(Minghui.org) As a child I often heard elders telling us that we should always keep good manners whether we were standing, sitting, or eating, etc. I didn’t have much understanding about what it meant at the time, and thought it referred to looking good to others. 

After I grew up, sometimes when I got back home from work, I would drop straight onto a lounge chair in the sitting room; I would go out in my slippers, just to make things a bit easier for me. When out on the street, I often saw people walking around in their pajamas, and men wearing long hair in strange looking styles; some people have intentionally-made holes in their pants, while others wore clothes, shoes, hats, bags...with images of skeletons or fierce-looking devils. It was not until recently when I read some relevant ancient books on manners did I begin to truly understand what the elderly people said to us when we were little about good manners, and the deep connotations behind this.

“Men Should Be Respectful, and Women Look Nice”

It is said in the book “Shangshu·Hongfan” that there are five things that are of great importance. The first one is “appearance,” meaning that men should be respectful, and women should look nice; some people typically enjoy high social status, while others settle with a low one; old and young should follow the code of conduct expected of their varied age groups, and always be courteous to others.

In terms of clothing, emperors in ancient times wore embroidered robes with dragon and mountain patterns, robes for dukes of vassal states that had patterns of fire; those for high-ranking court officials bore axe images, while scholars wore robes with patterns of the character “ji” (己, meaning “self”). The higher one’s morals, the more one would behave appropriately.

You Zi, one of Confucius’s accomplished disciples, said, “...When your show of respect is guided by propriety, you will be far from shame and disgrace.”

Improper appearance and clothing are generally viewed as moral norms expressed by people who have lost etiquette in the heart, which could bring them harm.

In ancient China, people attached great importance to propriety in every aspect of their daily life, including the way they dressed. When an absurd phenomenon occurred, such as men wearing women’s clothes, women in men’s clothes, or people wearing improper apparel, accessories and makeup that did not fit their status, it was regarded as being a “costume demon.” 

It is said in Han Shu (Book of Han): “When social customs become chaotic and sluggish, degenerated and easily changed, there would appear outlandish clothing, and costume demon would emerge as a result.”

Absurd Clothing Bears Ill Omen

It was recorded in Zuoshi Zhuan that in 660 BC, Duke Xian of Jin state sent the crown prince Shensheng to lead an expedition in winter, and let him wear clothes in two different colors, decorated with gold nuggets.

High-ranking court official Hu Tu sighed and said: “The timing of the crown prince’s expedition, his clothes and accessories bear a clear indication of the outcome of the expedition. The Duke is alienating the prince – if he trusts the prince, he would have asked him to wear an official uniform in proper color and a jade pendant of loyalty, and ordered him to set off at the beginning of the year. However, the Duke alienated the prince by giving him improper clothing and accessories, and the winter expedition means no success. The cold weather is filled with chilling bleakness, and the gold nuggets decorated on his outfit indicate a disheartened farewell. The improper colors of his clothing express cold feelings. The crown prince has lost his backing.”

A general surnamed Liang also said: “The commander of the army always receives orders in front of the imperial ancestral temple, accepts sacrifice meat at the shrine, and wears appropriate uniform. The crown prince was not given proper clothing, but something in odd colors. The implication behind the [expedition] orders is obvious.”

Court official Han Yi commented: “Odd-colored clothing indicates abnormality; the gold nuggets imply a departure with no return. It’s obvious that the Duke intends to bring harm to the crown prince.” 

Indeed, four years later, being framed with slander, crown prince Shensheng committed suicide. 

Disaster Stemmed from “Frowning” and “Distorted Appearance”

During the reign of Emperor Huan of Han (from 146 AD to 168 AD), there were some absurd fashion trends in the capital city Luoyang – women penciled their eyebrows in a curvy frowning style; their face was powdered to show “tear-stains” (crying makeup); their hair combed into a fallen-horse bun (tied loosely, with a lock of hair drawn out from the bun hanging down on one side); they wiggled their hips while walking as if their feet were not part of their lower limbs; their smiles showed no joy as if they had a toothache. The whole appearance gave off an air of sexual enticement.

Such perverse trends in the capital city started with Sun Shou, wife of Liang Ji, the Grand Marshal, a powerful, corrupt and violent consort kin, and very soon, the trends became fashionable and spread far and wide in the Central Plains. 

Liang Ji’s father Liang Shang was made Grand Marshal in 135, being the father-in-law of Emperor Shun. After Liang Shang’s death, Liang Ji succeeded his father and was made Grand Marshal in 141, and for the next 18 years he was the most powerful and ruthlessly domineering official in the Han court, until 159 when he and his wife both committed suicide and their clans were slaughtered after his failed assassination attempt on Lady Xuan, mother of an imperial consort of Emperor Huan at the time. 

Historian Ma Duanlin (1254 – 1324) in the Yuan Dynasty mentioned in Wenxian Tongkao (Comprehensive investigations based on literary and documentary sources) that towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, women in the capital city followed a hairstyle known as “Pao Jia Bun” (tossing-up bun) with the hair at the temples embracing the buns made higher and higher loosely and tied up atop the head in a bun, often secured with glazed hairpins.

However, as the name of the hairstyle and the pronunciation of “glazed” in Chinese share a similar pronunciation of a phrase which means “drifting from place to place and enduring hardships,” which could suggest instability of the monarch and society, such hairstyle and glazed hairpins were later regarded as being demonic. 

Demise of Emperor Gengshi

Towards the end of the Western Han Dynasty, the society was in chaos. Gengshi Emperor, restored in 23 AD after the fall of Xin Dynasty established by Wang Mang, a Han dynasty official and consort kin, made Luoyang as the capital city. 

Local officials and gentries all lined up to welcome him. However, they noticed something bizarre – his generals were wearing ordinary people’s headscarves and short-sleeved women’s clothing with embroideries. 

The scene caused various reactions in the crowd – some whispered with one another, some pursed their lips to suppress laughter; some others got scared away. Some elders of the imperial court sighed: Such demonic clothing is bad omen, and disaster will soon fall upon Emperor Gengshi!

What they said unfortunately came true. Only two years later, Emperor Gengshi was killed by Chimei rebels. 

Successful Restoration of Han by Emperor Guangwu of Han

When Emperor Guangwu (ruled from 25 AD to 57 AD) led his officials into Luoyang, everyone was wearing appropriate traditional official uniform as they entered the city. The prestigious scene touched and inspired the hearts of many. 

Emperor Guangwu soon put an end to the chaotic situation in the late Western Han Dynasty and established the Eastern Han Dynasty, which lasted for two hundred years, with extraordinary achievements. 

Since ancient times, the Divine has regulated human behaviors with morality and justice, so that people would be able to enjoy blessings and avoid disasters by respecting the Divine and paying attention to virtue. 

One’s appearance and manners are a manifestation of one’s respect of Heaven and Earth, of one’s ancestors, the monarch, as well as one’s teachers. With such merits, one would also be able to control one’s desires, refrain from demonic indulgence, and maintain morality and virtue in one’s conduct. 

History has provided mankind with precious lessons and warning, which should never be forgotten. 

Chinese version available

Category: Traditional Culture