China, Cheongsam and the Last Emperor

China, cheongsam
Beautiful and elegant in cheongsam

China has cast a magic spell on me, I’m enchanted with the middle kingdom, it’s wonderful people, past and present. My mind is attracted to all things related to the far east. Lately I’ve been admiring cheongsam worn by the stunning beautiful women of China. Men can dress to match, I once recall seeing a Mao suit on a mannequin in a Georgio Armani store. Cheongsam can be worn by men and women (see below).

Chinese singer and actress Zhou Xuan wearing a cheongsam in 1930s in Shanghai
Chinese singer and actress Zhou Xuan wearing a cheongsam in 1930s in Shanghai

The English loanword cheongsam comes from chèuhngsāam (長衫; long shirt/dress), the Cantonese pronunciation of the Shanghainese term zansae, by which the original tight-fitting form was first known. The Shanghainese name was somewhat in contrast with usage in Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese, where chángshān (Mandarin) refers to an exclusively male dress, and the female version is known as a qípáo.

In Hong Kong, where many Shanghai tailors fled after the communist revolution in China, the word chèuhngsāam may refer to either male or female garments. The word keipo (qípáo) is either a more formal term for the female chèuhngsāam, or is used for the two-piece cheongsam variant that is popular in mainland China. Traditionally, usage in Western countries mostly followed the original Shanghainese usage and applies the Cantonese-language name cheongsam to a garment worn by women.

armani mao suit
Armani Mao suit

The story of the Last Emperor is tragic in many ways but an important stage in the evolution of modern day China. In the historic photo of Puyi, last emperor of China, with his consort Wan Rong, last empress of China. It’s a blaring contrast the western dress suite beside cheongsam or what came next; i.e. the Mao suit (see photo).

The Last Emperor, Puyi was a renaissance man and dressed like a modern day Puff Daddy (rap star). In his day, not only was he the last emperor but also the last fashion maven, for about half a century. Modern day Chinese are making up for the lost time and are now the largest consumer of luxury designer brands in the world. The Armani Mao suit is an iconic twist of elegance, Mao style.

Wanrong and Puyi in Tianjin
Wanrong and Puyi in Tianjin

Emperor of China (1908–1912)

Chosen by Empress Dowager Cixi on her deathbed, Puyi became emperor at the age of 2 years and 10 months in December 1908 after the Guangxu Emperor died on 14 November. Titled the Xuantong Emperor (Wade-Giles: Hsuan-tung Emperor), Puyi’s introduction to the life of an emperor began when palace officials arrived at his family residence to take him. On the evening of 13 November 1908, without any advance notice, a procession of eunuchs and guardsmen led by the palace chamberlain left the Forbidden City for the Northern Mansion to inform Prince Chun that they were taking away his three-year-old son Puyi to be the new emperor.

Flag of the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty (1889-1912)
Flag of the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty (1889-1912)

The toddler Puyi screamed and resisted as the officials ordered the eunuch attendants to pick him up. Puyi’s parents said nothing when they learned that they were losing their son. As Puyi cried, screaming that he did not want to leave his parents, he was forced into a palanquin that took him back to the Forbidden City.  Puyi’s wet nurse Wang Wen-Chao was the only person from the Northern Mansion allowed to go with him, and she calmed the very distraught Puyi down by allowing him to suckle one of her breasts; this was the only reason she was taken along. Upon arriving at the Forbidden City, Puyi was taken to see Cixi Puyi later wrote:

I still have a dim recollection of this meeting, the shock of which left a deep impression on my memory. I remember suddenly finding myself surrounded by strangers, while before me was hung a drab curtain through which I could see an emaciated and terrifying hideous face. This was Cixi. It is said that I burst out into loud howls at the sight and started to tremble uncontrollably. Cixi told someone to give me some sweets, but I threw them on the floor and yelled “I want nanny, I want nanny”, to her great displeasure. “What a naughty child” she said. “Take him away to play.”

Cheongsam Photo credit: cwangdom on / CC BY-NC-ND


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