The Mao Suit

Origins

The modern Chinese tunic suit is a style of suit traditionally known in China as the Zhongshan suit (simplified Chinese: 中山装; traditional Chinese: 中山裝; pinyin: Zhōngshān zhuāng,Zhongshan fu) named after Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山). In the West, it is known as the Mao suit, named after Mao Zedong who popularized the style. Both terms are interchangeable, however we will be referring to the style as the Mao suit throughout this article. The Mao suit is the Chinese version of a Western business suit. The name “Mao suit” comes from Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s fondness for wearing them in public, so that the suit became closely associated with him and with Chinese communism in general in the Western imagination. He founded a country, promulgated an ideology and fostered a zealous personality cult whose members terrorized all of China, so it’s only to be expected that Mao Zedong would start a fashion trend too.

When the Republic of China was founded in 1912, the style of dress worn in China was based on Manchu dress (qipao and changshan), which had been imposed by the Qing Dynasty as a form of social control. The actions of the majority-Han Chinese revolutionaries who overthrew the Qing were fueled due to the failure of the Qing to defend China against western imperialists and the low standing of the Qing in terms of technology and science compared to the West. Even before the founding of the Republic, older forms of Chinese dress were becoming unpopular among the elite and led to the development of Chinese dress which combined the changshan and the Western hat to form a new dress. The Mao suit is a similar development which combined Western and Eastern fashions.

The Mao suit was an attempt to satisfy modern tastes and needs without adopting Western styles outright. Dr. Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山) was personally involved in the process. He provided inputs based on his life experience in Japan. The Japanese school uniform, Gakuran, became the basis for the Mao suit. There were other modifications as well. Instead of the three hidden pockets in Western suits, the Mao suit had four outside pockets to adhere to Chinese concepts of balance and symmetry as well as an inside pocket. Over time, minor stylistic changes developed. The suit originally had seven buttons, later reduced to five.

During the first decade of the People’s Republic of China (1949-59) the Soviet Union exerted a considerable influence on Chinese economics, industry, art, education, and culture. Russian experts were invited into universities and colleges to teach students. Soviet artists also taught at the influential Central Academy of Fine Art in Peking, training artists in Socialist realist painting techniques. Russian language, Marxism and Leninism were compulsory subjects. During this period, Russian language skills improved a person’s social standing in Chinese society. The Soviets had an influence on Chinese dress, resulting in early Communist Party members adopting the Mao suit as a mark of joining the Nationalist Party, and as a wider Communist solidarity. Asian Marxist movements and governments henceforth would all consider this suit as a standard of political affiliation with Communism.

Who Designed the Mao Suit?

Despite its modern-day name, the roots of the Mao suit can be traced back to Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山) and the Nationalist government. Dr. Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山), known as the father of modern China, wanted to create a national dress. Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山) advocated wearing functional clothes. The suit was developed by Sun Zhongshan, and popularized by Mao Zedong, who would often wear it in public. Mao encouraged Chinese citizens to wear the suit. In an attempt to find a style of clothing that suited modern sensibilities without completely adopting western styles, Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山) developed a suit that combined aspects of military uniforms, student uniforms, and western-style suits. In the late 1920s civil servants of the Nationalist government were required by regulation to wear the suit which would later be called the Mao suit. Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山, 1866-1925), the Provisional President of the new Chinese Republic proclaimed in 1911, is credited with the modernisation of Chinese men’s clothing. It is said that he instructed Huang Longsheng, a Western-style tailor from Zhejiang Province, to design a suit based on one commonly worn by Chinese men in Japan and south-east Asia. The early form of Sun Zhōngshān’s (孫中山) suit had a closed, standing collar and center-front buttons. The design of Sun Zhōngshān’s (孫中山) suit changed significantly over the course of some 50 years. A major and lasting change to the design of Sun Zhōngshān’s (孫中山) suit was the incorporation of characteristics of various European military uniforms, including a turndown collar and four symmetrically placed pockets. Over time small stylistic changes were made to the design of the suit.

It is the later style of Sun Zhōngshān’s (孫中山) suit which was further modified and adopted as China’s national dress by Mao Zedong after 1949. During his 30-year reign as China’s Chairman and national hero, Mao regularly appeared in a proletarian four-pocket jacket as a counterpoint to the Western business suit. By the time of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, variations of the Mao suit were everywhere. You could see green, gray or blue Mao suits everywhere. It was the uniform of choice for Mao’s young followers as they rooted out his supposed capitalist enemies.

