The Manchu Woman From Head to Toe

November 8, 2011 Updated: September 29, 2015
Manchu Woman
Manchu women were known for their impressive coiffure as well as for their long embroidered gowns, loosly fitting and hanging down from the body. (National Museum of China)

While the Manchu established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) according to Chinese dynastic traditions, they kept very unique cultural elements, such as in clothing. The one-piece-long Manchu gown stood out in contrast with the more complicated Chinese traditional blouses and skirts. This may be understood from the semi-nomadic Manchu culture and a strong military tradition. Over time, the Manchu clothing has influenced the Chinese style of dress.

The long gown was the dress code for both Manchu men and women. Below we focus on Manchu women’s dress—clothing, shoes, and headdresses.

The Long Gown, ‘Qipao’

Long Manchu gowns, commonly known today as ‘qipao,’ did not have the tight-fitting shape that qipao is known for today—the latter was modified from the traditional qipao in the 1920s to fit the popular Chinese fashion. The word qipao means banner gown or gown of the banner people, referring to the Manchu, who were organized into eight banners, or divisions, by the Qing state.

Traditional qipao was loose-fitting and hung down from the body, covering all but the head, hands, and the front of the toes. While men’s gowns had four splits for ease of movement in horse riding, women’s gowns usually had two splits, one on each side.

The upper-class woman wore long gowns made of silk, satin, or gauze, while the lower-class woman wore cotton or coarse fur. In the wintertime, fur or cotton inlays helped to insulate the body from the freezing cold in northern China. A long surcoat with a front opening or a short sleeveless vest could also be worn outside the long gown.

Embroidery on the long gown was an important part of the Manchu dress, with decorative borders highlighting collars, hems, and splits. Common embroidery patterns included animals, flowers, and clouds; round patterns and auspicious Chinese characters were used as well. Cloud and butterfly patterns were often used to decorate borders. For court women, the necklines were often decorated with pearls, precious stones, and jade ornaments.

The embroidery patterns showed a deep influence from the Chinese culture. The Qing had a strict dress code for the court, and gown colors and embroidery patterns indicated rank. Royals preferred the colors yellow and blue as well as the royal symbol—the dragon—which represents authority bestowed by heaven.

The Qing court established its authority upon this Chinese tradition. Other Chinese motifs found their way onto the long Manchu gowns, such as the crane, symbolizing long life; motifs from Taoist stories; and the plum blossom, a symbol of inner strength.

In the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, long gowns had narrow sleeves, right-side pleats, and round collars, with the bottom wider than the top. Later, the bottom became narrower, making the gown more straight-lined; narrow collars appeared, and sleeves became wider.

During Kangxi’s reign (1661–1722), Manchu women preferred brown gowns with golden-embroidered black collars and surcoats with green-embroidered black hems. Popular styles in later periods included pink-trimmed yellow gowns and black-decorated blue gowns.

The Manchu women’s long gown was refashioned in the 1920s into today’s form-fitting silhouette, now seen as a Chinese traditional dress despite its Manchu origin. The lasting impact of the Manchu dress speaks both to the qipao’s vitality and Chinese culture’s versatility.

Pot-Bottomed Flowered Shoes

Manchu women of status wore platform shoes with colorful embroidery. The wooden platform was shaped like a flower pot, and its imprint looked like that of a horse’s hoof, so the shoe is also called “pot-bottom shoe” or “horse-hoofed shoe.” The former name is perhaps more fitting because the platform served as the base for the upper part of the shoe, which was embroidered with flowers.

The platform is usually 2 to 6 inches high, wrapped in white cloth, and attached at the arch of the shoe. The vamp was made of silk and embroidered with flowers and sometimes birds and fruit. Manchu women did not bind their feet like some Chinese women did during the Qing Dynasty, so their shoes were of regular sizes.

The pot-bottom shoes effectively elevated the woman’s feet above the hem of the long gown, making the Manchu women walk tall and dignified. To walk stably in the shoes, Manchu women had to hold a straight posture and swing their arms more widely. This gave them an extra air of femininity and royalty.

Different stories tell the origin of the pot-bottom shoe. One tells of a tradition that Manchu women gathered fruits and vegetables in the mountains, and they tied a piece of wood at the bottom of their shoes to avoid being bitten by snakes. This tradition later turned into the artistically refined pot-bottom shoe.

Elaborate Hairstyles

Manchu women arranged their hair in a rather stately fashion, with a decorated frame attached to the top of the head. Instead of tying their hair up in a bun like the Chinese did, Manchu women wrapped their hair around a wooden, metal, or ivory fillet (called “bian fang”), extending over either side of the head and fastened behind the head.

The coiffure rose dramatically above the head, with decorative flowers attached to the front. Silk tassels hung from the two sides, matching the patterns of the flowered shoes. This was called the banner hair or “liang ba tou (two handfuls of hair)” as the hair was parted in the middle and wrapped to the two sides of the fillet.

During the Qing Dynasty, the coiffure became higher and fan-shaped, sitting on the head like a flat crown. Instead of being wrapped with hair, the frame was covered in silk or velvet, and decorations were also more lavish.

For court women, the coiffure was decorated with flowers made of jade, pearl, coral, and precious stones. Common women preferred inlaid metal and velvet flowers. Choices of flowers included peony, chrysanthemum, and plum blossom.

Hairpins helped finish the last step of the headdress. The coiffure was anchored to the hair in the back. Decorative hairpins were attached to the front of the coiffure, highlighting beauty and wealth. Jade and precious stone hairpins, often elaborately designed, were preferred by the wealthy, while commoners used silver and bone hairpins. Auspicious motifs such as those symbolizing happiness, prosperity, and longevity defined a hairpin’s decorative patterns.

With the last hairpin, the Manchu woman completed her attire: an embroidered long gown, pot-bottom flowered shoes, and a dramatic coif. She stood tall and beautiful, walking with her arms and headdress tassels swaying in the air as the platform shoes sounded rhythmically—a picture of beauty, dignity, and grace.