Debunking the “Hezi-Qun”

I’ve been working on an overhaul of my garb documentation, which is turning into this massively long thing that will be my “handout” at Known World Costume and Fiber. I finished this section this week, and thought I should share it here. Enjoy!

There is a popular theory in online hanfu communities, both predominantly Chinese-speaking and English-speaking, that the hezi  (upper undergarment during the Tang Dynasty) was worn so that it was visible. To support this there are three images that are usually pointed to as evidenece: the painting Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses, attributed to Zhou Fang (c. 730–800), the relief carvings and paintings of female attendants and musicians in the tomb of Wang Chuzhi (863-923), and murals from the Dunhuang Cave 61 (10th century).

EDIT: I recognize that these sources don’t fully fall within Tang, and are more likely Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms (though we don’t have solid date on when Court Ladies was painted), but since they are used to argue for a Tang Dynasty fashion/item, I’m looking at them in that context. Fashion is, as we know, fluid. Thanks!

The theory holds that the hezi was worn either so that the skirt was tied so that the top was visible, or else worn on top of the skirt.

Before we look at the images, let’s take a moment to talk about the hezi
in a more general sense. First of all, we don’t know a lot. We don’t have any extants. The only images we have are artistic renderings that all follow the same idea of a tube-shaped garment with a curved front neckline that stops at the hip and has some sort of band or tie under the bust. The two best sources I have been able to find for Chinese undergarments are Fantasy Beyond Body 1 and Jamie Johns’s unofficial Fulbright blog about the history of breast binding in China. 2 Johns looks at Chinese language sources on the history of Chinese undergarments and makes the same observation many of us have (which Fantasy Beyond Body is also indicative of) – the lack of solid citations. Fantasy Beyond Body at least will say where something was excavated from – most of the time. It doesn’t for the Tang garments it proposes.

So there is a lot of speculation, which is probably why the Hezi-Qun theory got footing in the first place, spurred on, no doubt, by the fun costumes from Chinese historical dramas.

The Empress of China (simplified Chinese: 武媚娘传奇) is a 2014 Chinese television drama based on events in 7th and 8th-century Tang dynasty, starring producer Fan Bingbing as the titular character Wu Zetian—the only female emperor in Chinese history.
But honestly? Even this screenshot of Zhang Ting as Consort Wei from the Empress of China looks like what some would say is the Hezi-Qun is just the band of her skirt. But that slight sweetheart neckline is … no. Sorry, Noble Consort. (And don’t get me started on the robe thing.)

Advocates of the theory claim that the hezi is a wide strip of cloth (based on images, approximately 5-6″ wide) that is worn on top of the skirt. A cloth tie is then tied on top of it to hide the border between the hezi and the skirt. But… based on how Tang Dynasty skirts are made…. why would you do this? Even some modern hanfu manufacturers attach this so-called hezi to the skirt, effectively making it a decorative band. Then again, I have no idea how these skirts are constructed (I’ve never bought one to fiddle with), so I’m not sure what’s actually going on with the ties.

We should also note, before going any further, that Johns discusses two different Chinese-language sources on her blog, both of which use the term 亵衣 (xie yi, “obscene clothing”) to refer to undergarments.3 So the notion that such a intimate and taboo item of clothing would be worn in plain view doesn’t jive for me – not even during High Tang (c. 713-766) when the party was still going strong, women had unprecedented freedom of expression, and life was generally pretty swanky if you were an aristocrat. Also, all the example images are either from High Tang or after.

Instead, I believe that what others are interpreting as a visible hezi is rather an elaborately decorated, curved, or scalloped skirt band.

Let’s look at some images.

In Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses, there is a clear seam line below the twisted skirt tie. The skirt tie sits on top of the band, and the seam appears to be between the band and the pleated skirt, thus dismissing the notion that the decorated and curved-edged skirt band is instead an undergarment.

The placement of the skirt band is lower in the stone relief from Wang Chuzhi’s tomb, covering where this seam would be in some instances and falling below it in others. The skirt bands here are scalloped, and again, I see no evidence that they are separate garments worn on top of the skirt. They have been painted a different color, as has the band in a mural from the same tomb, but in the mural, the seam between the skirt and the band is obscured by the woman’s hands and the bowl she carries, making this evidence inconclusive.

