Legend of the Ningbo Tailors
In the 7000-year history of Chinese clothing, changes in garments have always been a barometer of cultural or political changes. Two events have stood out prominently: first, the reformist King Wuling of the State of Zhao in the 4th century BC ordered the introduction of tighter garments and horse riding that he derived from the nomadic people to replace the inconvenient loose garments and chariots of the ethnic Chinese in order to resist the nomadic Xiongnu people (Huns); and second, the Manchu rulers ordered the ethnic Chinese to shave their hair and wear particular garments in the mid- 17th century when they ruled the whole of China. A third event in the evolution of garments followed the Revolution of 1911 in which the Manchu rule was toppled. Marking the beginning of the melting of East and West in terms of Chinese garments, the garment culture of this period, unlike the two previous events that were initiated by monarchs, was initiated by a number of tailors, collectively dubbed "red-guild tailors."
They were so called because they specialized in making Western-style suits for the Europeans in Shanghai， who were referred to as "red-hairs" by the locals. A Ningbo tailor named Zhang Shangyi is said to be the founder of this craft. He was the only survivor of a shipwreck when he was crossing the Hangzhou Bay for Shanghai. He clung to a plank and drifted for several days and nights before he landed at Yokohama. Japan. Finding himself in a strange country without any knowledge of its language, he managed to make a living by repairing suits for Russian sailors visiting the port. He soon became a master tailor in making European suits. After many years, his son, Zhang Yousong, returned to Shanghai where he set up the Fuchang Tailor's Shop, China's first of its kind specializing in making European suits. He was also eager to share his skills with people from Ningbo.
Ningbo tailors, those known as "red-guild tailors."rose to eminence in Shanghai and later expanded the scope of their activities to other parts of the country. Although of low social status, they nevertheless became, pioneers in garment reform for modern China. They made China's first European suits and the first Zhongshan suits (buttoned to the chin and named after Dr. Sun Yat-sen. but now known in the West as Mao suits). They opened the first tailor shops specializing in European suits and the first vocational schools for training European-style tailors in China. They were also credited with Chinas first book on tailoring European suits.
Following the Revolution of 1911, long gowns were dominant as the "national dress," while European suits were in fashion among members of the upper class. Finding long gowns at odds with the national spirit of the Chinese people, Dr. Sun Yat-sen commissioned a noted Ningbo tailor in Yokoyama, Zhang Fangcheng, to design a new "national dress." The suit Zhang designed was later known as the Dr. Sun Yat-sen suit. This came to be synonymous with Chinese men's clothing for the next seventy years.
For a long period of time, Ningbo tailors monopolized European-style tailoring in China. The better known tailor shops on Nanjing Road in Shanghai were almost exclusively owned by Ningbo tailors. As later events show, their influence went beyond the end of the old society in 1949. Mao Zedong and other leaders of the New China, almost without exception, wore suits made by descendents of the Ningbo tailors.
Today, Ningbo still enjoys fame as the "capital of garments" as it is responsible for one out of every ten garments made in China.
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