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Exposed Fashion: Jin Dynasty’s Freewheeling Clothing Styles

Have you ever seen an ancient Jin dynasty painting like this?

Hao Long sunbathing books
Hao Long (a famous scholar in Jin Dynasty) sunbathing books

When did ancient China start an exposed fashion like that? Didn’t the ancient guys favor conservative styles?

Well, let’s talk about Jin Dynasty, a dynasty that is known for freewheeling lifestyles and rebellious spirit. If you’ve ever wondered how philosophical rebellion and clothing intertwine, join us on this fascinating sartorial journey back to the Jin Dynasty. In this article, we’re about to explore the distinctive aesthetic of that dynasty and the famous unusual styles.

Jin Dynasty

The Jin dynasty can be divided into two distinctive epochs. The first, known as the Western Jin (266–316), was a pivotal moment when Sima Yan claimed the throne from Cao Huan, marking the end of Cao Wei.

However, it wasn’t long before political turbulence resurfaced. The War of the Eight Princes, a decade-long civil conflict, left the empire weakened and vulnerable. A wave of invasions and rebellions by the Five Barbarians soon followed, casting the empire into chaos.

Then came the Eastern Jin (317–420). This era was characterized by a series of conflicts with northern states.

Although the Jin dynasty was turbulent, it was a period that showcased an unparalleled spirit of freedom. As Mr. Zong said in his book, “It was a period of intense, contradictory, passionate, and vibrant life.”

The Aesthetic Revolution in Jin Dynasty

In the transition period of the Wei and Jin Dynasties, a wave of skepticism and rejection of external value systems led to a stronger consciousness of individual self-fulfillment. This wave resulted in the rise of emotional expressiveness in aesthetics, breaking away from rigid external ethical norms.

The idea of centering around emotion was brought to a climax in Zhang Zhan’s annotations on the “Liezi” (an important book about Taoism), advocating for limitless indulgence in emotions. This Taoistic concept represented a positive liberation of emotions despite its association with the indulgent lifestyle of the aristocracy.

A story from book Liezi
A story from Liezi, figuring out that what we see and what we think may not be reality.

As Taoism gradually fused with the emerging Buddhism in the Eastern Jin and Southern Dynasties, the emotion-based trend evolved into a slightly more “ruled” aesthetic. These “rules” do not refer to conventional norms but to the natural laws of the universe.

The evolved appreciation for nature marked aesthetics during the Jin Dynasty. This shift in aesthetic perception was not about human-nature harmony as seen in previous dynasties, but rather about the beauty of nature as an object. This new aestheticism externalized inner feelings and internalized external objects, combining nature with humanity.

Scholars' Dressing in Jin Dynasty: Seven Sages

The attire of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of famous scholars during the Wei and Jin dynasties, showcased a unique trend in fashion. These scholars were Ji Kang, Ruan Ji, Shan Tao, Xiang Xiu, Liu Ling, Ruan Xian, and Wang Rong. Amid the tumultuous political environment, they assumed a nonchalant attitude, spending their days indulging in wine and unusual clothing.

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove painted by Zhang You
Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove painted by Zhang You

Exposed Fashion

According to the “Book of Jin” and “A New Account of the Tales of the World,” Ruan Ji and Liu Ling of the Seven Sages both ever showed their bodies. Liu Ling famously stated to someone who judged him, “I regard Heaven and Earth as my pillars and rafters, and my chamber as my clothing. Why do you gentlemen enter my trousers?”

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove painted by Zhang You - Liu Ling
Liu Ling on the right

This unconventional style was a tangible manifestation of their disregard for formalities and societal norms, a way for Seven Sages to protest against dark politic issues. Following their lead, many scholars mimicked this trend to express their dissatisfaction with the dark side of the bureaucratic world and the rigid social norms.

Wide Sleeves and Loose Clothing

Another signature garment of scholars in the Jin Dynasty was the wide-sleeved long shirt. Unlike the traditional robes of the Chu and Han periods, these garments had wide unrestricted sleeves, available in both single and double layers. There were also versions with parallel collars that could be worn open at the chest without a belt. The ease of wearing and the casual elegance imparted by these wide-sleeved shirts made them very popular.

A section of the Nymph of the Luo River painted by Gu Kaizhi, a famous painter in the Eastern Jin
A section of the Nymph of the Luo River painted by Gu Kaizhi, a famous painter in the Eastern Jin. In this painting, we can see almost all clothing is loose and has wide sleeves.

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove often wore these garments (they were wearing these loose clothes right in the painting we posted above), expressing a sense of carefree aloofness. They might roll their sleeves to the shoulder, expose their feet, reveal their arms, or discard their hats and let their hair flow freely. Their clothing style embodied the essence of a tranquil, carefree lifestyle secluded from society.

Furthermore, women in the Jin Dynasty also wore wide-sleeved clothing. That can be seen in the painting “Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies” by Gu Kaizhi.

A section of Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies painted by Gu Kaizhi
A section of Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies painted by Gu Kaizhi

Delicate Beauty

The aesthetic tendencies of scholars during the Wei and Jin dynasties were polarized. One perspective emphasized the expression of inner beauty, striving for a carefree demeanor and unity with nature. The exposed fashion and loose clothing we discussed above align with this thought.

However, there was a contrasting aesthetic that tended towards the outer beauty and delicacy of men, with a strong emphasis on adorning oneself. This school of thought valued elaborate dressing and personal makeup.

As “A New Account of the Tales of the World” documents, “When Xie E was young, he liked to wear purple silk and carry a sachet, hanging handkerchief at the side.” Another record in this book described a beautiful man “with a face like congealed lard and eyes like dots of lacquer. This is a celestial being among mortals.” The famous Taoist practitioner Ge Hong even invented many herbal prescriptions for beauty treatments, including waist slimming, face lightening, skin whitening, etc.

One prescription from Ge Hong’s book “Baopuzi”:

“For those with dark complexions and rough skin textures, one could finely grind sheep shin bone and mix it with egg white to apply to the face. Once dried, wash it off with the juice of seeds of Foxtail Millet. After three days, the skin would appear rejuvenated.”

(Please notice, the effectiveness of this prescription is unverified.)

This trend was actually a reaction to the turbulence during that time period. In the upheaval of war, there was a growing emphasis on seizing immediate pleasures. The metaphysics also led to a paradigm that embraced “wu wei” (doing nothing), which gave the ruling class an excuse to do nothing but enjoy life. In this climate of rampant indulgence, part of the elite began to divert from the conventional pursuit of masculine strength. They instead sought an ethereal and delicate beauty.

Final Words

In conclusion, the Jin Dynasty clothing was a testament to a unique era when turbulent society gave birth to profound philosophical changes. These transformations seeped into fashion, shaping styles that weaved a captivating tale of history. From nature’s beauty to self-adornment, Jin Dynasty’s clothing reflected an explosion of individuality and freedom of expression.

Today, just as the scholars of the Jin Dynasty, we too can use fashion to tell our own story. Explore, express, and experience the joy of sartorial creativity.

If you want to learn more about Chinese historical fashion, welcome to our “Chinese Dress” channel. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas~ We are always here to exchange brilliant thoughts!

Have a good day

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