A woman in a cheongsam
Type Dress
Material Silk, cotton
Place of origin China
"Cheongsam" in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese 長衫
Simplified Chinese 长衫
Literal meaning 'long gown'

The cheongsam (from Cantonese Chinese: 長衫; Jyutping: coeng4saam1;/ˈɒŋˈsæm/,[1] /ˈɒŋˈsæm/ or /ˈɒŋˈsɑːm/) is a one-piece Chinese dress for women, also known as qípáo (from Mandarin Chinese: 旗袍; pinyin: qípáo; Wade–Giles: ch'i-p'ao; IPA: [t͡ɕʰǐ pʰɑ̌ʊ̯] ( listen)), and was the Republic of China's mandarin gown. It was popularised by Chinese socialites and upper-class women in the 1920s and 1930s in Shanghai.[2]

Chinese usage

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 to 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 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.


When the Manchurians ruled China during the Qing dynasty, they used an administrative division called the Eight Banner system. Originally only the Machu households were organised within this system, but over time Mongols and Hans were incorporated. The Manchus, and anyone living under the Eight Banners system, wore different clothing from ordinary civilians. Thus they became known as Banner People (旗人 pinyin: qí rén). The Manchu clothing that they wore consisted of similar long robes for both men and women. These were called changpao (長袍).

For a period of time, under the dynastic laws after 1636, all Han Chinese were forced under penalty of death to adopt the Manchu male hairstyle of wearing a queue and dress in Manchu "changpao" instead of traditional Han Chinese clothing (剃发易服). However, the order for ordinary non-Banner Han civilians to wear Manchu clothing was lifted, and only Han who served as officials or scholars were required to wear them. Over time though, some Han civilian men voluntarily adopted Changshan on their own free will. By the late Qing, not only officials and scholars, but a great many commoner Han men wore Manchu male attire.[3][4] Until 1911, the Manchu changpao was required clothing for Chinese men of a certain class.

For women, Manchu and Han systems of clothing coexisted.[5] Throughout the Qing dynasty, Han civilian women continued to wear traditional Han clothing from Ming dynasty.[6] As a result, Ming dynasty style clothing was retained in some places in China until the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.[7]

The original qipao fitted loosely and hung in an A-line.[8] It covered most of the wearer's body, revealing only the head, hands, and the tips of the toes. The baggy nature of the clothing also served to conceal the figure of the wearer regardless of age.

The version seen as the typical qipao in China today was popularised in Shanghai from the 1920s to 1940s. But even today it is recognized that there are two styles of qipaos, the Shanghai style, and the lesser known Beijing-style. The Beijing-style retains elements of the original Manchu robe and tend to be loose A-lines, while the Shanghai-style is body-hugging and can encompass many Western elements of design and tailoring.[9]

The qipao of the 1920s-40s was popularized by the celebrities, socialites and even politicians of the time. One-time First Lady of China Madame Wellington Koo was a prominent figure among them.[10][11] Voted several times by Vogue into its lists of the world's best-dressed women, Madame Wellington Koo was much admired for her adaptations of the traditional Manchu fashion, which she wore with lace trousers and jade necklaces.[10][11] Cheongsam dresses at the time had been decorously slit a few inches up the sides, but Madame Koo slashed hers to the knee, 'with lace pantelettes just visible to the ankle'.[11] Unlike other Asian socialites, Madame Koo also insisted on local Chinese silks, which she thought were of superior quality.[10][11]

People eagerly sought a more modernized style of dress and transformed the old qipao to suit their tastes. Slender and form fitting with a high cut, it had great differences from the traditional qipao. It was high-class courtesans and celebrities in the city that would make these redesigned tight fitting qipao popular at that time.[12] In Shanghaiese, it was first known as zansae for 'long dress', rendered in Mandarin as chángshān and in Cantonese as chèuhngsāam; it is the last of these spoken renditions of 長衫 that was borrowed into English as "cheongsam".

