Author Archives: ribanez

“In the Mood for Love” and the Gendered Uniforms of Modernity

Kar Wai Wang’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love vividly captures not only a romance between two neighbors who find their spouses in an adulterous relationship, but also the sartorial choices that show Hong Kong in the 1960s caught between East and West.

To make reference to the broader historical framework, Hong Kong developed separately from the rest of China owing to its special relationship with the British who acquired a 99 year lease on the island. While China was in the midsts of communism and famine, Hong Kong stood as a beacon of capitalism and entrepreneurship in the East. Many Western companies set up offices in Hong Kong to have a stake in Asia, but one mediated by a familiar power: the British. The introduction of Western businesses and Western business techniques gave rise to domestic companies owned by citizens of Hong Kong who have made the city a global economic powerhouse with a commanding role in the finance industry.

In the Mood for Love

Despite this Western flair, Hong Kong never completed shed its China roots and this is evident in the 2000 film In the Mood for Love as evidenced in the above scene where Mrs. Chan is saying goodbye to her boss who is leaving to have dinner with his wife. The boss is depicted in a Western style suit with distinctly modern influences. His suit is excellently tailored, perfectly terminating at his shoulders. The sleeves are precisely long enough to reveal the edge of his light blue shirt with French cuffs and the subtle, yet sophisticated cufflinks. His tie features a modern paisley pattern that terminates exactly above his belt buckle that widens ever so slightly as it moves from top to bottom.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 1.17.29 PM

In contrast, one of the few shots where Mr. Chow is fully visible reveals a distinctly different character. His tie, unlike Mrs. Chan’s boss visibly clashes with his shirt. Furthermore, it is far wider at the bottom than at the top. Such is a fashion style commonly associated with a tacky used car salesman. Finally, he is tied it inappropriately such that it falls when standing where his zipper begins rather than where ending above his belt buckle as shown by Mrs. Chan’s boss.

What this suggests is an incomplete adoption of Western fashion trends that unfolds along class lines. Her boss, the owner of a successful import/export business whose business spans across the globe likely has both the exposure to Westerners through business meetings and the financial resources to appropriately wear Western clothing. Mr. Chow, a low level functionary at a print company, likely has little exposure to such people and his needing to rent a room speaks to lacking much disposable income. What matters for Mr. Chow, who is an archetypal common white collar male in 1960s Hong Kong, is the appearance of being Western rather than complete adoption of their sartorial forms.

Both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s boss’s clothing choices stand in stark contrast to hers. She is seen wearing a high collared Qipao that evokes images of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike them, however, her clothing features very rich and vibrant colors of purple and yellow in complex flowing patterns. Such complex patterning is made possible by dyes and techniques of modern clothing manufacturing. Furthermore, it is sleeveless. The lack of sleeves, vibrant colors speak to a marked departure from early Qipao styles dominated by floral images, the color red and short sleeves. She is also seen later carrying a western style not unlike those you would see sold today in Western department stores and boutiques.

The juxtaposition of these three characters reveal is the complex identity of Hong Kong during the 1960s as it straddled East and West culturally, independent of China. The highest members of society, symbolized by Mrs. Chan’s boss, had the cultural knowledge and financial resources to perfectly mimic Western fashion styles. When juxtaposed with the lowly Mr. Chow who poorly pulls off a Western look, it is clear that the aspiration of Chinese men as they became more successful was to look more perfectly Western in their clothing choices. Mrs. Chan stands in contrast throughout the filming by always wearing Qipaos rather than Western dresses. Although they are clearly influenced by Western designs by abandoning the design elements of the 1920s and 1930s, women nevertheless attempted to preserve the traditional clothing style. Thus, it can be seen that modernity as imagined by women in the 1960s consisted of subsuming Western materials, patterns and manufacturing techniques within the traditional qipao style.


