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The modern Chinese tunic suit is a style of male attire traditionally known in China as the Zhongshan suit (simplified Chinese: 中山装; traditional Chinese: 中山裝; pinyin: Zhōngshān zhuāng) (after Sun Yat-Sen), and later as the Mao suit (after Mao Zedong). Sun Yat-sen introduced the style shortly after the founding of the Republic of China as a form of national dress although with a distinctly political and later governmental implication.
After the end of the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the suit became widely worn by males and government leaders as a symbol of proletarian unity and an Eastern counterpart to the Western business suit. The name "Mao suit" comes from Chinese leader Mao Zedong's affinity for wearing them in public, thus tying the garment closely to him and Chinese communism in general in the Western imagination. Although they fell into disuse among the general public in the 1990s due to increasing Western influences, they are still commonly worn by Chinese leaders during important state ceremonies and functions.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Mao suit became fashionable among Western European socialists and intellectuals. It was sometimes worn over a turtleneck.
When the Republic 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 majority-Han Chinese revolutionaries who overthrew the Qing were fueled by 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 Zhongshan suit is similar development which combined Western and Eastern fashions.
The Zhongshan suit was an attempt to cater to contemporary sensibilities without adopting Western styles wholesale. The tunic can be traced back to British army uniforms from World War I and U.S. Army uniforms during the Spanish-American Philippine War.
After repeated attempts to win support and recognition from Western countries failed, the Nationalist Party government in Canton led by Sun gained help (advisers and small arms) from Soviet Russia, which viewed it as a likely revolutionary ally against Western interests in the Far East; Chinese nationalism at the time (of treaty ports and extraterritoriality discriminations) was heavily infected with resentment against the West. As a result of this geopolitical alignment, Sun agreed to permit the nascent Chinese Communist Party to join the Nationalist Party — as individual members — not as a party-party union, combination or alliance. As a result, early Communist Party members adopted the attire as a mark of joining the Nationalist Party. Ironically, from that practice during an attenuated political marriage of convenience which would soon be divorced in blood (in 1927), Asian Marxist movements and governments henceforth would all consider this attire as a standard of political coloration, and it would continue to be appropriate dress for both sides of the bitter Chinese civil wars lasting decades.
After Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, popular mythology assigned a revolutionary and patriotic significance to the Zhongshan suit. The four pockets were said to represent the Four Virtues cited in the classic Guanzi: Propriety, Justice, Honesty, and Shame. The five center-front buttons were said to represent the five Yuans (branches of government)–legislation, supervision, examination, administration and jurisdiction–cited in the constitution of the Republic of China and the three cuff-buttons to symbolize Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People: Nationalism, Democracy, 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–symbolizing China's unity and peace.
In the 1920s and 1930s, civil servants of the Chinese government were required to wear the Zhongshan zhuang. A slightly modified version of the suit, adapted for combat, formed the basis for National Revolutionary Army uniforms leading up through the Second Sino-Japanese War, although during the 1930s, as German military advice and assistance to the National Government waxed, the formal military uniform in the professional elements and ranks essentially became that of Weimar and then Nazi Germany (including the famous helmet).
After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, and especially during the long Maoist era culminating with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, the suit became widely worn by the entire male population as a symbol of proletarian unity; it was regularly worn by Communist Party cadres until the 1990s when it was largely replaced by the Western business suit.
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 neckties. 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 wears the Mao suit, however, on special occasions, such as military parades. 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 camaraderie with – the military in their capacity as officials of the Central Military Commission. In Taiwan, the Zhongshan 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 open dress shirt collar, unbuttoned.
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.
Chiang Kai-shek inspects Taiwan, 1946
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