Like the male changpaos they derive from, cheongsams in the beginning were always worn in conjunction with trousers. However, with the introduction of Western fashion during the Nanking decade, it became a popular choice to replace these with stockings. The formerly purely utilitarian side slits were repurposed into aesthetic elements to highlight the new fashion, and by the 1940s, trousers had completely fallen out of use with cheongsams. As hosiery in turn declined in later decades, cheongsams nowadays have come to be most commonly worn with bare legs. While this development fixated the cheongsam as a one-piece dress, by contrast, the related Vietnamese áo dài retained trousers.

Controversies on origin

Usually, people take the cheongsam as adapted from a one-piece dress of Manchu women in the Qing Dynasty. But debates on the origin of the cheongsam have never stopped in academic circles. There are mainly three arguments on the origins of the cheongsam: The first argument says that the cheongsam came directly from the clothing of Banner People when the Manchu ruled China during the Qing dynasty. This argument was prominently represented by Zhou Xibao (周锡保) in his work--The History of Ancient Chinese Clothing and Ornaments.[13]

The second opinion holds that the cheongsam inherited some features of the chángpáo of Banner People in the Qing dynasty, but the true origin of the cheongsam dates back to a period between the Western Zhou dynasty (1046 BC-771 BC) and the pre-Qin era, approximately two millennia before the Qing dynasty. According to Yuan Jieying (袁杰英)’s book Chinese Cheongsam, the modern cheongsam shares many similarities with the narrow-cut straight skirt that women wore in the Western Zhou dynasty.[14] And Chinese Professor Bao Minxin (包铭新) also pointed out in his book A Real Record of Modern Chinese Costume that the cheongsam originated from the ancient robe in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The robe is a one-piece upper and lower connected long dress which was quite popular among ladies in Han.[15]

The third argument was raised by Bian Xiangyang (卞向阳) in his book An Analysis on the Origin of Qipao. Bian thinks that the cheongsam originates from neither the robe nor the chángpáo. It is an adaption of western-style dress during the Republic of China era when people were open to the western cultures. In his opinion, the cheongsam was a hybrid of traditional Chinese costumes and western costumes such as the waistcoat and one-piece dress.[16]

Variation through history

The modernized version is noted for accentuating the figures of women, and as such was popular as a dress for high society. As Western fashions changed, the basic cheongsam design changed too, introducing high-necked sleeveless dresses, bell-like sleeves, and the black lace frothing at the hem of a ball gown. By the 1940s, cheongsam came in a wide variety of fabrics with an equal variety of accessories.

The 1949 Communist Revolution curtailed the popularity of the cheongsam and other fashions in Shanghai, but the Shanghainese emigrants and refugees brought the fashion to Hong Kong and Taiwan where it has remained popular. Recently there has been a revival of the Shanghainese cheongsam in Shanghai and elsewhere in Mainland China; the Shanghainese style functions now mostly as a stylish party dress.

Popularity and women’s liberation

The Republican period is the golden age of Cheongsam. In exploring reasons behind its prevalence in Republic of China, many scholars relate it to the women’s liberation movements. After the feudal Qing Dynasty was overturned, Chinese feminists called for women's liberation from traditional roles and they led several movements against the Neo-Confucian gender segregation, including a termination of bound feet for women, cutting off long hair which was conventionally symbolized as women's oriental beauty, and encouraging women to wear men’s one-piece clothing, Changshan or "changpao".

"Changpao" was traditionally taken as men’s patent throughout the long history since Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220) to Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). During that time, Chinese Han female’s clothing gradually developed into two pieces. Women were forbidden to wear robes as men did and instead had to wear tops and bottoms known as "Liang jie yi". After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 (which overthrew the Qing dynasty), young Chinese people began to learn western science and cultures in order to seek a way of saving the nation. Also, the opening of several ports and ceding territories of China to western powers imported western civilization abundantly to mainland China. Among all these western thoughts, the idea of gender equality quickly gained its followers, among whom young female students became its prime advocates.[17]

In the early years of Republican period, wearing Cheongsam carried the symbol of promoting gender equality and saving the country. The color of Cheongsam were usually cold and rigid. It symbolized a silent protest, as part of the May Fourth Movement and the New Cultural Movement.

