“For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
Hamlet Act 1 Scene 3
Do you know where the uniforms often seen in Chinese training halls (Gong Fu Wuguan功夫 武館) and on the tournament floor originated?
It all started in the west with the introduction of the television series Kung Fu in 1972 and the chopsockey movie classic Five Fingers of Death in the same year. From these films, Chinese martial arts came to the attention of the West in a big way. As schools began to crop up around the USA and Europe a distinctive uniform was needed. These uniforms and their evolution have an interesting background in Chinese history.
What was chosen by most in these early days was clothing being worn by the martial hero and villains in the films of the day. Most of the cinematic clothing of this period was modeled after clothing worn during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). What actually was a Gong Fu uniform? In truth, there never was a particular garment used for Chinese martial arts training. Chinese trained in their ordinary clothes. Peasants and farmers training martial arts wore their standard everyday clothing.
Scholars and the upper-class citizens wore their robes and gowns that were the fashion of the time. Warriors trained in their military uniforms with or without amour. Much of what we see today that passes for Chinese martial uniforms (Gong Fu Zhifu功夫制服) was derived from this ordinary clothing of peasants, scholars, and soldiers from three Chinese Dynasties. Respectively the Han Dynasty 206 B.C. – 220 AD – Ming Dynasty 1368 -1636 and Qing Dynasty 1636 – 1912.
During the Qing one could find many Taijiquan and Baguazhang teachers of the day wearing a “long shirt” (Changshan 長衫) a traditional Chinese dress or robe that came down to the ankles. This long jacket or tunic was also known as a (changpao長袍) or great jacket (dagua大褂).
The Changpao was often worn by men with a riding jacket (Magua馬) a waist-length coat worn over the Changpao. At times during warmer weather, instead of the Magua men and women might wear a waist-length no sleeve vest (Han Beixin漢 背心) over the Changpao robe.
Monastic Clothing In Martial Arts
Daoist and Buddhist monks also trained Gong Fu Wushu and exercised in their everyday robes. Daoist robes were not created by the Daoists, they were adopted from standard Chinese men’s dress of the period. The garment can be plain or elaborately decorated and can be varied colors or designs. All versions of this garment are simply called a robe (Zhiduo 直裰).
The bottom of a Zhiduo reaches below the knee and most often to the ankles, it has an overlapping collar with a center seam that runs down the back of the robe. The Zhiduo often is tied at the waist with a wide sash, it has lateral slits on each lower side for maneuverability and comfort while sitting in meditation.
Sleeves can be of the “butterfly” style, that is long and flowing at the wrists or of average size. Both types are often long enough to extend past the fingertips. The excessively long sleeves help to keep the hands warm in winter. The butterfly sleeve design provides a type of pocket to hold small items.
Buddhist robes in China evolved over many years from an earlier Indian garment. During the early times, the Chinese Buddhist monastic robe (Jiasha 袈裟) was often colored to identify the specific sect of Buddhism. Later they became mostly grey in color and during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907) Chinese Buddhist monastics typically wore grayish-black robes that were colloquially referred to as “the black robes” (Ziyi緇衣).
Buddhist monks today most often wear robes of saffron. These saffron-colored robes date back centuries. Saffron was chosen because of the dye available at the time. The tradition stuck and eventually saffron became the color of choice for Theravada Buddhist followers in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the maroon color for Tibetan monks.
All Buddhist robes are simple in design and are meant to symbolize simplicity and detachment from materialism. In fact, the earliest Jiasha were made from patchwork cloth collected from discarded scraps. Chinese Buddhist monks rejected the bare shoulder robes of their Indian counterparts and began to wear sleeved robes similar to a Daoist scholar’s robe (Zhiduo 直裰) created during the early 1st millennium CE.
Average Citizen Martial Clothing
For the commoners, farmers and the like who trained Gong Fu Wushu their uniform was most often the Han dynasty uniform (Han-Zhifu漢制服). This ensemble consisted of a waist-length cotton or rough fabric jacket with mandarin collar closed with traditional Chinese cloth “frog” buttons, an undershirt that could be short on long-sleeved and wide-legged pants plus cotton sole shoes. This was equivalent to everyday dress and was not designated as a special training uniform.
Originally the Zhifu was black, grey, brown or blue. Some worn by the upper class were silk with embroidery of Chinese characters or symbols. Pure white Zhifu or Changpao were seldom worn as the pure white color represents death, such garments were reserved for funerals. Zhifu that appear white in old photos are more often bone color or off white natural fiber jackets.
