8: Tang Dynasty Banbi (半臂), Jacket

This information is derived from a larger write-up I did for an A&S Competition entry – you can read the final version of that entry in my documentation vault. I also made a short video about this project, which you can view on the Kingdom of Meridies’s YouTube channel.

Banbi (半臂, băn-bī) means “half-covered arm” and refers to the short-sleeved jacket that was in style in the earlier half of the Tang Dynasty (Figures 1-9).1 These garments were worn outside of the shirt, and functioned like a vest,2 but there are some depictions where the jacket appears to be tucked into the skirt (Figure 3). Like the shirt, the jacket had a front opening that tied with a ribbon (Figure 4).3 It could be worn either tucked into the skirt or on top of it (Figures 3, 4), and it appears that this move to “outer garment” happened in the early 8th century.4

The banbi was first worn by “maids of honour,” but the fashion trickled down to commoners.5 Strict families did not allow their women to wear the banbi at all, and its popularity declined as a result.6 The depictions we have of women wearing a banbi are all labeled as attendants and serving women, so these families likely did not want to be seen as of a lesser rank. Based on the estimated dates of the figurines and mural paintings (Figures 1-9), the banbi was most popular at the end of the 7th and beginnings of the 8th century, though we do have some depictions of the banbi from the late 8th century (Figure 9). It is worth noting that as various Tang emperors tried to impose social order via sumptuary laws that banned the production and possession of elaborately woven (jin) or embroidered silks, we see the banbi in visual art depicted in plainer fabrics before disappearing entirely.7

Click on the images in galleries to enlarge them.

Extant Garments

There is a short-sleeved jacket from the Yuan Dynasty in the Gansu Provincial Museum (Figure 10) which may be a descendent of the Tang Dynasty’s banbi. There are visible seams just past the sharp curve of the armpit, and the garment is lined with a center back seam. There are no ties or visible evidence of previous ties. It is 63 centimeters long and has an arm-span of 115 centimeters.16. (Yuan Dynasty). Gansu Provincial Museum, China. Retrieved from: http://www.gansumuseum.com/dc/show-221.html]

The banbi may have either influenced or been influenced by clothing worn by the Mongols; an entire mode of dress, called hufu (foreign clothing) was popular during the Tang Dynasty to the degree that there are an ample number of tomb figurines and paintings of women wearing such garments. Halbertsma-Herold (2008) points to three garments from Inner Mongolia that are similar to the banbi (Figures 11 and 12).17 Unlike Mongol garments that feature a cross-collar design, these jackets have a parallel collar and either visible or the suggestion of previous ties. The longer versions of short-sleeved coats that Halbertsma-Herold presents in artwork all have crossed collars. Both garments are lined and feature a center back seam. The lining in both garments may have shifted over time, resulting in it being visible beneath the hem of the outer fabric.

While there are several short-sleeved upper garments (hanpi) in the Shōsōin Repository, these are men’s garments and neither serve the same purpose nor have the same stylistic features of the women’s banbi. Instead of the garment edges meeting in the middle in the front, the hanpi garments have a small overlapping piece stitched to the left edge and onto which the collar is extended to form a tie (Figure 13). The hanpi is a men’s undergarment,18 while the banbi was outerwear. Based on the figurines, paintings, and miniature extants, I concluded that the banbi’s construction was closer in similarity to a ru (襦, shirt) than the Japanese hanpi. Like the banbi, the ru has a straight, open collar, a slight curve at the underarm, and ties in the front. I based my banbi pattern on my ru pattern, which I designed for a fabric width of 24 inches, which was the standard fabric width during the Tang Dynasty.19 Because the banbi is a short-sleeved garment, no additional material is necessary to extend the sleeve length. As it is, the sleeve cuff of my banbi sits at my elbow, which corresponds with period artwork (Figures 4 and 9). The length of a banbi varied, but a few inches past one’s natural waist should allow for one banbi to be worn either tucked in or outside the skirt.

