In the Chinese way of describing the necessities of life, clothing ranks at the top of "garments, food, shelter and means of travel". In this country with a long history of garments and ornaments, there is a wealth of archeological findings showing the development of garments, as well as their portrayals in ancient mythology, history books, poems and songs, novels and drama. From the day garments became part of people's lives, they have been given different significance of social status, lifestyle, aesthetics and cultural concepts. Garments have always been the truest and most straightforward reflection of the social and historical scenes of ally given time. In this sense, the history of garments is at the same time a vivid history on the development of civilization.
The development of the Chinese garments can be traced back to the late Paleolithic age. Archeological findings have shown that approximately 20,000years ago, the primitives who lived in the now Zhou kou dian area of Beijing were already wearing personal ornaments.
Along with the establishment of the different social strata, rituals distinguishing the respectable from the humble came into being, leading eventually to the formation of rules and regulations on daily attire. The Chinese rules on garments and ornaments started taking shape in the Zhou Dynasty (1,046 B.C.-256B.C.), regulating the royalty down to the commoners, and these were recorded in the national decrees and regulations.
The rulers of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) used the Zhou Li- book on Zhou Dynasty Rituals as the blueprint on garments and ornaments. Women’s upper and lower garments became the nodal for the Han ethnicity of later generations.
During the Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), the garments style was not only inherited from the previous Han Dynasty but also emerged with the northern tribe’s style. These ethnic minority people settled down with the Han people. As a result, the way they dressed influenced the Han style, while at the same time it was influenced by the Han style.
When China was reunited in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), the Han dress code was pursued again. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that followed, the strong national power and an open social order led to a flourishing of garment and ornament style. That is both luxuriant and refreshing, typically with women wearing low cut short shirt dress.
By Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Han women developed the habit of chest-binding, giving popularity to the popular overcoat bei zi, whose elegant and simplistic style was favored by women of all ages and all social strata.
Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) was established by the Mongols when they unified China. As Mongols at that time wore mao li or triangular hat, and men commonly wore earrings, the official dress code became a mixture of the inherited Han system with the Mongol elements.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) rulers forbad using Yuan Dynasty's clothes, language and surnames, returning to the dress style of the Tang Dynasty. The official uniform of the Ming Dynasty was intent on seeking a sense of dignity and splendor.
More than 200years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was a period with the most significant changes in garment style. The Manchu dress style which the rulers tried to force on the Han people was met with strong resistance, but a later compromise by the government led to a silent fusion of the two dress styles. The mandarin long gown (changpao) and jacket (magua) style has become the quintessential Qing style whenever the topic of Qing dress is brought up.