When was the Mao suit Worn?

The Mao suit was mandatory in the 1920s and 1930s by civil servants in China. Nearly all men wore it after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mao suits came to be widely worn by Chinese men as well as Communist government leaders as a symbol of proletarian unity until the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). People of both genders, in all areas, and in all different kinds of professions began wearing variations of the Mao suit on a daily basis. In the 1960s and 1970s the Mao suit became fashionable among Western European socialists and intellectuals. It was sometimes worn over a turtleneck. During the 1990’s, the Mao suit was mostly replaced by the Western business suit among the general public due to Western influences. They are still commonly worn by Chinese leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, during important state ceremonies and functions. The Mao suit remained the standard formal dress for the first and second generations of PRC leaders such as Deng Xiaoping. During the 1990s, it began to be worn with decreasing frequency by leaders of Jiang Zemin’s generation as more and more Chinese politicians began wearing traditional Western-style suits with neck ties. Jiang wore it only on special occasions, such as to state dinners, but this practice was almost totally discontinued by his successor Hu Jintao. Hu Jintao still wore the Mao suit, however, on some special occasions, such as the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009. By the early part of the 21st century, the Mao suit is rarely worn even on formal occasions. The dark green version of the suit is more often worn, usually by civilian party officials wishing to demonstrate control over or associate themselves with the Chinese military in their capacity as officials of the Central Military Commission. In Taiwan, the Mao suit was seldom seen after the 1970s. Moreover, given the subtropical weather much of the year in Taiwan, for a time a modified version became at least semi-standard which dropped the high-collar buttoned up original constriction in favor of a Western style unbuttoned, open dress shirt collar.

What Does a Mao Suit Look Like?

A Mao suit is a polyester two-piece suit in gray, olive green or navy blue. The Mao suit includes baggy pants and a tunic-style button down jacket with a flipped collar and four pockets.

During the Qing Dynasty, men wore a jacket with a straight collar over a bulky, long gown, skullcap and pigtails. Sun combined eastern and western styles by using the Japanese cadet uniform as a base, designing a jacket with a flipped collar and five or seven buttons. Sun replaced the three inner pockets found on Western suits and replaced them with four outer pockets and one inner pocket. He paired the jacket with baggy pants.

Mao Zedong recognized the power of dress to project nationalism and ideology. On October 1, 1949, at the grand ceremony in Beijing marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he wore a modified form of the Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山) suit. Mao had worn this style of suit since 1927 but it was only after 1949 that it was adopted by the majority of the Chinese population. It is known in the West as the Mao suit.

The five center-front buttons were said to represent the five Yuans or branches of government: legislation, supervision, examination, administration, and jurisdiction, all of which are cited in the constitution of the Republic of China. The three cuff-buttons were to represent Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山)’s Three Principles of the People (三民主義): Nationalism, Democracy/people’s rights, and People’s Livelihood. Finally, unlike Western-style suits that are usually composed of two layers of cloth, the jacket is in a single piece which is symbolic of China’s unity and peace.

Some people have found symbolic meaning in the Mao suit’s style: Long after Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山)’s death in 1925, popular mythology assigned a revolutionary and patriotic significance to the Sun Zhōngshān (孫中山) suit, even though it was essentially a foreign-style garment. The four pockets were said to represent the Four Cardinal Principles cited in the classic Book of changes (管子 or Guǎnzi, a compilation of the philosophical work named after the seventh century philosopher 管仲 (Guǎn Zhòng) and understood by the Chinese as fundamental principles of conduct: propriety, justice, honesty, and a sense of shame.

Conclusion

After Mao’s death in 1976, the look began to fall out of fashion. The style is still popular among older, rural Chinese. Nearly all markets in Chinese cities large and small sell Mao suits. Tailors can also make custom Zhongshan suits in a day or two. Almost without exception, today’s Chinese leaders wear Western business suits. The majority of young people favor Western business suits but it’s not uncommon to see older generations of men wearing Mao suits at special occasions. Today among the Chinese people, the Mao suit has been abandoned by some of the younger generation in urban areas, but is still worn during formal occasions.

What are your thoughts on the Mao suit? Is this something you have owned or worn before?

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The Mao Suit

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