The shirt is fairly straightforward, being very similar to a basic T-Tunic, without under-arm gussets or gores. There are no extant shirts from the Tang Dynasty, so we are limited to period depictions including reliefs, murals, paintings, and tomb figurines, though we can supplement this with extant garments from preceding and succeeding periods. In terms of construction, the shirt likely had a center back seam. The seam in the center back is described in the Book of Rites regarding the proper construction of the shenyi (深衣),20 and can be seen in upper-body extant garments. Given that the standard width of fabric in the Tang Dynasty was approximately 24 inches, a center back seam is necessary to produce an open-front garment that can go all the way around the body. The Shosoin Repository’s hanpi collection feature several that have a visible center back seam (Figure 13), and The China National Silk Museum has garments from the Southern Song21 (1127 – 1279 C.E.) and Yuan Dynasties22 (1279 – 1368 C.E.) with this same construction.  The China National Silk Museum has one shirt from the Northern Dynasty (386 – 580 C.E.) which appears to be lined, and it is difficult to see whether there is a center back seam (Figure 14).23 It may be that the lining does not have a center back seam and the outer fabric does, though this would be odd considering other lined garments have a visible center back seam in the lining.

The Book of Rites24 calls for a “square-shaped collar” for the shenyi,25 but given how the garments appear to rest in statuary, as well as on a figurine wearing cloth garments, I believe the necklines for women’s shirts were curved. I am only aware of one extant upper garment where the side seams are open and the textile is laid flat to show an angled collar, but it is unclear who wore this garment.26 Though they are usually displayed and photographed flat, it is arguable that extant upper-body garments from preceding and succeeding dynasties, as well as hanpi in the Shosoin Repository, have curved necklines. A textile fabric dated to the Tang Dynasty recovered from Astana tomb number 206 that appears to be part of an upper garment (either a shirt or jacket) made for a tomb figurine due to its small size, not unlike the two skirts found in another Astana tomb, looks to have a curved (if slightly) neckline (Figure 15).27  Juni L. Yeung translated an article by Hu Jingming, originally posted on Baidu Tieba (an online community that is integrated with a Chinese internet search engine), which was posted to the Toronto Guqin Society’s page. The article presents an argument for a curved Ming Dynasty neckline.28 I have made shirts with both a square neckline and a curved neckline, and I prefer the fit of the latter. From a mathematical perspective, the calculation of pi (π) was known in China as early as the 3rd century.29 The miniature garment in Figure 16 also features an undeniably curved neckline.

The majority of Tang Dynasty women’s clothing was secured on the body by means of ties, which is evident in the extant garments we have from preceding and subsequent dynasties (Figure 14) as well as visual art from the period (Figures 2,4,7).

The silk ties/tapes used as garment closures don’t get much attention in the literature: Zhao Feng mentions them as closures for Liao Dynasty garments, ranging from 1.5-2.5 centimeters in width for upper garments, with wider tapes used for pants and skirts. They are visible on extant garments, as well as in art throughout Chinese history (Figures 4 and 7 are particularly good examples).

Seong Myeong Su Daegam suggested I look at Traditional Korean Costume30 to get more insight on the way the ties are made and attached to collars. The Tang Dynasty roughly corresponds to the Unified Silla period in Korea, and the majority of the garments in this book are not from that era. This being said, the methods of how to make and attach silk ties are likely very similar to what was used in the 7th-9th century, given the simplicity of ties as a closure method.