Projecting a False Reality in Wedding Portraits

Following the abandoning of Mao’s policies and the embracing of a consumer economy, professional wedding portraiture has become popular practice for Chinese couples. However, their portraits differ from those in the West because they are not candid shots taking during one’s wedding. Rather, they are elaborate photos taken in a studio on a day other than the wedding and in some cases long after the marriage has taken place. The goal of these portraits, as the following images will demonstrate, is not to capture romance between the couple. Instead, it is project a series of potentially false images about the couple: affluent, cosmopolitan, educated, western, or even that they are in love.

Wedding Portrait

The image above features a woman in a wedding dress seated beside a man in a suit, presumably her husband, in an exotic red sports car set in a city. Above them is the phrase “Don’t forget to be continue” below “Creation&Journey.” Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that neither the bride nor the groom’s clothing fits them properly. The shoulder pads of his jacket extend far beyond his shoulders and terminate well above his arm, as evidenced by the bunching up of the material when it should lay naturally. Furthermore, how the jacket hangs on his frame indicates that it is meant for a man much larger than him. Likewise, her gown seems to be intended for a woman much larger than herself. The sleeves of the gown bunch up when they should lay flat when her arms are by her sides and the shoulder straps are elevated off her shoulders. An English speaker should also not that the phrase “don’t forget to be continue” does not make sense.

What these small details illuminate is that this is an intentionally fabricated image designed to convey a false level of affluence. A couple that can afford an exotic Italian sports car like the one in which they are depicted can also afford clothing that fits properly, especially for their wedding celebration. However, wedding portrait studios typically provide clothing for the portraits. The ill-fitting clothing coupled with the incoherent sentence above them suggests that they went to a cheap wedding studio. A sophisticated consumer spending lots of money on these portraits might have enough exposure to English to realize that sentence did not make sense. If not the couple depicted, then the other sophisticated clientele of the upscale portrait studio would have pointed it out to the photographer so that this mistake would not appear. This illustrates that a desire to project affluence transcends class and includes those for whom such levels of wealth are little more than a dream.

Elegant Wedding Photo

nice transition

Unlike the photo above, this is a photo of a wedding portrait’s being set up. We can see in the background the dirty concrete walls of the studio, as well as the studio lights behind the couple and beside them. Behind them is a western painting depicting a Christian scene. The couple is wearing Western clothing as well: a flowing black evening gown and an elegant suit coordinated to match her dress. They are seated on a French style couch and are flanked by European style vases, the furthest of which depicts the Greek gorgon. Above them is a chandelier.

As with the previous photo, this one shows the process by which an artificial sense of opulence is created. The bare concrete wall on the left side of the photo is dirty and covered with mold, hardly indicators of opulence, and it clashes quite vividly with the colorful scene around them. Both the floor and shape of the wall suggest that this is a contained “reality” whose truths do not extend more than a few feet. However, this couple might be more affluent than the previous couple as the studio’s attention to detail is far more acute than the previous studio. Not only does her dress perfectly match his suit, but they are also complemented by the floor itself and are balanced elegantly by the shadows cast by the studios lights; neither of their costumes glaringly clash with the scene around them as the man’s suit did above. Furthermore, both of their costumes appear to fit them properly, which also suggests that they are more affluent than the other pair. The incorporation of Western paintings and ancient Greek symbology in the form of the gorgon on the vase suggests that the couple sees Western history as a commodity that can be used to express wealth rather than just Western cars or clothing.

In conclusion, both of these photos illustrate a cross class desire to project false realities in Chinese wedding portraits. When juxtaposing the first and second image, attention to detail by the photographer in terms of how the clothing fits the subjects demonstrates that these photos appeal to poor and rich consumers alike. The second photograph illustrates the extent to which these photos are fabricated: a gorgeous, European-style background in a filthy, mold covered photo studio. Both photos through their use of European decor and the first’s use of English demonstrate a desire to commodify Western culture to project a false cosmopolitan nature.

introduce “Western decor and Chinese application in wedding portraits” as thesis statement at the beginning. In so doing, your analysis will be driven by potential explanation of why so.

