The modern Chinese tunic suit is a style of male attire known in China as the Chungshan suit or Zhongshan suit and known in the West as the Mao suit. Sun Zhongshan 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 in the 1990s amid increasing Western influences, they are still worn on occasion by Chinese leaders during important state ceremonies and functions.
When the Republic was founded in 1912, and 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 cheongsam and the Western hat to form a new dress. The Zhongshan suit is similar development which combined Western and Eastern fashions. It should be noted that until 1949 on the mainland and the 1980s in Taiwan, the civilian, non- political attire for males in China was not this tunic suit but a gown and over-jacket.
The Zhongshan suit was an attempt to cater to “modern” sensibilities without completely adopting Western styles wholesale. Dr. Sun Yat-sen was personally involved, providing inputs based on his life experience in Japan: the Japanese cadet uniform became the basis of Zhongshan suit. There were other modifications as well: instead of the three hidden pockets in Western suits, the Zhongshan suit had four outside pockets to adhere to Chinese concepts of balance and symmetry. Over time, minor stylistic changes developed. The suit originally had seven buttons, later reduced to five.
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. The five center-front buttons were said to represent the five Yuans (branches of government) 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.
Mao, wearing the suit, meets Nixon 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 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 initial period marked by intensive Maoist indoctrination and mass oppression through waves of purges and campaigns and “criticism/struggle” culminating with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1965-76 when Mao himself died, the suit became widely worn by the entire male population, formally as a symbol of proletarian unity, but in fact as a form of personal — and virtually camouflage — coloration; it was, of course, 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. Jiang wore it only on special occasions, such as to state dinners, but this practice was almost totally discontinued by his successor Hu Jintao. By the early part of the 21st century, the Mao suit is rarely worn even on formal occasions. The military-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 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 suit has been largely abandoned by the younger generation in urban areas, but is still regarded as formal attire by many old people. It is also prevalent among Chinese peasants as casual dress. However the suit is becoming more popular amongst young overseas Chinese as a formal or business wear instead of wearing the “generic” Western three piece suit and also as an identity for their Chinese origin.