The most attention paid to the attachment of silk tapes in Traditional Korean Costume is in the description of a jangot (cloak-shaped veil), a type of garment that dates to the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897).31 It describes the wider chest straps as being stitched down to the edge of the finished collar and folded back so that the strap extends out from the garment, then stitched again.32 This same method is described on a 16th century men’s coat.33 Details on a men’s vest describe similar bands as attached with a fine hemming stitch.34 The ties on the various garments vary in width and length, ranging from 1.7 to 2 centimeters wide – more often, the seam allowance (usually 0.5 centimeters) of the tie attachment is noted rather than the dimensions of the tie. For upper garments, no attention is given to the construction of the ties themselves, though they appear to be made by sewing strips of silk into tubes and pressing them flat, with the narrow edges folded in and finished with an invisible slip/ladder stitch. Ties for pants and lower undergarments are described as constructed in a variety of ways – using the selvedge for one side and a rolled hem for the other,35 a folded seam allowance held together with glue,36 a rolled and slip-stitched seam allowance on one side and selvedge on the other.37

Figure 17:  Detail from Traditional Korean Costume showing the tie attachment for the jacket-shaped veil.38

Patterning and Construction

The banbi is constructed similarly to the ru (襦, rū), or shirt. You can move the collar in the cutting layout, or make it. narrower, in order to extend the sleeves. Alternatively, you can shorten the upper sleeve piece to your desired length. As seen in Figures 1-9, sleeves ranged from cap to elbow-length. Notes for how to draft a ru pattern are on the pattern page for that garment.

Figure 18: My pattern and cutting layout for a ru based on a period fabric width of 24″.

Figure 18 is my pattern/cutting layout for the ru. This is for half of the pattern pieces – it would be mirrored for patterned fabric to accomodate for directional designs. Remember that this garment has no shoulder seam so if your design has a top and bottom, it will be upside down on the back.

Finish the ends of the sleeves with a blind hem stitch before you attach them to the shoulders, finishing the seams as you go. I like use a backstitch, and I flat-fell my seams – we don’t have definitive information about what kind of seams and seam finishes were used in period.39 If you’re lining your banbi, a secondary line of stitches on your seam allowance should be enough. Stitch the center back and side seams. Be careful as you finish the side seams in the curve of the underarm to keep it from getting too bulky – varying your stitch sizes and trimming your seam allowance will help (Figure 19).

Figure 19: I lost a fair amount weight halfway through this project, so I had to restitch and recut my side seams. This image shows the curve of the underarm.

The collar consists of a single, straight piece of fabric that is 3 inches wide. To attach the collar, stitch it to the outside of the banbi, then fold it over and press it, then press up the inner edge and stitched it to the inside of the garment using an invisible stitch, like a blind hem stitch (Figures 20-21).

To make ties for your banbi measure out strips 6 centimeters wide and 54 centimeters long (for ties that are 2 centimeters wide and 53 centimeters long when finished). Fold and press the strips, then stitch them with an approximately 0.5 centimeter seam allowance (Figure 22). Turn the ties and fold in the narrow sides 0.5 centimeters and close the tubes with a slip stitch.

Attach the ties to the inside of the collar with a backstitch and a 0.5 centimeter seam allowance with the tie pointed toward the inside of the garment, fold them back, and top-stitch them with a running stitch and another 0.5 centimeter seam allowance (Figures 23-25).

Congratulations! You now have a lovely piece of outerwear for your early Tang Dynasty wardrobe.