Dressing the Red Guards Over Time

Beginning in 1966, China witnessed an extraordinary explosion of violence across the perpetrated by young middle and high school students. Teachers, intellectuals and other “enemies of the state” were dragged from their homes, savagely beaten in the streets, tortured, and summarily executed by these children. This chaos unfolded with the blessing of Mao who exploited it to seize power after being pushed aside following the tragic Great Leap Forward that caused tens of millions of people to starve to death. His deliberate intervention in the movement helped shape the identity of the Red Guards, validating their appropriation of the Red Army uniform and the militaristic adherence to Mao Zedong Thought.

To understand the significance on Mao’s influence on the sartorial choices of the Red Guards, one needs simply to examine propaganda prior to his receiving the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square.

"Criticize the old world and build a new world with Mao Zedong Thought as a weapon." Sept, 1966. Reproduced from

“Criticize the old world and build a new world with Mao Zedong Thought as a weapon.” Sept, 1966. Reproduced from

In this poster, the title reads “Criticize the old world and build a new world with Mao Zedong Thought as a weapon” and it is from September, 1966. In the center of the poster is a young man who is wearing a green People’s Liberation Army jacket with the sleeves rolled up with blue pants and the typical red armband and carries Mao’s Little Red Book. Behind him are young people in varying outfits: some are wearing completely PLA uniforms, while others are wearing only partial uniforms like the green jacket without matching pants; others are wearing blue Mao PLA suits or plain shirts and pants. Behind them are large red banners.

The discord between this image and the legions of identically dressed youngsters clad in PLA uniforms can be resolved by noting that this image was produced in September, 1966. Mao only appeared clad in his olive PLA uniform on the gates of Tiananmen Square on August 18, 1966. This early in the movement, it is very possible that the Red Guards as a whole had not coalesced around that form of dress even if the elite members from Tsinghua already dressed that way. Instead, careful analysis of the image reveals that they conceived of two unifying symbols: Mao’s Little Red Book and the red armband. Despite their being dressed differently, each person holds a Little Red Book. More importantly, the artist has configured each person so that the book is over their heart. Subtly, the artist wishes to state that what defines the Red Guards at this moment in time is not what they wear, but that they take Mao’s words to heart and always carry his words with them.

yes, the poster intends to address that mao’s little red book, thereby mao’s thoughts, is the leading rhetoric for the CR.

"Hold high the great red banner of Mao Zedong to wage the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to the end", 1967, reproduced from

“Hold high the great red banner of Mao Zedong to wage the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to the end”, 1967, reproduced from

Less than a year later, the Party produced a poster titled “Hold high the great red banner of Mao Zedong thought to wage the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to the end – Revolution is no crime, to rebel is justified.” The poster prominently features two red guards in the center wearing the characteristic olive military uniforms of the PLA. The Red Guards holds a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in her hands and wears an armband on her left arm. Between them are two peasants who are also wearing red arm bands, as well as overalls and sun hats. Behind them are legions of Red Guards wearing the military uniforms and holding Mao’s Little Red Book high above their heads.

workers, peasants, soldiers, and red guards are the social political subjects of the poster, thereby the focal point.

One must note the significance of placing two peasants between the two Red Guards. The Cultural Revolution and its Red Guards were predominantly an urban phenomenon in China. To place two peasants between them symbolizes the unity of the two important segments of Chinese society. Furthermore, this is supported by the peasants’ wearing of the red armband. Not only their location in the image, but the sartorial choices made by the artist are intended to illustrate ideological harmony between the two. Lastly, one should emphasize the sartorial uniformity of the Red Guards in the background. When comparing it to the preceding image, the Red Guards in the background are all wearing olive military uniforms. Contextualizing this difference with the date disparity between the two – 1966 to 1967 – illustrates that the movement quickly coalesced around the olive green military uniform with the red armband as the proper uniform in just a few months. Perhaps this might be due to the influence of Mao’s appearing at Tiananmen Square several times in the span of a few months wearing this exact uniform. Their desire to emulate his thought might have been augmented by their desire to emulate his person.