Since 1930s, Cheongsam was popularized from young female students to all women in China regardless of their ages and social status. More and more female workers and celebrities put on Cheongsam. The style of Cheongsam also varied due to western costume’s influence. It changed from a wide and loose style to a more form fitting and revealing cut, which put more emphasis on women’s body line. The length of Cheongsam was also reduced from ankle reaching to above the knee.

The design of Cheongsam got various inventions like ruffled collar, bell-like sleeves and black lace frothing. Starting from that, the priority of Cheongsam moved from a political expression to aesthetic and ornamental emphasis.

Timeline of Chinese dress

In 1929, Cheongsam was chosen by the Republic of China to be one of the national dresses. In the 1930s, the fashion prevailed in Shanghai.

Traditionally, Cheongsam is made of silk and embroidered with pearls and other decorations. Cheongsams are close fitting, and draw the outline of the wearer's body.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, due to the anti-tradition movements in China, especially the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Cheongsam was seen as a feudal dress of the ancient times. It was abandoned as daily clothing, and people who wore Cheongsams were judged as being bourgeois, which was considered a political misbehavior at that time. For example, in 1963, when President Liu Shaoqi visited four neighboring countries in South Asia, first lady Wang Guangmei wore a Cheongsam. She was later declared guilty in the Cultural Revolution for wearing a Cheongsam.

Since 1980s, with the trend of reevaluation of Chinese traditional culture, people in mainland China started to pay attention to the Cheongsam again. The Cheongsam is gaining popularity in films, beauty pageants, and fashion shows in both China and other countries all over the world. In 1984, the Cheongsam was specified as the formal attire of female diplomatic agents by the People's Republic of China.

Modern use

In the 1950s, women in the workforce in Hong Kong started to wear more functional cheongsam made of wool, twill, and other materials. Most were tailor fitted and often came with a matching jacket. The dresses were a fusion of Chinese tradition with modern styles. Cheongsam were commonly replaced by more comfortable clothing such as sweaters, jeans, business suits and skirts. Due to its restrictive nature, it is now mainly worn as formal wear for important occasions. They are sometimes worn by politicians and film artists in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They are shown in some Chinese movies such as in the 1960s film The World of Suzie Wong, where actress Nancy Kwan made the cheongsam briefly fashionable in western culture. However, they are sometimes used as Halloween costumes in some Western countries. They are also commonly seen in beauty contests, along with swim suits. Today, cheongsam are only commonly worn day to day as a uniform by people like restaurant hostesses and serving staff at luxury hotels.


Some Lolita dresses are styled like a cheongsam. The dresses or jumper skirts are designed after traditional Chinese dresses called Qi Lolita.[18] This style appeared due to boom in popularity of Lolita fashion in China, as an equivalent to Wa Lolita, a version of Lolita incorporating elements from the traditional Japanese yukata. Chinese brands that have produced Qi Lolita dresses include Infanta, FanPlusFriend, Classical Puppets and Chess Story.

Work wear

Some airlines in Mainland China and Taiwan have cheongsam uniforms for their women flight attendants and ground workers such as China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, and Xiamen Airlines. They are in a plain color, hemmed just above the knee, with a close fitting wool suit jacket of the same color as the cheongsam. The workers wear stockings and low heeled shoes. Their working places are often air-conditioned so they remain cool.