  1. Zhou, X. & Gao, C. (1987). p.77.
  2. Hua, M. (2011). p. 32.
  3. Chen, B. (2013). pp. 93-94.
  4. Chen, B. (2013). p. 106.
  5. Ibid, p. 77.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Chen, B. (2019). P. 59.
  8. Watt, J. C. Y., Jiayao, A., Howard, A. F., Marshak, B. I. Su, B., Zhao, F. (2004). pp. 288-289.
  9. Chen, B. (2013). p. 111
  10. Chen, B. (2013). p. 94
  11. Ibid. p. 117.
  12. “妆花凤戏牡丹纹绫夹衫.” (Silk twill damask phoenix peony patterned jacket). (Yuan Dynasty). Gansu Provincial Museum, China.
  13. Kessler, A. T. (1993). Empires beyond the Great Wall: the heritage of Genghis Khan. Los Angeles, CA: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. pp. 160, 163
  14. Chung, Y. Y. (2005). Silken threads: a history of embroidery in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
    p. 105
  15. Zhao, F. (2012). Silks in the Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties. In D. Kuhn, (Ed.), Chinese Silks (pp. 203-257). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
    p. 227.
  16. “妆花凤戏牡丹纹绫夹衫.” [Silk twill damask phoenix peony patterned jacket
  17. Halbertsma-Herold, U. (2008). p. 202.
  18.  Parent, M. N. (2001a). Hanpi 半臂. JAANUS: Japanese architecture and art net users system (Dictionary). Retrieved from http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/h/hanpi.htm
  19. See Appendix in the larger write-up for more information on period textiles and tools. I’ll eventually make a new page for that information on the site, too.
  20. Confucius. (475 B.C.E. – 221 B.C.E./2018).
  21. 小花菱纹罗单衣片. (Part of an unlined shirt made of dupo leno with a damask pattern of small, ornamented lozenges). (Song Dynasty). (Garment). China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Retrieved from: http://www.chinasilkmuseum.com/zggd/info_21.aspx?itemid=1831
  22. 花卉纹罗袍. (Lined gauze robe with floral pattern). (Yuan Dynasty). (Garment). China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Retrieved from: http://www.chinasilkmuseum.com/zggd/info_21.aspx?itemid=1852
  23. 绞缬绢衣. (Pain weave silk clothing with tied knot dye pattern). (Northern Dynasty, 386-581). (Garment). China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Retrieved from: http://www.chinasilkmuseum.com/zggd/info_21.aspx?itemid=1815
  24. The Book of Rites is a compilation of the customs, administration, and rituals of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046 BCE–256 BCE) written during the Warring States (475 BCE-221 BCE) through the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).
  25. Confucius. (475 B.C.E. – 221 B.C.E./2018) 深衣 – Shen Yi. (J. Legge, Trans.). Chinese Text Project. Retrieved from: https://ctext.org/liji/shen-yi
  26. “小花菱纹罗单衣片.” (Part of an unlined shirt made of dupo leno with a damask pattern of small, ornamented lozenges). (Song Dynasty). (Garment). China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Retrieved from: http://www.chinasilkmuseum.com/zggd/info_21.aspx?itemid=1831
  27. Zhao, F. (2012). Silks in the Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties. In D. Kuhn, (Ed.), Chinese Silks (pp. 203-257). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 227.
  28. Hu, J. (2011, April 11). Understanding hanfu aesthetics mathematically: Curves of a robe. (J. Yeung, Trans.). Toronto Guqin Society. Retrieved from: https://torguqin.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/hanfu-curves/
  29. Gao, S. & Tian, M. (2015). Mathematics. In Lu, Y. (Ed.), A history of Chinese science and technology (Vol.1) (C. Qian, Trans.). Heidelberg: Springer. p. 249.
  30. Lee, K., Hong, N., & Chang, S. (2005).
  31. Lee, K., Hong, N., & Chang, S. (2005). Traditional Korean costume. (J. Shin, Trans.). Folkestone, Kent, United Kingdom: Global Oriental. pp. 22, 52-53.
  32. Ibid, p. 52.
  33. Ibid, p. 288.
  34.  Ibid, p. 218.
  35. Ibid, p. 241.
  36. Ibid, p. 238
  37. Ibid, p. 242.
  38. LLee, K., Hong, N., & Chang, S. (2005). Traditional Korean costume. (J. Shin, Trans.). Folkestone, Kent, United Kingdom: Global Oriental. p. 52
  39. For what we do know or can extrapolate, see Zhao F. (2004). Liao Textiles and Costumes. Hong Kong: Muwen Tang Fine Arts Publication Ltd. and Yong-i Y., Yeo-Kyung K., Su-jin S. (2016). Chimeson: Korean Traditional Sewing. Seoul: Korea Craft and Design Foundation.