Gendered Authority in the Imperial Qipao

Although Western powers were able to secure enormous concessions from the Qing emperor during the latter part of the 19th century, there was no doubt among the Chinese people in the preceding years that absolute authority rested with the imperial state. For much of the Qing dynasty, power rested in the hands of an emperor, not an empress. His clothing, the dragon robe, was replete with cultural symbols that signified his absolute sovereignty over the state. However, power shifted from men to women during the reign of the Tongzhi and Guangxu emperors because both of them ascended while still children. Real authority rested with their mother and aunt respectively: Empress Dowager Cixi. This paper will compare the robes of earlier emperors and empresses with the qipao worn by Cixi to reveal how cultural symbols reserved for the male emperors came to be incorporated in Cixi’s robes.

Emperor's Dragon Robe Artist/maker unknown, Daoguang Period (1821-1850), c. 1840, reproduced from ArtStor.

Emperor’s Dragon Robe
Artist/maker unknown, Daoguang Period (1821-1850), c. 1840, reproduced from ArtStor.

This first image is a picture of the emperor’s dragon robes. When comparing them with the empress’s dragon robes below, one can immediately note the color difference. Culturally, yellow is associated with the earth and symbolizes the center of everything. It is fitting, therefore, that the male emperor of China be clad predominately in yellow. His dragon in the center of his chest is one of nine that harken back to the Huangdi Emperor, also known as the Yellow Emperor, who brought order to China through literacy. While the individual characters may say longevity or judgment, together they refer to the imperial literary tradition of enlightened rule inherited from Huangdi. The prominent number of clouds, as well as the sun, stars and moon symbolize his connection to the heavens as the Son of Heaven, tianzi.

Artist/maker unknown, Qianlong Period (1736-1795), c. 1740, reproduced from ArtStor.

Women’s dragon robe.
Artist/maker unknown, Qianlong Period (1736-1795), c. 1740, reproduced from ArtStor.

In contrast to the emperor’s dragon robe seen above, the female dragon robe makes limited use of imperial symbology. Most prominent is the limited use of the color yellow, which underscores that it was a color out of reach of even the most powerful woman in China. Furthermore, her dragons are brown rather than yellow. This underscores that men, not women, were the only ones who could claim affiliation with the great Huangdi. She has far fewer clouds on her robes than a male emperor, which signifies her distance from the heavens as only men can hold the Mandate of Heaven. Lastly, her robes lack the writing seen on the emperor’s robes. Recalling that this writing had three connotations – judgment, longevity and enlightenment – their total absence suggests imperial disregard for those three virtues even for an empress.

Oil painting of Express Dowager Cixi by Hubert Vos, 1906.

Oil painting of Empress Dowager Cixi by Hubert Vos, 1906.

As this painting of Empress Dowager Cixi by Hubert Vos in 1906 demonstrates, Cixi’s robe is a dramatic departure from those of preceding centuries, which symbolizes her transcending traditional gender norms. It is important to note that Hubert Vos was tasked with making official portraits of Cixi, one of which still hangs in the palace. Therefore, his paintings are intended to be faithful portrayals of her likeness. It is also worth emphasizing why it is more appropriate to refer to her garment as a qipao rather than a dragon robe: there is not a dragon on it. Furthermore, it lacks the many of the traditional symbols – clouds, stars, mountains, sacrificial cups, among others – that characterized centuries of imperial robes. Wearing a qipao in this style rather than the dragon robes appropriate to an empress during the Qianlong era symbolized her autonomy over her clothing and China by extension.

Nevertheless, Cixi did clearly appropriate elements of the male dragon robe for her qipao to underscore her authority. The most striking comparison with the dragon robe worn by most empresses is the enormous use of yellow in her qipao. Her symbolically appropriating the color of earth, over which a man normally reigned, illustrates her supremacy over the state. Furthermore, her robe prominently features characters symbolizing longevity. As illustrated in the previous dragon robes, writing – which connoted judgment, longevity and enlightenment – was reserved exclusively for men. By incorporating them on her robe, she stakes claim on those three connotations as though to say that her reign is one characterized by enlightenment, justice and stability. However, the sheer number of the symbols of longevity on every portion of her robe symbolizes her desire to reign as long as possible to ensure a stable, prosperous China. 

