The Scholar's Robe

My essay "The Scholar's Robe" is published on Frontiers of History in China. Check it out!

The Scholar's Robe will be published again in the conference volume of International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken). I am quite impressed by its format. Click here to check it out!

A photo of all participants in Nichibunken conference, Kyoto, 2/19–2/21, 2016.


  1. MingHui Hu illustrates the emergence of early modern China through clothing – specifically the long garment, shenyi – in The Scholar’s Robe. The redefining of the long garment as a political statement of Neo-Confucians in the Song dynasty, was one of the many signals of the shift in paradigm which demarcates early modern Chinese civilization from the traditional Chinese civilization which preceded it. The Scholar’s Robe highlights the intellectually introspective characteristic of early modern Chinese civilization by showcasing how scholars attempted to define and interpret the long garment historically. Huang Zongxi’s Investigation of the Robe (Shenyi kao) and Jiang Yong’s Mistakes in “Investigation of the Robe” (Shenyi kao wu) reveal the significance of historical and political context even with regards to a small cut of garment, ren. Huang Zongxi’s idea of China and Jiang Yong’s idea of China are drastically different such that their interpretations of an ancient garment reflect their social, cultural and political ideologies.
    To me, the long garment becoming the scholar’s robe is one of the many reasons why the Song dynasty is regarded as a baseline for the study of early modern China. It is one of the many elements that shaped the trajectory of Chinese society and culture. Neo-Confucians, such as Zhu Xi, took the long garment and attached with it a political ideology which permeated through Chinese society and was inherently an opposition to the subsequent dress regulations mandated by certain imperial rulers. Zhu Xi interpreted the ancient long garment and described it in his Family Rituals, which began the intertwinement of the long garment with Neo-Confucianism and patriarchy. His interpretation of the use of the long garment may be disputed among other scholars, but Zhu Xi’s Family Rituals endured and became Ming imperial orthodoxy. Zhu Xi may not have made political statements by publicly wearing the long garment, but I think that consequently helped the development of the long garment as the scholar’s robe. If, during the Song dynasty, the long garment was worn openly by Zhu Xi and other Neo-Confucians, the public ridicule and dissent may have inhibited the long garment from gaining popularity and becoming the scholars robe. I believe this drive towards practicing ideologies in private fostered a better attitude towards self-reflection and encouraged scholars to focus on themselves and their improvement instead of projecting their practice upon others. Although in the Song dynasty, the long garment was not a top priority of Neo-Confucians or even socially acceptable, it nonetheless left a lasting impression and continues to resurface throughout the course of Chinese history.
    It is interesting to see how the scholars robe changes from a comfortable, non-discriminating attire in ancient China; to a discriminated against and ridiculed attire in the Song; to a discriminating and demarcating attire in the Ming; to a disloyal and feeble attire in the early Qing; to a universal and cosmopolitan attire in the late Qing; to a “Chinese symbol” in contemporary China.
    If I were to wear the long garment - regardless of whether one ren or two were present – tomorrow, I would want it to represent my approval of the non-discriminating effects in ancient times and also my pride in my Han Chinese ethnicity without any claims of superiority or inferiority. I would want my donning of the long garment to represent my “Chineseness” because I feel ashamed that I’ve called myself Han Chinese without knowledge that the qipao or magua were Manchu dress; not because I feel culturally superior to Manchurians but because the Manchurians have indeed become “more Chinese than the Chinese themselves.” The Han Chinese should receive equal representation in the Chinese identity, as should all the ethnic groups comprising China.