A few primary schools and some secondary schools in Hong Kong, especially older schools established by Christian missionaries, use a plain rimmed sky-blue cotton and/or dark blue velvet (for winter) cheongsam with the metal school badge right under the stand-up collar to be closed with a metal hook and eye as the official uniform for their female students. The schools which use this standard include True Light Girls' College, St. Paul's Co-educational College, Heep Yunn School, St. Stephen's Girls' College, Ying Wa Girls' School, etc. These cheongsam are usually straight, with no waist shaping, and the cheongsam hem must reach mid-thigh. The cheongsam fit closely to the neck, and the stiff collar is hooked closed, despite the tropical humid and hot weather. Although the skirts have short slits, they are too narrow to allow students to walk in long strides. The seams above the slits often split when walking and are repeatedly sewn. Many schools also require underskirts to be worn with the cheongsam. The underskirt is a white cotton full slip, hemmed slightly shorter than the cheongsam, and have slits at the sides like the cheongsam, although the slits are deeper. A white cotton undershirt is often worn underneath the cheongsam. The cheongsam's length, styling, color and sleeve length varies between schools. Many students feel it an ordeal, yet it is a visible manifestation of the strict discipline that is the hallmark of prestigious secondary schools in Hong Kong and many students and their parents like that. In summer wearing this for a school day would be sweaty and unhygienic. Some rebellious students express their dissatisfaction with this tradition by wearing their uniform with the stand-up collar intentionally left unhooked or hemmed above their knees. The Ying Wa and True Light Schools have sent questionnaires to their students about uniform reforms but have not altered their policies.[19] However, Madam Lau Kam Lung Secondary School of Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery ended their cheongsam uniform in 1990 after receiving suggestions from its student union.[20]


In Western weddings, Chinese brides, or brides marrying into a Chinese family, will often wear cheongsam for a portion of the wedding day. It is common for many brides to have both a traditional white wedding dress and a cheongsam that they wear during the tea ceremony.

On the international stage

In the 2008 Summer Olympics, the medal bearers wore cheongsam. Similar attire was worn by female members of the Swedish team and of the Spanish team in the opening ceremony, with the national colors.

For the 2012 Hong Kong Sevens tournament, sportswear brand Kukri Sports teamed up with Hong Kong lifestyle retail store G.O.D. to produce merchandising, which included traditional Chinese jackets and cheongsam-inspired ladies' polo shirts.[21][22][23]

In contemporary China, the meaning of cheongsam has been revisited again. It now embodies an identity of being ethnic Chinese, and thus is used for important diplomatic occasions.

Since 2013, Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, has worn cheongsam several times while on foreign visits with Chinese president Xi Jinping.

In November 2014, cheongsam was the official attire for the political leaders' wives in the 22nd APEC meeting in Beijing.

International fashion

With the growth of the Chinese economy, cheongsam has experienced a renewed popularity. Many Western designers have integrated elements of cheongsam in their fashion collections. French designer Pierre Cardin once said that cheongsam was his inspiration for many of his evening dress designs.

In many films and movies, cheongsam is used to make a fashion statement and an exotic impression. In the 2011 movie One Day, Anne Hathaway wore a set of dark blue cheongsam as evening dress, which was appreciated by many viewers. Many western stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Nicole Kidman, Paris Hilton, Emma Watson, and Celine Dion have also made public appearances wearing cheongsam.

Prom dress controversy

In April 2018, 18-year-old Keziah Daum, a white girl from Utah, posted photos on online of herself wearing a red qipao at a high school prom. The photograph caused controversy as some accused her of insensitive "cultural appropriation". Twitter user Jeremy Lam wrote, "'My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.'[24] He believed, he wrote, the dress was worn by Asian women as a symbol of activism and fight against "patriarchal oppression'. He also suggested that the dress symbolizes 'the extreme barriers marginalized people' have overcome.

'For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology,' Lam said.

But many, especially in the conservative media, found criticism of the white girl in the Chinese dress hypocritical, comparing the wearing of American blue jeans by Asians as parallel.

Most in Asia, in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong felt it was honor, not an insult, proclaiming Ms. Daum's choice of the traditional high-necked dress as a victory for Chinese culture.

