China Overview


The Qipao, also known as the cheongsam or mandarin gown, is a body-hugging (modified in Shanghai) one-piece dress for women.

The English loanword cheongsam comes from the Cantonese pronunciation of the original Shanghainese term. In most western countries and in the Cantonese dialect cheongsam is the name of a garment worn by both men and women. Chinese who do not speak the Cantonese dialect view the cheongsam as an exclusively male dress and use the word qipao for its female equivalent. In Cantonese usage the word qipao is either interchangeable with the female cheongsam or refer to the two-piece qipao variant that is popular in mainland China.

When the Manchu established the Qing Dynasty over all of China, certain social strata emerged. Among them were the Banners (qí), mostly Manchu, who as a group were called Banner People  pinyin: qí rén). Manchu women typically wore a one-piece dress that came to be known as the (qípáo or banner quilt). The qipao fit loosely and hung straight down the body. After 1644, all Han Chinese were forced to make a close shave and dress in cheongsam instead of Han Chinese clothing, or they were to be killed. For the next 300 years, the cheongsam became the adopted clothing of the Chinese. The garment proved popular and survived the political turmoil of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty. The qipao has become, with few changes, the archetypal dress for Chinese women.


The first and "traditional" qipao when introduced to the larger Han population were wide, baggy and rather loose. It covered most of the women,s body revealing only to head, hands, and the tips of the toe. The loose baggy nature of the clothing also served to demphasize and conceal the figure of the wearer regardless of age. However, with time the qipao were tailored to become more form fitting and revealing. The modern version of the qipao was first developed in Shanghai around 1900, when the Qing Dynasty came to an end and people eagerly seeked for a more modernized style of dress. Slender and form fitting with a high cut, it contrasted sharply with the traditional qipao. In Shanghai it was first known as long dress. Mandarin: chángshān, Cantonese: cheongsam, Shanghainese: zansae).

The modernized version is especially noted for accentuating the figures of women, and as such is highly popular as a dress for high society. As Western fashions changed, the basic cheongsam design changed too, introducing high-necked sleeveless dresses, bell-like sleeves, and the black lace frothing at the hem of a ball gown. By the 1940s, cheongsam came in transparent black, beaded bodices, matching capes, and even velvet. Later, checked fabrics also became quite common.

The 1949 Communist Revolution ended the cheongsam and other fashions in Shanghai, but the Shanghainese emigrants and refugees brought the fashion to Hong Kong where it has remained popular. Recently there has been a revival of the Shanghainese cheongsam in Shanghai and elsewhere in Mainland China; the Shanghainese style functions now mostly as a stylish party dress (see also Mao suit).

Some secondary schools in Hong Kong, especially those with long tradition of establishment by Christian missionaries use a plain rimmed sky blue cotton and/or dark blue velvet (for winter) cheongsam with the school badge right under the stand-up collar to be closed with a metal hook and eye as the official uniform for their female students to be worn to regular classes. Schools known to set this standard include St. Paul,s Co-educational College, St. Stephen Girl,s College, Ying Wa Girls, School, True Light Middle School etc. Their cheongsam uniform is tailored so that the size of their collar is tightly fitted to their neck, and the students are asked to hook up their stiff collar all the time amidst the tropical humid and hot weather. The bottom with short slits are is also too tight to allow students to walk in long strides. Many students feel it an ordeal, yet it is a visible manifest of strict discipline that is hallmark of prestigious secondary schools in Hong Kong. Some dissident students, however, express their dissatisfaction with this tradition by wearing their uniform with stand-up collar intentionally left unhooked or the bottom cut shorter than their knees.

In the 1950s, women in the workforce started to wear more functional cheongsams made of wool, twill, and other materials. Most were tailor fitted and often came with a matching jacket. The dresses were a fusion of Chinese tradition with modern styles.

The Tibetans and Vietnamese (ao dai) have related versions of this dress as their national dress.


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