Daily Dress in Late Qing China: Spotting the Difference Between Manchu and Han

Antonia Finnane, Professor of History in the School of Historical Studies, University of Melbourne

Travelling through the Qing Empire in the years 1868-1872, John Thomson created on film a remarkable record of dress and deportment at a particular moment in Chinese history.  His portraits of Manchu women at home in Beijing are especially striking.   How was it that after more than two centuries of living side by side with Han Chinese, Manchu women continued to dress in such a distinctive manner?  A close look at his photographs reveals what we know from other sources: there were areas of overlap and mutual influence between the two dress realms. A Manchu woman’s headdress might make her ethnic category plain to the beholder, but the width of the sleeves of her gown showed her attuned to Han fashions.  Very occasionally, a woman’s attire sent out mixed messages, and it was difficult to tell at glance where she belonged. Shoes, hair, gown, jacket, sleeves collar, purse, and fan: what was shared, what was exclusive, in the dress practices of Manchu and Han women? 

About the Presenter

Antonia Finnane is professor of history in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has lived and worked in China at different stages of her career, and is currently engaged in projects with historians at Nanjing and Fudan universities, and at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. 

Her research is broadly in the area of urban history, the focus of her prize-winning book, Speaking of Yangzhou: A Chinese City, 1550-1850 (Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2004). Current research, funded by the Australian Research Council, concerns production and consumption in Maoist China, with a focus on small business and technology in Beijing. Her critically acclaimed history of Chinese dress, Changing Clothes in China (Columbia University Press, 2008) is widely cited in the field of Chinese fashion studies.