During the 19th century when training in the Chinese Wuguan students of a school while exercising or training most often wore a white or black short-sleeve T-shirt with a V-neck and three buttons. This was worn without the Zhifu jacket.
Long loose pants with drawstring ties and cotton sole shoes were part of his training clothing. If a belt or sash was worn it was strictly to hold up the pants. In many old schools, Wuguan students were not allowed to wear the mandarin collar jackets until they had become inner door disciples of the headmaster.
Old School Gong Fu Shoes
Today, there is a dizzying array of special shoes made for Gong Fu Wushu practice. However, the original footwear that is often called the Gong Fu Shoe was worn in Beijing and southern China. It was a type of slipper with a u-shaped upper throat and vamp. This design is sometimes referred to erroneously as a Tai Chi shoe. This was a common design found during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most were made of cotton while the upper-class who could afford it had versions with the uppers made of leather.
They were worn by many people even soldiers and especially those training martial arts. The Gong Fu shoe is typically black, with minimal lining; a low-sided cloth upper and has reinforced cotton soles. Newer versions sport plastic or rubber soles. Some modern versions have also omitted the u-shaped upper in favor of a full covering, but the old style is more traditional. The shoe was worn most often with white socks. In the colder climates, boots of cloth or leather were often used for training especially by the practitioners of external family (Wai-jia外家) systems.
The Well Dressed Traditional Shifu
The instructor (Shifu師父) or father of the clan most often wore the traditional long robe (changpao長袍) to indicate his position as both warrior and scholar of the martial arts. In some cases, the Shifu might simply wear the Han Zhifu but this was not that common in the early heydays of Chinese martial arts especially in the early 19th century.
A changpao could be worn with or without a sash (Dai带). The use of the sash was not an indication of rank as in Japanese Karate but was worn primarily to allow the wearer to pull up the hem of the garment to avoid getting it muddy. Also in combat, the front panel of the gown could be lifted and tucked into the sash to free up the legs.
There is even a move in Taijiquan that clearly indicates this movement of tucking the front panel up and out of the way during combat. Baguazhang as practiced by Daoists wearing a Zhiduo also has several archaic arm motions that facilitated moving or wrapping the butterfly style sleeves of the Zhiduo around the wrists for better ease of technique execution.
A Cornucopia of Colors and Designs
It is this common man’s Han Zhifu that one most often sees today being worn by modern Gong Fu enthusiasts and teachers, although today they are no longer just grey, black, blue or white but come in a rainbow of colors and fabrics. As the practice of Gong Fu Wushu moved outside of China to Europe and the west the non-Chinese adopted traditional dress as their Gongfu costumes.
Today in modern China especially among the contemporary Wushu practitioners students and teachers (coaches) often wear western-style jogging suits. During the performance, they tend to favor satin or shiny uniforms of white, black or almost any color in the rainbow.
Modern western Chinese martial artists are often seen at tournaments and online sporting Buddhist and Daoist monastic robes and Buddhist Mala, meditation beads as their training regalia. This is a widespread practice even though the wearer may have no affiliation with Buddhism or Daoism which always strikes me as a bit odd and even perhaps sacrilegious. Others not interested in such affectations, simply wear the simple Han Zhifu or even slacks and a Tee shirt while the modern tracksuits are often seen today in China’s national and sport Wushu training halls.
Some western schools have even borrowed the idea of a belt ranking system from the Japanese and introduced a bewildering array of colored sashes that vary from school to school to indicate rank and standing in the Wuguan. Typically there is no ranking sash system in traditional Gong Fu. The only use for a sash in Chinese Gong Fu training was as stated above to hold up the pants, tuck in the front gown flap or keep a robe closed.
Honoring The Past
Truthfully in modern times, for Chinese martial arts training, one can work out in almost any type of clothing that allows freedom of movement. However if one wishes to take a more formal approach with a Chinese flavor there is a veritable array of uniforms online from which to choose.
Our traditional Wuguan, The Gompa teaching Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Nine Dragon Baguazhang in Arlington Texas has adopted the Han Zhifu in black, grey or blue in natural cotton fabrics as our standard student training uniform and teachers wear the black or blue Changpao.
Now, as I approach middle age (75) my predilection is more toward my meditative Tibetan Buddhist and Daoist roots and I prefer to wear the traditional Zhiduo when instructing formal meditation, qigong or martial classes.
So why bother to wear traditional training clothes? To the modern practitioners of traditional Chinese martial arts, these vintage “old school” uniforms in all of their manifestations could be considered a type of homage, to the earlier times of Gong Fu Wushu training. A way of honoring and remembering the masters who have come before us.
How to dress, well I suppose the choice is up to you.