of umbrellas, which could not be exceeded.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the style and material of umbrellas did not change much compared with the previous generation, mainly including Fang San (方伞, square umbrellas), straight-handled umbrellas, crank-handled umbrellas, Luo Xiu San (lo-embroidered umbrellas) and You Juan San (油绢伞, oil silk umbrellas).

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

Xue Yan Tu (雪艳图), painting from the Qing Dynasty

At that time, it was still common in the society to use oil paper umbrellas, oil cloth umbrellas, the color of which was mainly cyan, while in modern times, we have all kinds of folding umbrellas, automatic umbrellas, and so on.

After the Ming Dynasty, the production of raincoats became more and more elaborate, and “Zhuo Zhong Zhi (酌中志)” records that some ministers of the court wore raincoats made of silk and cocoon paper.

A Brief History of Ancient Chinese Umbrellas

Han Jiang Diao Ting Tu (寒江钓艇图), painting from the Ming Dynasty

In stormy weather or when physical labor is required, a raincoat is a more convenient tool than an umbrella, and even now, we still need its help.

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The above is a brief history of Chinese umbrellas. More about Chinese traditional culture can be viewed here.

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