Her renewing the traditional qipao rather than the dragon robe might also have historical significance when one considers the events during her reign. During this time, the dynasty was forced to make more and more concessions to foreign powers at gunpoint. They introduced opium to the population, which crippled their ability to resist. These foreigners secured extraterritoriality, allowing them to evade imperial justice for their crimes. In these times of weakness for the Chinese state, wearing a cheongsam might have been Cixi’s longing for the era where Manchu women were the foreigners who were conquering a weak Chinese empire rather than being the ones conquered by foreigners.

nice work, the claim is well supported.

The Concealed Truth

The most exotic aspects of a foreign culture captivate observers, especially those that are intended for the private sphere; foot binding exemplifies this truth. It is a tradition that endured for centuries and whose practitioners could not precisely define how or where it began, which added to the foreigner’s confusion.

As an analysis of the image above will demonstrate, fully understanding the Chinese tradition of foot binding demands thorough knowledge of Chinese history and philosophy.

the thesis claim is too general to tackle

The central organizing principle of Chinese civilization is the Confucian philosophical school, which places harmony and order as the highest goal of civilization. His teachings came to the forefront during the Warring States Period during which time dukes violently contested for supremacy as Zhou authority foundered. He argued for renewed faith in authority by respecting one’s allotted station in life: ministerial and aristocratic loyalty to the throne. The same extended to a father’s authority over his children and the husband’s authority over his wife. To defy what Confucius considered to be the natural and proper order of affairs was tantamount to barbarism. “True” Chinese in his eyes not only exemplified civility and order in their personal affairs, but extended it to the public sphere as well.

It is within this intellectual context that foot binding arose. In the image above, the woman’s foot delicately sits in his hand. It is significant to note that her foot is just a bit smaller than his hand. To achieve feet that small required deliberate commitment to the painful practice: even when crying out in agony as her feet grew, she must have never loosened her bandages. By extension, the smallness of her feet implied that she came from a family who prized Confucian civility, discipline and order because she is their product. This mattered because marriage bound together lineages as well as individuals, mixing their fortunes with each other. Marrying a present of equal or greater standing could enhance a lineage’s prestige, but it could also be a liability for the higher ranking lineage in the marriage. Therefore, the sheer smallness of her feet represents her commitment to achieve mastery over the natural form of the human body, to impose civility: it was a guarantor of their commitment to the Confucian ideals.

In addition to smallness, proper drapery was an essential component of the Confucian conceptualization of civility. Through simple comparison, the observer of the image above can see that the man’s clothing is far less ornate than the woman’s clothing. He wears his hair in the Manchu style and dons silk robes, but that is the extent of his outfit. The woman’s clothing is replete with many rich shades of red. Red is significant because it is used for festive, celebratory occasions in China and is associated with happiness. These rich shades of red cascade down her body in the form of exquisite silk robes and leggings. They terminate in red, silk stockings that conceal the bound foot. The stockings consist of multiple images, which could signify things such as good fortune or fertility. From the man’s gaze, we learn that it is the patterns on the stockings that hold his attention rather than the form of the bound foot itself. It would have likely been drenched in perfumes, which would have made it pleasant for the man to hold the bound foot in his hand while studying the stocking.

In conclusion, understanding the appeal of foot binding depends on understanding Confucian thought. His teachings emerged during the Warring States Period where multiple aristocrats fought for control over the dying Zhou state. Confucius believed that ending this conflict hinged on people’s accepting their natural station in life: nobles were subservient to their emperor, just as children were to their parents and husbands to their wives. Foot binding came to epitomize this commitment to order because it required incredible discipline to overcome the pain of the process. Therefore, it became a proxy for her moral capacity. Further accentuating this was her commitment to proper drapery. What aroused and enticed the man was not the mangled foot itself, but its enshrining Confucian civility and its use as a medium for expressing virtues such as fertility or good fortune through pleasant smelling silk that a man could observe from the palm of his hand as demonstrated in the image above.

see what happens if search for social-cultural or gendered connotations through the denotations of the concealed bound feet, the embodied shoes, the color red, veiled face, the relation/poison between the bride and groom