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Restoring timeless grace: the remarkable revival of hanfu

By CANG WEI in Nanjing | China Daily | Updated: 2023-11-29 08:21

One of the hanfu sets created by Zhang Zening, inspired by an ancient painting. CHINA DAILY

Zhang Zening, a hanfu enthusiast in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu province, embarked on an extraordinary journey eight years ago to revive this traditional Chinese attire.

Inspired by ancient murals, Zhang, 41, studied the artistry of hanfu in various museums, transforming two-dimensional paintings into tangible and wearable pieces.

Her extraordinary craftsmanship has not only delighted hanfu enthusiasts but also captivated the curiosity of young minds, giving them the opportunity to wear historically significant attire during museum visits.

Zhang said that she firmly believed hanfu serves as a gateway into the past, allowing people to truly connect with their cultural heritage.

Upon graduating from college, Zhang first worked in material research, immersing herself in the laboratory, conducting chemical experiments for the analysis of cementing raw materials. At the time, she was one of the earliest enthusiasts of hanfu in China, frequently organizing various hanfu activities in her spare time.

"My husband saw how passionate I was and encouraged me to turn hanfu into a career," she said. "With his support, I opened a hanfu studio with some friends and later started my own career."

Now the owner of Helu Hanfu Studio, Zhang has collaborated with women's re-employment organizations, seeking full-time stay-at-home women with sewing skills. This coincided with her need for the production of hanfu.

Among them were many single mothers who could earn a partial income while taking care of their children, according to Zhang.

Around 2015, Zhang began to focus independently on the process of hanfu restoration. In that year, she visited Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu province, and was fascinated by the exquisite murals there, wondering how she could possibly materialize them into beautiful costumes. Eight years later, she managed to restore more than 50 sets.

"How to turn flat paintings into wearable costumes has always been a challenge," she said. "I dedicated a significant amount of time to researching clothing patterns, sourcing fabrics, and personally handling the printing and embroidery."

Zhang related that hanfu restoration is a relatively niche field within the culture circle. "Not too many people work on the restoration of hanfu," she said. "While some people may specialize in hanfu of different dynasties, such as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), I'm not limited to specific time periods, and I try to focus on restoring whatever costumes are depicted in murals."

In the past decade, she has traveled to more than 10 cities across China, constantly studying murals and conducting research to restore hanfu from different dynasties. She cross-referenced different materials including various murals, other cultural relics and literature to make sure that the restoration is as accurate as possible.

Thanks to her work, many young people wear restored hanfu when they visit museums, and Zhang is thrilled to see more of them doing so.

"Hanfu is exquisite and complex, but it's only part of the outfit. Careful attention is also needed in other details such as makeup and accessories to create a holistic look," Zhang said, adding that wearing hanfu almost automatically gives someone a "dignified posture" because of its intricate nature.

Reflecting on the evolving perception of hanfu, Zhang observed that in the past, wearing it would attract attention and curious stares, but now it can often be spotted in the streets and alleys.

"I believe there's no need to push too hard for the adoption of hanfu in the next generation. As our national costume and a reflection of our historical culture, hanfu, when appreciated by children for its beauty, is likely to be naturally embraced and loved."

Guo Jun contributed to this story.

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