Shuhe 裋褐 – Chinese clothing across millennia

The shuhe 裋褐 – a working class style of dress used for millennia.

The shuhe 裋褐 is the traditional Han 漢 Chinese working class clothing of the Northern region of China. It is pronounced shuhe in Mandarin dialect and su hot in the Cantonese dialect. The wording directly translates as follows:-

裋 shù – course clothing of camel’s hair
褐 hè – brown/ grey or dark colour/ course hemp cloth

This style of clothing has been worn by the Han 漢 Chinese people for thousands of years. Military personnel wore the shuhe 裋褐 from at least 1500 BCE up to about 1650 CE. The Buddhist and Taoist temples kept using the clothing all through the Qing 大清 Dynasty (1644-1912) and even continue to use them today. The fact is, shuhe 裋褐 has been a common form of clothing worn by all working class people for at least 4 millennia.

The above image is of a Warring States period (475-221 BCE) candle lamp stand. The figure is wearing traditional shu he 裋褐.

The shuhe 裋褐 was outlawed by the Qing 大清 dynasty (1644-1912) who forced a move away from the traditions of the Han 漢 Chinese. The Qing 大清 were a conquest dynasty, or zhengfu wangchao 征服王朝, which refers to a Chinese dynasty established by a non-Han ethnicity that ruled part or all of Han 漢 China proper. During the Qing 大清 period only the Buddhist and Taoist communities continued to use the Han 漢 style clothing of shuhe 裋褐.

Qing 大清 period clothing that replaced the original shùhè 裋褐.

Samue 作務衣 shop display in Japan

The shuhe 裋褐 was worn on the Korean peninsula almost as long as it was in Mainland China. From 108 BCE to 313 CE, Northern Korea was a part of Han 漢 China itself, with the earliest of Chinese influence trickling in perhaps a thousand years before that.

As for Japan, the shuhe 裋褐 moved to the islands with the early Chinese settlers as far back as 400 BCE. The shuhe 裋褐 can still found in Japan and is immediately recognisable by martial artists in the style of the training Gi 衣 (Yi 衣 in Mandarin). It is also used in work and casual wear known as samue 作務衣. The original style/cut of Han 漢 shuhe 裋褐 can still be seen in the more traditional samue 作務衣.

The shuhe 裋褐 is still used for martial arts training. At one time – in the more distant past – wearing shuhe 裋褐 was seen as a return to Han 漢 culture, however, the concept is no longer relevant – China has long since returned to the Han 漢 people. The simple truth is that this style of clothing is an ancient style of working class clothing used for millennia. Shuhe 裋褐 has gradually been returning as Chinese people explore their rich heritage, with martial artists championing this movement.

A Shaolin monks poses in his shùhè 裋褐 style robes.

Noelle in shuhe 裋褐. 2022