"I am very proud to have our culture recognized by people in other countries," said someone called Snail Trail, commenting on a post of the Utah episode by a popular account on WeChat, the messaging and social media platform, that had been read more than 100,000 times.[25]

Similar garments

The Vietnamese áo dài bears some similarity to the cheongsam. In the 18th century, in an attempt to separate his domain from Tonkin ruled by his rival Trịnh clan and build an independent state, lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát forced his subjects to relinquish the traditional cross collared dress in favor of a type of garment similar to qipao. Such attire was the predecessor of the modern áo dài.

See also

Notes and references

  1. "cheongsam". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. "Qipao (Ch'i-p'ao)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2008-11-18.
  3. Edward J. M. Rhoads (2000). Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861–1928. University of Washington Press. pp. 61–. ISBN 978-0-295-98040-9.
  4. Twitchett, Denis; Fairbank, John K. (2008) Cambridge History of China Volume 9 Part 1 The Ch'ing Empire to 1800, p87-88
  5. Shaorong Yang (2004). Traditional Chinese Clothing Costumes, Adornments & Culture. Long River Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-59265-019-4. Men's clothing in the Qing Dyansty consisted for the most part of long silk growns and the so-called "Mandarin" jacket, which perhaps achieved their greatest popularity during the latter Kangxi Period to the Yongzheng Period. For women's clothing, Manchu and Han systems of clothing coexisted.
  6. 周, 锡保 (2002-01-01). 《中国古代服饰史》. 中国戏剧出版社. p. 449. ISBN 9787104003595..
  7. 千志, 魏 (1998). 《明清史概論》. 中國社會科學出版社. pp. 358–360.
  8. Zhou, Xibao (January 2011). A history of Ancient Chinese Apparel and Accessories. Beijing: Central Compilation and Translation Press. ISBN 9787511705037.
  9. Miranda. "The difference between Shanghai-style and Beijing-style qipao (海派和京派旗袍)". self-published. Retrieved 11 July 2018.
  10. 1 2 3 Koo, Hui-lan Oei; Van Rensselaer Thayer, Mary (1943). Hui-lan Koo (Madame Wellington Koo): An Autobiography as Told to Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer. New York: Dial Press. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  11. 1 2 3 4 "Madame Wellington-Koo – Voted best dressed Chinese Woman of 1920s by Vogue". Nee Hao Magazine. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  12. 旗袍起源与哪个民族?
  13. 周, 锡保 (September 1984). 中国古代服饰史. 北京: 中国戏剧出版社. ISBN 9787104003595.
  14. 袁, 杰英 (January 2002). 中国旗袍. 北京: 中国纺织出版社. ISBN 9787506417075.
  15. 包, 铭新 (December 2004). 近代中国女装实录. 上海: 东华大学出版社. ISBN 9787810388870.
  16. 卞, 向阳 (November 2003). "论旗袍的流行起源". 装饰 (11). J523.
  17. 吴, 昊 (January 2008). 中国妇女服饰与身体革命. 上海: 上海东方出版中心. ISBN 9787801867735.
  18. "East Meets East?? Japanese Lolita Fashion with a Chinese Twist! | KawaCura". KawaCura. 2015-03-05. Retrieved 2017-08-01.
  19. 旗袍维系香港女校百年情. 李气虹 (The qipao keep the affections of Hong Kong girls schools of 100 years by Li Qihong) (2003-05-16). "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-08-19. Retrieved 2007-10-01.
  20. Madam Lau Kam Lung Secondary School of Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery Archived October 14, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  21. "G.O.D. and Kukri Design Collaborate for the Rugby Sevens". Hong Kong Tatler. 16 March 2012. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  22. "G.O.D. x Kukri". G.O.D. official website. Archived from the original on 15 May 2012. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  23. "Kukri and G.O.D. collaborate on HK7s Range!". Kukri Sports. Archived from the original on 2 February 2014. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  24. "Is this high schooler's Chinese prom dress racist?".
  25. "Teenager's Prom Dress Stirs Furor in U.S. — but Not in China".


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