  2. The scholar’s robe presents itself as a unique emblem of socio-cultural identity, which has drastically shifted nuance and meaning over time. From Zhu Xi to scholars today, the educated elite appear to be unable to utterly objectify the true cultural value of the robe as it remains a continuous and dynamic sentiment of Chinese history.
    According to The Scholar’s Robe, Zhu Xi and Lu Xizhe, two critically respected contemporaries of the Song, wore the long garment “in order to demonstrate their new moral philosophy.” The scholar’s robe was just that for Zhu Xi and Huang Zongxi, a creative method to distinguish themselves apart from their peers. I contend this was more in the motive of expressing intellectual superiority in a time of a burgeoning science and growing literacy in the Song, in contrast to the motives of racial recognition and Chinese appreciation of Ming Confucians, and ethnocentric supremacy as an ulterior motive of many Qing confucians. “It is precisely in [Zhu Xi’s] sense that the long garment became the scholar’s robe,” but the true transition of the garment into the scholar’s robe occurred in the Ming, as backward-looking scholars interpreted the use of the robe by earlier Song elite as traditional element to Confucianism. Though there was, at the time of the Ming, no real, hard evidence pointing to the fact that the robe was actually a genuine symbol of Confucianism, it was ardently implied by literati, desperate to reestablish their Chinese roots post-mongol conquest, to be authentic Confucian apparel - largely because they were looking for authentic ways to express their ethnic pride. This is similarly the case with early Qing scholars, such as Huang Zongxi, who inevitably - as a Ming loyalist - sought means to subversively assert his ethnocentric notions during a foreign dynastic rule.
    It appears clear that each of the scholars of these eras inescapably retained bias from the socio-political factors before them. Neo-Confucians of the Song couldn’t help but be influenced by popular concepts of Buddhism and Daoism, just as they couldn’t help but be biased by notions of hierarchy, present in their assertions towards patriarchy and ethnic hegemony proclaimed as Confucian philosophy. These Song scholars, most prominently Zhu Xi, Cheng Yi, and Cheng Hao among others, altered the crux of the Confucian Classics - perceived as the most ancient and authentic of Confucian principles by the Ming-Qing states. The analytical dispute between Huang Zongxi and Jiang Yong further exemplifies this. Huang Zongxi, who received his jinshi in the Ming, remained loyal, defending the dynasty which provided his status and opportunity, whereas Jiang Yong, who received his jinshi in the Qing and was employed by the Qing state, held good reason to denounce Huang’s singular notions of “Chineseness”. Both were disguising their personal beliefs through logical, literary discourse, yet at the same time were subject to external factors stymying their true pronouncements. For Huang Zongxi, his “veil of resistance” couldn’t be too overt due to the threat of Manchu imperial discipline, while Jiang Yong worked on Qianlong’s censored literary projects and was fiercely encouraged to denounce notions of ethnic differentiation, such as Huang’s.
    It’s seemingly inevitable that information will be transformed and misconstrued over time. This can similarly be seen in the New Text scholars who began transforming Confucius into a prophet, such as Dong Zhongshu, who led this deification movement. These scholars were ostensibly incentivized to view Confucius more as a transhistorical figure, capable of competing with the growing growing influence of foreign (especially European) deities in the emerging modern world. Each dynastic shift gradually reveals a shift in Confucian thought, relevant to the circumstances of that dynasty and the contingent societal anxieties.

  3. In Hu’s, “The Scholar’s Robe: Material Culture and Political Power in Early Modern China”, it mainly discusses how something physical can hold so much power. The scholars robe is not just something worn by everyday citizens, it symbolizes great political power. Material culture is a physical object, such as the robe, that defines a persons culture; it is the consumption and creation of objects, behaviors and norms, and material evidence that is related to your specific culture. Having political power means that you have authority over peoples’ views and beliefs. This article defines how material culture is related with political power; the robe is what ables them to be together. It talks about how there are many controversies on when and where to wear such clothing as the ren. Even though the main problem they faced was what the original garment looked like, the search of the authentic and original ancient robe was debatable. This robe was not only specific to the scholars robe, but had many roles in which events to wear them to. However throughout the years, the robe ended up adopting new styles; it showed different levels of class and hierarchy, depending on what you wear, and the certain way you wore it. As the article continues, time also changes the way people think, which also changed the way of life. The Neo-Confucian scholarly movement took place when new levels of intellectual and social creativity dominated the society. It was generally up to the people to decide whether or not to believe the regular Confucian laws and way of life or questioning everything and judging everything based off of secular and rationalistic views. The Neo-Confucianists strongly disagreed with the superstitious and mystical elements that they had in place; they believed more in metaphysics to develop amore rationalist ethical philosophy. Their main goal was to bring all there teachings together: Buddhism, Taoism, and Taijitu. They were strongly persuaded that their philosophy can characterize humanistic ideas and rationalistic ideas through the human and the universe. They wanted to create a harmonious relationship between the universe and mankind. Towards the end of the article, the robe becomes a problem between these two philosophers: Zongxi, and Jian Yong. They both had strong antagonistic views on the robe, and what they can accomplish with it. Zongxi was not convinced with Confucius beliefs, and had ethnocentric views of China which stresses the need for constitutional law within the government and state. However Jian Yong and his beliefs were the opposite. He wanted everyone to adapt and learn Confucian law; he knew that it wasn't just rules and regulations, it was a way of living for him.

