The Development of Chaofu in Ancient China

We often see in Chinese TV dramas or movies scenes of the emperor and his ministers discussing political affairs together (called Shangchao, 上朝), with the ministers standing or kneeling opposite the emperor in order of rank, dressed in tidy clothes (Chaofu).

So, what is so special about the ministers’ clothing? And are the different eras of Chaofu the same?

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

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What is the Chaofu?

  • Name: Chaofu (朝服, cháo fú)
  • Alias: Jufu (具服)
  • Function: used at major ceremonies
  • Succession and change: from Zhou to Ming dynasties

Before the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese clothing was mainly made in one form, the upper Yi (衣) and the lower Chang (裳) system. The Book of Rites – Yuzao (礼记·玉藻, a chapter describing the ritual) recorded that “Chao Xuanduan (玄端), Xi Shenyi (深衣)”, meaning that ministers were required to wear Xuanduan in the morning to attend the Shangchao, while worn Shenyi at home in the evening.

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The style and development of Chaofu in different dynasties

The earliest Chaofu – Pibian Fu

Judging from the literature, there were Chaofu as early as in the Zhou Dynasty. The first Chaofu was the Pibian Fu (皮弁服, pí biàn fú), which was made of fine white cloth, and the Yi and Chang were made separately. The matching is a white hat ornament, which is made with a pointed top, shaped like two palms together, usually made of white deerskin, and is called a Pibian (皮弁).

The Pibian Fu was not only used for the emperor, but also for officials above the Shi (士) rank who had an audience with the emperor. Different amounts of jade ornaments were used to distinguish the rank of the Pibian. After attending the Shangchao, if the officials still need to meet with lower status than their own people, they can no longer wear Pibian Fu, but to put on a “Ziyi (缁衣)”, a kind of Chaofu made of black cloth.

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

Pibian

The Chaofu of the pre-Qin and Han dynasties – Xuanduan

Xuanduan (玄端, xuán duān), also known as Yuanduan (元端), is an ancient Chinese black formal dress worn in the Shangchao.

Xuanduan is the upper Yi (衣) and the lower Chang (裳) system, too, it uses fifteen Sheng of cloth (Sheng, 升, a Chinese unit used to represent the density of cloth, the higher the number, the finer the fabric, up to 30 Sheng), each piece of cloth is square. There is no emblem and decorative pattern on the Xuanduan, which also alludes to the connotation of dignified and integrity.

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

Xuanduan for Shi

The hat ornament that goes with Xuanduan is the Weimao (委貌), which is a kind of hat similar to the Pibian, but instead of deerskin, black silk is used.

In the second year of Yongping, Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty (汉明帝), made a series of systems such as Mianfu (冕服), Pei (佩), Shou (绶, ribbon), and Chaofu, based on the system of the Zhou dynasty’s costumes, and referring to the Qin system. Among them, the red official Chaofu, which became a model for later generations.

Identifying identity by color – Tang & Song Dynasty Chaofu

Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty ordered to use colors to distinguish the dresses of officials and commoners, restricting officials above the fifth grade to wear purple robes, officials below the sixth grade to use red and green, minor officials to use blue, commoners to use white, butchers and merchants to wear black, and soldiers to wear yellow robes.

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

Tang dynasty officials, in addition to wearing round neck narrow-sleeved robe, on some important occasions, such as for sacrificial rites, are still wearing Chaofu. Style of court dress, inherited the old system from the Han and Sui dynasties: head wearing Jin Ze (介帻) or Long Guan (笼冠), wearing a big-sleeved parallel opening shirt, wear Weichang (围裳) under, with a full set of Pei & Shou.

The development of Chaofu in ancient ChinaThe development of Chaofu in ancient China

The Song dynasty continued the Chaofu of the Han, Sui and Tang dynasties, with a red upper garment, a red lower garment, and a white Zhongdan lining, with a belt tied to Bixi (蔽膝), wear a Fangxin Quling (方心曲领, white neckpiece), and jade pendant, and brocade ribbon. When wearing Chaofu, should wear the “Jinxian Guan (进贤冠)”, “Diaochan Guan (貂蝉冠)”, or the “Xiezhi Guan (獬豸冠)”.

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

Diaochan Guan

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

The one around the neck is Fangxin Quling

Ancient officials according to grade by Pin (品), for example, in the Tang Dynasty, the rank from one Pin to nine Pin, of which one to three Pin are divided into major and minor; four to nine products, both major and minor, but also divided superior and inferior; a total of 30 ranks.

Changeable system – Ming Dynasty Chaofu

The Chaofu system of the Ming Dynasty was custom-made in the 26th year of the Hongwu dynasty, and for all important occasions and festivals, need wore a Liang Guan (梁冠), a red garment, a blue-collar edge & white yarn Zhongdan, a blue-collar red Chang, a red Bixi, a red and white two-color silk Dadai (大带), a belt, a ribbon, and white socks and black shoes.

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

Chaofu in the Ming dynasty

In addition, Zhu Yuanzhang also added the dragon pattern to the design of the dragon robe, and since then the dragon motif became unattainable from the folk.

Qing official uniforms were blue in principle, and only available in reddish colors for ceremonies.

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

Chaofu is the ancient reverence for the ritual, whether it is color to identify the class, or the emperor exclusive access to the dragon, are the embodiment of China’s deeply traditional Hanfu culture.

The development of Chaofu in ancient China

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