Han Clothing Movement & Nationalism


A review of The Imaginary Institution of China: Dialectics of Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification, as Seen through China’s Han Clothing Movement, by Kevin Carrico.

Kevin Carrico’s dissertation is an insightful study on one way members of the Han majority face the discontents of contemporary Chinese society by embracing traditionalist and nationalist ideals. This work is inscribed in the most recent trends in Chinese study, such as the Critical Han Studies, as well as in Anthropology for drawing upon emotions and affects in the analysis. The author generally uses a wide range of terms from the medical and psychological lexicon.

The author analyzes the modus operandi of a widespread network of Han ethnic clothing enthusiasts who escape their tedious routine and/or unstable life in a search to restore the grandeur of an imaginary “real China.” This “neo-traditionalist and ethno-nationalist” movement (p. ii) locates its model for a “real China” in the archaic times of the Yellow Emperor. The claim is that such authentic China can be recovered by wearing a particular type of clothing, which enthusiasts in the movement identify as ethnically Han. Through the study of the movement’s theories and actions, Carrico thus intends to understand why they chose clothing to assert their Hanness and why at this time in contemporary China.

In more general anthropological terms, this study leads to “a theoretical reconsideration of majority identity and nationalism” (p. 2) in which the nation is viewed as “a perpetually elusive imaginary community, founded in fantasy and reproduced by its own impossibility” (p. iv). This is based on the idea that the practical experience of everyday life keeps disillusioning the ideals of nationalist identification that are, in turn, always pushed ahead and recreated by a self-generative mechanism. The core of the Han Clothing Movement is thus the idea that the nation is a perpetual quest to the lost paradise of the archaic past, the Han, and the Tang dynasties.

The author distances himself from his informants’ beliefs and activities. He justifies his critical posture in the introduction (pp. 9-12) arguing that remaining neutral or showing sympathy for the movement’s arguments would correspond to an orientalist and patronizing way of doing anthropology.

The dissertation is divided into two parts. The first part, including chapters 1 and 2, builds up the theoretical and historical frame of the nationalist elaboration in China by revisiting some now “classics” for anthropologists as well as specialists in Chinese studies, such as Benedict Anderson, Fredrik Barth, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Dru Gladney and Stevan Harrell. Carrico pushes their theories forward, especially Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities,” by (re)introducing some psychological aspects of nationalist identification.

Chapter 1 engages with theories of nationalism in order to define its “elementary structures” (pp. 20 onwards). The nation is defined as an imaginary community, wherein “imaginary” is taken in the Lacanian sense. The nation is thus analyzed as a fantasy, a paradoxical and self-perpetuating affective system in which experience indubitably contradicts the ideal.

Chapter 2 moves on to apply this theory to Chinese history from the very beginning of the twentieth century. Carrico highlights the regular construction, then disillusion, followed by a reconstruction of the idea of China, wherein each construction differs from the previous one according to contemporary needs. This movement draws on the “compliance cycle” as defined by W. G. Skinner and E. Winckler, and is propelled by the tension between desires and reality, and by the passion for nationalism (B. Anderson). This chronological review of history ends in the present time, represented by the Han Clothing Movement, the main object of the dissertation, which is analyzed in depth in the second part.

The second part of the dissertation encompasses almost all the ethnographic data from chapters 3 to 7, each of them dealing with one aspect of the Han Clothing Movement. Chapter 3 provides an introduction to the Han Clothing Movement: the social and cultural environment that gave rise to the movement, its aim and history. The movement appears to be the product of the 1990’s valorization of the minority nationalities’ ethnic characteristics such as colorful clothing and the search for a “Real China” beyond the discontents of modern life. Thus Han Clothing Movement’s enthusiasts are looking for the Han majority’s own ethnic traits and tradition to be recovered in the manner of the minorities’ “ethnicization.” Hence the choice for clothing, imagined as an inheritance (but lost at some historical point) from the Tang, or even the Han, dynasty.

Chapter 4 draws on the participants’ motivation to join the Han Clothing Movement through the case study of five individuals. Although all coming from different backgrounds, the five participants all share a deceiving daily life and seek to create a new imaginary and a more magnificent identity for themselves by joining the movement. Through these cases, the chapter deals with the hopes participants puts in collective institutions to fulfill their individual desires and how the former achieve to do it. Put another way: how the idea of the nation provides ideals to individuals that are to be, but can never fully be, realized through experience.

Chapter 5 investigates the symbolic power of clothing through the garment itself as well as through the particular use of it in rituals (such as the female coming of age ceremony) and in photography. These symbolic uses of clothing are meant/expected to “suture” (p. 164) the fundamental gap between ideals and daily experience. Han clothing is conceived as a central element of Chinese culture, deeply invested with meaning, and as such, the wearer is literally embodied with the grandeur conveyed by the clothes. Hence the strong emphasis of ritual, in which the clothing and the wearing are highly dramatized, and on photography, which literally frame and makes up self–aggrandizing images. However, “Han Clothing thus, while suturing fundamental lacks in national experience, continues to produce further identity dilemmas” (p. 178). Then “the solution to the problems posed by the inherently disappointing nationalist experience is to be found in further nationalism” (ibid.).

Chapter 6 thus analyzes the further step into nationalism represented by a conspiracy theory according to which, all the problems faced by the Chinese nation, and the participants at an individual level, are caused by a single and quite invisible enemy: the Manchu. The Manchu, even though being a minority nationality (shaoshu minzu) in the contemporary national ethnic classification are mainly viewed, and feared, as the descendants of the Qing dynasty, the former rulers of China. For the author, the recourse to conspiracy theory is the necessary counterpart of the otherwise unattainable ideals of (Han) identity. The designation of “them” (the Manchu) as the unique cause to any failure in the daily national experience provides the necessary (affective) impulse to further search for renewed ideals when the disappointing reality breaks the former expectations.

Chapter 7 finally explores one particular aspect of the Han Clothing Movement ideology: the image of the “traditional woman.” The model of the “Han lady” promoted by the Han Clothing movement appears very “possessive and puritan” (p. 291), naturally inferior to men. Some schools are devoted to reeducate modern ladies into “traditional” (potential) wives. The case study of a festival in which the Han Clothing enthusiasts performed and promoted their movement also shows that it leads to the exclusion of those not seen as “heterosexual and patriotic Han men or demure and virginal Han women” (p. 292).

According to the author, the Han Clothing Movement thus fails to achieve its goals: “reaffirming a problem through its illusory solution” (p. 292). While the concluding chapter offers several potential other cases that would fit the author’s thesis, Carrico addresses the following concluding statement on the Han Clothing Movement at the end of the chapter 7:“By responding to the resulting dilemmas of national and personal identity with yet another affirmation of national (and by extension personal) identity, presenting in this case an even more rigid and unyielding vision in hopes of a final resolution, participants in the Han Clothing Movement are tasting the proverbial hair of the dog that bit them” (p. 292).

The reviewed work successfully achieves the goals stated in the first pages of the dissertation in contributing “to a novel understanding of the nation” (p. iv). Apart from scholars in Chinese studies, this work will thus be of great interest for a wide array of academics interested in issues on nationalism.

Sylvie Beaud
PhD in Anthropology, Affiliate researcher
Center for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (Nanterre, France)
Research Institute at the Maison franco-japonaise (Tokyo, Japan)

Primary Sources

Participatory observations
In-depth, semi-structured interviews

Dissertation Information

Cornell University. 2013. vii + 355 pp. Primary Advisor: Paul Steven Sangren.

Image: Photograph by 赵里昱. Wikimedia Commons.

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