  4. The ariticle talk about the thesis from the perspective of its literature review . when it comes to talking the robe, in this thesis the author chooses many ancient literature to prove his thesis to be persuasive and precise. From the songs of Chu to Explaining Names, these literature has went through a long time, which will make the thesis become more persuasive. On the one hand, these plentiful literature recording the robe development expressing the rich Chinese culture, on the other hand, it also shows the intelligence of our ancestors knowing how to make up the robe representing the different social status and their intelligence and carefulness in recording their robe. Meanwhile, in the listing and explanation of these literature, the author not only lists the English names, but also its Chinese meaning as it is hard for the foreigner to understand the ancient Chinese literature. As in the writing of the thesis, literature review is important as it will make the later writing have basis to rely on. Hence, the literature review in the thesis has some advantages being worthwhile for us to study, such as the plentiful literature, the time-extent of these literature is long enough to make the thesis become more rich. Excepting these plentiful literature, in the thesis, the author mainly regards two monographs on the robe as material to analyze and contrast the two different options about the cultural identity between Chinese superiority and cosmopolitan universalism. Form the analysis and contrast of the two monographs being throughout the whole thesis, it can be seen that Chinese robe has its uniqueness and is different with the universal.
    Meanwhile, i want to make an evaluation from the perspective of the expression of the content. As it is known that the robe is abstract to some extent to foreigner as the robe belongs to China and they may have seen the robe or even not. Hence, if the content of the thesis had just the word description, then the thesis would look more boring and less foreigner who want to understand and read it. Hence in the thesis, the author took advantage of some pictures plus the word description to make the content about the robe and its developmental history become more obvious and the potential reader want to read it as when they look at these strange and interesting pictures which shows the shape of the robe and how to make it. As for me, at the start, i felt boring to read the thesis, but when i read it further, and i found that the thesis is interesting as the author interprets the development, the shape, the making of the robe become more vivid and direct, which made me read it wholly to know the history of the robe. There are twelve figures in the whole thesis to assist the description of the relative content, and the twelve figures are distributed in different chapter to show the concrete content. In the description of the content, the author not only chooses the figures of the robe but also some famous scholar wearing the robe to enrich the content, as the topic of the thesis is the scholar’s robe, hence in the thesis, the author chooses some famous scholar such as Hushi attained a PH. D degree from the Columbia University and other scholar just like him being very famous and intelligent, which will make the topic become more persuasive and be in conformity with the theme, and make the potential readers have a more clear robe’s shape and the status it represents. Hence the content of the thesis is clear and make the potential readers learn more about the historical change of the robe and its symbolism.

  5. One of the most fascinating principles of Imperial China, even Chinese history to an extent, is that many occurrences can be traced back to the same core, shared values held throughout China for thousands of years. The long garment, the shenyi, is a highly specific area of focus, but only one that China could possibly even have the unique ability to claim. The investigation about the long garment lasted several lifespans, and was the topic of many scholarly debates. In this lies the unique traits that separate Chinese history from others. Firstly, it’s old enough and was stable enough to maintain a shared cultural history. Secondly, it was developed enough culturally to even have such analyses being delved on itself at such at time, while also providing a class that could actively participate in such an investigation. At the same time across the globe we were witnessing the rises of warrior classes, samurai in Japan and knights in Europe. Meanwhile, in China the same level of elites were developing philosophy and asking bigger questions.

    The stark difference in the style of the elite ruling class isn’t surprising when given the values of Confucian civilization. They valued hierarchies, education, and the return to the golden era of the past. This naturally leads to the proliferation and prominence of scholarly writings and debate. Writings as the insight to the past becomes the means to speak about the present for scholars. So, throughout the investigation, the authors argue with each other through their writing, each seeking to disprove the other and advance their own narrative. This is because although the seemingly minute detail of the long garment might seem irrelevant, scholars could interpret and extract different meanings from the source material depending on the times. Some were from times of strife, others of peace. Once again, this isn’t surprising. Scholars are required to memorize several ancient articles in order to succeed in their careers. These articles, the Confucian Classics, have been analyzed for thousands of years. A habit of finding meaning amongst vagueness would likely have been built just from training to be a scholar.

    Although I am no historian, I feel that the reason why Confucian culture survived so long was because of how the culture could survive. Invaders couldn’t destroy it by conquering the emperor and decimating the army. Nor could it be done by destroying the cities and the treasures inside. Because the backbone of Chinese civilization was within Confucianism whose roots were deposited into the land itself. Invaders who came to China had become enthralled with their civilization, and through the illusion of defeat it was the usurpers themselves who had become usurped. The Mongols, the Manchus, and more had all fallen victim. So, what did the West do differently to destroy Confucian culture? I answered this question through the perspective of the long garment. The invaders who ultimately failed to defeat Confucianism were like participants in the discussion of the robe. They might believe that the ren serves this role, and is emblematic of that. They would argue over the meaning of its existence, and eventually get caught into that, till one day they realize that they no longer remember what their robes were like. This is all analogous. Whereas I see the westerners as people who ignore the discussion at all. They see the robe and the discussion of the ren as meaningless, a world that they are not interested in seeing and a culture they are not interested in understanding. Within this mindset, they simply skip the discussion, and miss out on the intoxicating culture of China.

