The history of this particular Chinese garment is a bit complicated. The thing is, the changshan robe was brought to China when the Manchus conquered the country and established their rules in everything, including clothing. Chinese men were forced to wear the Manchu hairstyle and traditional dress – the alternative was death. But with time, this formal robe became favored by the locals and gradually turned into the common outfit for weddings, celebrations, official meetings, and even was used as burial attire.
The Chinese traditional garment called “changshan”, “changpao”, or “dagua” is a type of Chinese robe known as paofu. It originated from the Qing dynasty qizhuang, which was the traditional attire of the Manchu people and was primarily worn by Manchu men. However, the Han Chinese modified their own Ming dynasty's Hanfu by incorporating some of the clothing elements of Manchu men's attire, resulting in the development of changshan. In terms of functionality, the changshan is considered the male counterpart of the cheongsam (or qipao), which is a traditional dress worn by women. The changshan was often paired with a magua, which is also commonly known as a “riding jacket” in English.
Origin of changshan
The modern Chinese changshan was actually developed by the Han Chinese during the Qing dynasty. After the Manchu conquest, the Han Chinese started wearing the Qing dynasty Chinese changshan. The Chinese changshan was a modified version of the changshan worn during the preceding Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) and was modeled after the Manchu men's changpao.
Manchu men's changpao had equestrian origins and were designed for horseback riding. The type of changpao worn by Manchu men was called neitao and featured two pairs of slits (one slit on each side, one slit on the back, and one slit on the front), a pianjin collar (S-shaped collar), and sleeve cuffs known as matixiu (lit. “horse hoof cuff”).
The Han Chinese adopted certain Manchu elements when modifying their Ming dynasty changshan, such as slimming it down, adopting the pianjin collar, and using buttons and loops at the neck and sides. Despite these similarities, the Chinese changshan differed structurally from the Manchu neitao. For example, the Chinese changshan only had two slits on the sides, lacked the central front and back slits, and did not have matixiu cuffs. Additionally, the sleeves of the Chinese changshan were longer than the ones found in the neitao.
Changshan in Chinese fashion in the 17th-20th century
Both the changshan and the qipao (male and female Chinese folk dress) can trace their precursors back to the Qing dynasty (17th-20th centuries) in China. In 1636, the Manchus ordered that all Han Chinese should adopt the Manchu hairstyle as well as their dress, and those who did not comply faced harsh punishments, including the death penalty.
However, by the time of the Qianlong Emperor, the requirement to wear Manchu clothing only applied to scholar-official elites, and not the entire male population. While the court dress of the Qing dynasty had to follow the attire of the Manchu people, commoner Han men and women were still allowed to wear hanfu under certain circumstances. Despite this, the order to wear the Manchu hairstyle remained a fundamental rule for all Chinese men.
The changshan was once considered the formal dress for Chinese men prior to the widespread adoption of Western-style suits in China. The male changshan could be worn under a Western overcoat and paired with a fedora and scarf, which expressed a sense of East Asian modernity in the early 20th century.
However, the 1949 Communist Revolution marked the end of the era of wearing the changshan and other traditional clothing in Shanghai. Shanghainese emigrants and refugees carried the fashion trend to Hong Kong, where it remained popular.
Changshan in China today
In recent years, many people in Shanghai and other parts of mainland China have revived the trend of wearing the Shanghainese changshan, which is typically made of silk.
Changshan has traditionally been worn for formal occasions, including weddings and other events in Chinese culture. In the past, a black changshan paired with a rounded black hat was considered the burial attire for Chinese men, and this tradition continues in some areas to this day.
Although changshan are not frequently worn in mainland China anymore, they are still commonly seen during traditional Chinese celebrations. With the resurgence of traditional clothing in urban mainland China, the Shanghainese style of the changshan has become a fashionable party dress.