Painted stone relief from Wang Chuzhi’s tomb. [Source]
Mural from Wang Chuzhi’s tomb. [Source]

There are two poses the women on the southwestern and southeastern walls of Cave 61 at Dunhuang. Some women are holding offerings while others are not. Clear images of both are difficult to find online that are not reproductions or artistic renderings, and the image I was able to pull from the digital panorama of the cave is fuzzy. Still, the decorative band at the top of the skirt is visible on both the figures to the right in the first image, and I believe the lower tie on the figure wearing the phoenix crown is not her skirt tie, but additional ornamentation. It should also be noted that the two rightmost figures in the first image are (from left to right) the mother of a Cao Yuanzhong, King of Guiyi, and the Great Empress of Khotan and daughter of Cao Yinjin. Both of these women are part of the Guiyi royal family, a kingdom subordinate to the Tang and Northern Song Dynasties. 4 5 We might be seeing some Khotanese influence in their clothing.

The southeastern wall of Cave 61. [Source]
Screenshot from the digital panoramic view of Cave 61, showing the attendant ladies to the donor’s wife on the southwestern wall. [Source]

Okay, so what IS the hezi?

After staring at extant garments from the Song and Yuan Dynasties and all the descriptions of the Tang Dynasty hezi I can find, my best guess is that the hezi was a tubular garment made of a heavier weight silk, 6 potentially lined, 7 and closed with buttons 8. No artistic rendering of the hezi includes these buttons, but the 合欢襟 (hehuanjin, Yuan Dynasty) has “flower buttons” in the front 9. These may be more like frog and loop clasps than what we would think of as “buttons,” given that the buttons used to fasten the collars of round-collared robes are cloth with loops.

Am I 100% right on this? Doubtfully. Am I going to try to make a hezi with buttons and see how it works? You bet your bippy I am.

  1. 潘建华著. (2005). 云缕心衣 : 中国古代内衣文化. 上海: 上海古籍出版社. | Pan Jianhua zhu. (2005) Fantasy beyond body: the civilization of Chinese underwear in ancient times. Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House. ISBN: 7532540944
  2. Johns, J. (2010 Oct – 2010 Dec). We drive east. WordPress. Retrieved from: https://wedriveeast.wordpress.com/
  3. Johns, J. (4 June 2011). “China’s Disappearing Clothing.” We drive east. WordPress. Retrieved from: https://wedriveeast.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/chinas-disappearing-clothing/
  4. “Mogao Grottoes Cave 061.” Digital Dunhuang. Retrieved from: https://www.e-dunhuang.com/cave/10.0001/0001.0001.0061
  5. Liu Mu-Ching. (2013). “Replication of four patroness on the mural of mogao grotto 61’s southeastern wall.” 石窟藝術與數位犁技整合研究計畫 (The Study of the Integration of Grotto Art and Preservation). Retrieved from http://imlab.tw/dunhuang/en/p22.html
  6. Johns, J. (4 June 2011). “China’s Disappearing Clothing.” We drive east. WordPress. Retrieved from: https://wedriveeast.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/chinas-disappearing-clothing/
  7. 潘建华著. (2005). 云缕心衣 : 中国古代内衣文化. 上海: 上海古籍出版社. | Pan Jianhua zhu. (2005) Fantasy beyond body: the civilization of Chinese underwear in ancient times. Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House. pp. 2-3
  8. 潘建华著. (2005). 云缕心衣 : 中国古代内衣文化. 上海: 上海古籍出版社. | Pan Jianhua zhu. (2005) Fantasy beyond body: the civilization of Chinese underwear in ancient times. Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House. p. 17
  9. 潘建华著. (2005). 云缕心衣 : 中国古代内衣文化. 上海: 上海古籍出版社. | Pan Jianhua zhu. (2005) Fantasy beyond body: the civilization of Chinese underwear in ancient times. Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House. p. 17
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2 thoughts on “Debunking the “Hezi-Qun””

  1. This is a most excellent start!

    However, I think that it’s important to point out that Wang Chuzhi died during the Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms era, and that his tomb frescoes and reliefs reflect that exactly. Whilst the evolution of clothing is an ongoing thing, it would be incorrect to say that the musicians’ costumes are of the Tang Dynasty.

    Also, given how similar the ladies of the allegedly Zhou Fang are to the musicians on the Wang Chuzhi relief in terms of their hairstyles and clothing, I think it pretty safe to say that they date from roughly the same period. As Zhou Fang died in the 9th century, this painting cannot possibly be his work. Hence, the Hanfu communities are using Five Dynasties pictorial evidence to substantiate the hezi, which, according to them, is a Tang Dynasty garment…

    -Lady Hideaki

    1. Thank you for this insight, Lady Hideaki! I haven’t found any solid dates for the Zhou Fang painting, so if you have a source for that, that would be awesome. Wang Chuzhi died in 923, sixteen years after the fall of Tang. So yes, within the Five Dynasties/Ten Kingdoms period, but as you pointed out, fashion is fluid.

      I still hold that it’s a wider, decorative skirt band and not underwear-as-outerwear, but as always with SCA Sinology, more information is better.

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