  6. In The Scholar’s Robe, Minghui Hu examines the history and historiography of the garment shenyi, a long robe typically associated with Confucian scholars with a long history as a quintessentially Chinese article of clothing, so much so that it and other traditional clothing have experienced a recent resurgence in popularity in China today. Given that the style of robe itself is almost 3,000 years old, it’s no wonder why Hu wanted to explore it. Material culture is a solid way of understanding people’s lives and traditions, especially if there is a garment such as this one, which has so much history and has been so relevant to Chinese scholars over time.
    I had trouble understanding Huang’s point of view. As a person living in multinational modern-day 2017, I’ve never considered a world like Huang’s ideal – a homogenous, utopian society, united by one type of ritual – to be an achievable, even physically possible goal. Jiang’s more universal perspective hit home because I’m familiar with cultures being very non-homogenous. Much of my family is from Spain, and huge part of the Spanish culture I know and love right now is derived from a “non-Spanish origin” – the Arab Moors, the Roma, the Jewish population, North African Muslims – but they’re all a part of what makes current Spain, Spain. It complicates Spanish identity, certainly, but Spain can’t really be split apart or made into anything “purer,” or “more Spanish” than it already is – what exists right now is an irreversible hybrid. I believe that to some extent that happens in most cultures, either from within or without.
    There appears to be a sort of cycle at play here of re-exploring Chineseness through thinking about the shenyi – a cycle that shows itself in times of transition. During the Song, as the meritocratic examination system changed the social dynamic of the scholar class, Neo-Confucianists revisit the ancient robe and see it as a way to blur the divide between the scholar and the people. After 100 years of Mongol rule and ethnic repression, Zhu Yuanzhang reinstates Chinese rule with the Ming dynasty and makes Neo-Confucianism the state ideology, including all the previous scholarly garments, and the shenyi becomes a symbol of Chinese intellectual power and hegemony. And during the Qing dynasty, the split between Ming loyalists and the “twice-serving” officials reflects in many ways the split between scholars’ opinions of the shenyi, as Huang and Jiang demonstrated in this paper. I’d suspect that China is going through a change now, too, with its rapid industrialization and economic growth, social mobility, and the general technological advancements of near-instantaneous mass communication. The reconsidering of the robe seems like a similar impetus to the one that’s made superhero movies so agonizingly ubiquitous in America over the past decade – in both cases, people attempt to figure out their social and cultural identity by reexamining something that holds meaning for them, something tied into their history, that gives them a sense of who they are and what they value. They are symbols. And there isn’t a culture on Earth that doesn’t have them, because people need symbols, they need something to ground them, whether it’s a deity, or a story, or a place, or a historical figure, or a garment, a collective history, or some vague, unspecific statement like Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Huang Zongxi and Jiang Yong and all the scholars that came before and after them all drew on this one basic concept, and hopefully, their contributions will contribute to that greater discussion.

  7. The Scholar's Robe brings a new light to the definition of upholding traditional culture. Through meticulous research, Minghui explains the complexity of the evolution of the robe from the Song Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. For instance, the modern understanding of traditional Chinese wear today is only a loose reflection of the weight that the classic garments carried through these dynasties. These progressions show how Chinese culture emphasizes tradition and heritage. The evolution of the shenyi displayed the contrasting beliefs and symbolic cultural identities represented throughout the dynasties in early modern China. Similarly, the view on traditional wear today continually changes as advancements in fashion and politics as well as social movements create an opportunity for what society accepts as “traditional” to their culture.
    The controversy of the garment lays on the fact that the origin of the long garment heavily pertains to the idea that the robes were made according to universal principles and models. Therefore, those who believed and followed these values had no right to claim this specific article of dress as superior to others, rather, it became a symbol of unification and cosmopolitan universality amongst the Chinese. A drastic contrast can be seen in conditions of pre-early modern China as peasants and scholar-literati could be distinctly identified through their wardrobe and the quality of their garments. The noted importance in this phenomenon was that the general beliefs of society determined the actions of individuals and their choice of attire.
    Similarly, in modern society, societal beliefs could be manifested through personal attire either to assimilate oneself to society or to bring nonconformity through the dress of socially detestable garments. For example, the stigma of wearing clothing constructed from animal fur or leather stemmed from core beliefs of inhumane practices and the conservation of animal lives. Additionally, cultural appropriation through the improper use of costumes or attire; it is also a crucial topic regarding societal beliefs and because of its vague structure, there may be extremists on both ends of the spectrum. This also contributes to the understanding of how society beliefs can educate or pressure those that do not conform to social conventions. These controversies of the modern society demonstrate the importance of how self-understanding and freedom of choice in reflection to the general beliefs and their acceptance within a community.
    The shenyi was more than just a garment of tradition and self-e¬xpression, rather it was an accumulation of cultural changes and political influences that impacted not only of those residing within China but beyond the nation and has transcended into the modern era. The shenyi essentially became a visual representation of the history of early ancient China and eventually contributed to the rise of contemporary traditional wear. Without a history of change there is no future for tradition or established practices and beliefs. Change in tradition within a culture, nation, or religion is often inevitable; but the roots of the tradition would always withstand societal changes, regardless of public acceptance.
    Consequently, writing this essay has allowed me to gain understanding into my own beliefs in what is “traditional” to my own culture and heightened my sensitivity towards the attitude of those who display cultural ignorance, myself included. Therefore, I urge every reader reading this comment to spread this “new” but rather old culture of upholding tradition by learning of its origins. Research comes with its own consequences and blessings; it has at least for me, brought a new understanding into who I am as an Asian American college student and allowed me to take ownership of this identity to a different level. With that being said, I believe that tradition is not a one-way street but it opens up to a multitude of lanes, depending on each individual and their personal revelations.

  8. “The Scholar’s Robe: Material Culture and Political Power in Early Modern China” by Minghui Hu explores the use of a specific robe, the Shenyi or long garment, as a symbol of schools of thought through various dynastic eras. The analytical essay is based primarily on works of Chinese scholars, examining the traditional robes in their own contemporary spheres, supporting the analysis in “The Scholar’s Robe” and allowing the reader to access the evidence firsthand. As a piece of academic writing, “The Scholar’s Robe” is easy to follow due to both structure and style and does not attempt to end the conversation about early modern Chinese cultural dress. The reader is instantly made aware that the conversation between academics and dress code has been up for debate for millennia and will not be terminated in this article, simply compounded upon. The essay is set along a timeline, after a briefing on the definitions of the garments themselves, then focuses on the works of 17th and 18th century scholars, Huang Zongxi and Jiang Yong, to illustrate the climax of the scholar robe debate: whether the usage of the long garment is politically significant due to Ming-era Ethnocentrism, or whether the robes are more powerful as a universal garment signifying the importance of Confucian antiquity.
    After political footing are set and the technicalities addressed, the next section, “Becoming Chinese,” gives historical context. The early modern era in Chinese history saw outsider domination, first through the Mongol conquest. The effect this had on the long garment debate is concisely put as an effort by the Ming emperor Zhu Yuangzhang who wished to reclaim the Han traditions after the Mongols were driven out. This adds yet another layer of meaning to the clothing as now it is a nationalist debate, much like the Hanfu issue today. It is easy to see this as the third leg of the support for the Huang-Jiang analysis to follow: they worked upon the knowledge of the classical definitions of the garments, the political implications of Confucianism, and the historical usage of long garments as a sign of “Chineseness.” Hu states the shift as one where “the private practice of a small group of intellectual elites did not catch on in their own times but later experienced a melodramatic success after the Mongols ruled China for nearly a century” bridging the gap between the start of this cultural identification in the Song era and the progression during the Ming (Pg. 352). While the historical context of the Ming emperor’s preference for the Shenyi and Ren garb is not the pivotal argument of the paper, placement of that information after the more crucial political content is not distracting from the course of the paper for multiple reasons. Chronologically this makes sense, as time goes on and history compounds upon itself. Additionally, this directly links to the argument in the very next section, that Huang Zongxi held, which is that preservation of Han Chineseness is of the utmost importance.
    The focus of the paper was never intended to be terminal, never meaning to arrive at an answer, so culminating in the final discussion between Huang’s and Jiang’s works is an appropriate place to leave the reader. The paper itself supplies enough background for non-scholarly readers to understand the gist of the argument, which states that the clothing continues to be a political statement, even while sorting through the nitty-gritty details. Hu’s historical analysis will continue to fan through this debate, not coming to a singular answer. Overall, “The Scholarly Robe” creates this effective analysis without poring too tirelessly over details and while keeping the vitality of the conversation, though many centuries old, interesting and accessible to the reader.


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