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Freedom of Dress: the Aspect of Chinese Traditions

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It all started when Kazakh actress Reyizha Alimjan arrived in Shanghai in July 2019, wearing a pair of dark wash jeans and a low-cut yellow camisole that highlighted her figure. This choice of clothing led to Alimajan being cyber-bullied, with some netizens accusing her of seeking attention with her breasts rather than her work, and others criticizing her for showing too much flesh. These judgments ignited a long-running debate that is at the intersection of sexism, freedom of expression, social norms, and cultural traditions: who gets a say on what clothes Chinese women should or should not wear? But to me, this simple question has only touched the tip of the iceberg, and perhaps we can only see the greater mass of the iceberg, the hidden meaning and the buried truth behind this debate, if we dig deeper and dive into questions like “Where does this iceberg come from?” and “why is this iceberg still emerges on the surface of the ocean up to now?”

The controversy erupted when an article titled “I Wish Chinese Girls the Freedom to Dress” defending Reyizha Alimjan appeared on Wechat, the most popular social network in China, on August 12, 2019. The article attracted 5 million views within 24 hours, and it sparked a heated and heavily-gendered online debate. The author, San, starts her article referring to traveling overseas as “a brief indulgence”(1) because she could dress up recklessly. She could wear clothes that would be regarded as unremarkable in Europe or North America yet often seen as outrageous in China--the world’s most populous nation. San claims: “I would wear a bikini on the beach, and wear a camisole or an off-shoulder on the streets. However, I wouldn’t wear the same in China because I have to face passers-by’s different eyes or the vulgar jokes made by male friends, or even some insulting words”(1). Therefore, San argues that “Chinese girls don’t have the freedom of dress”(1). Her bold statement plunged me into deep meditation: What exactly is freedom of dress? And what does it mean to have such freedom? As a young adult male, I’ve never contemplated these questions in my entire life. Looking back now, nobody ever judged me when I was wearing a tank top playing basketball outside in the summer, and it seemed like the dress-codes in my high school only applied to my female classmates. So, I asked myself this question: do I really have the privilege of dressing up recklessly, or expressing myself fearlessly over my female peers?

In her article, San defines freedom of dress as: “A girl, no matter what shape or color she has, has her own freedom in dressing. And on this premise, she should not be restricted and prevented by others, and should not be evaluated and discussed through any forms like words and actions”(2). To further prove Chinese girls don’t possess such freedom, San brings up Alimjan’s incident and calls out some malicious comments, such as: “She dresses like this for publicity and attention”(2) and “no ordinary human would dress like that”(2). San thinks that these comments are “insulting”(2) and “unbearable”(2), and she considers this incident a reflection of Chinese women’s lack of freedom because they still could not decide what they should wear nowadays, even celebrities, let alone ordinary people. “Growing up in China, lots of girls’ choices of clothes are restricted, even by the people they are closest to.” San writes, “When at home, mothers won’t allow their daughters to wear backless tops or crop tops, and when dating, boyfriends forbid their girlfriends to wear low cut dresses or miniskirts”(2). Thus, San concludes that it is unimaginably hard, almost impossible for Chinese girls to truly possess the freedom of dress. Through San’s descriptions, we can see the oppressive nature of contemporary Chinese society, and how it restrains women’s freedom of expression. And through San’s recursive use of words like “ignorant” and “unbearable”(2), we can see her resentment and disdain toward the narrow judgments on the way women dress. As a woman, San is unwilling to succumb to being policed or told what to wear by men, because women ought to dress according to their own beauty standards, not men’s expectations. San’s anger towards being policed by men leaves us with one question: where does this tradition of policing women’s dress come from?

This tradition of policing women’s dress could be traced back to the gender inequality in Chinese history. In the essay “Women in Ancient China,” Mark Cartwright addresses this problem by presenting to us that women in ancient China did not enjoy their social or political status afforded to men. Cartwright mentions a system derived from Confucianism, called the “three followings” and the “four virtues,” which were the code of conduct and moral standards used to restrain women in ancient Chinese society. The “three followings” stipulated that “women were subordinate to first their fathers, then their husbands, and finally, in the case of being left a widow, their sons”(1), and the “four virtues” stated that women were expected to excel in four areas: “fidelity, cautious speech, industriousness, and graceful manners”(2). Through this system, we could clearly observe the low-status Chinese women had in their families; it is horrifying to imagine and even more shocking to see that they could even be manipulated by their sons. Ancient Chinese society deprived women’s freedom of expression and their individuality, not even to mention their free will of dressing. On top of those, gender inequality was further embodied and illustrated in the twisted ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding: “Girls from aged three upwards had their feet crushed in bindings for years in the belief that the resulting small feet would appeal to her future husband”(3). In ancient China, women were like birds that were captivated in the cage of men’s expectations, and marriage was like a lock that guaranteed women couldn’t flee. The best proof was that ancient Chinese law stipulated: “a man could divorce his wife, but she had no such right except if the husband particularly mistreated his wife’s family”(3). This law, again, demonstrated wives were not much more than physical pieces of their husband’s property in ancient China. Chinese women lived in a male-dominated society and were restricted by rules that were created by men and worked for the benefit of men. They have never been free in dressing in ancient China, and they are still only free to a certain extent in modern China because generations of cultural norms and social traditions cannot be overlooked. These cultural heritages are like raging fires that have made Chinese women suffer for thousands of years, and even most of them have been put out by now, the scars they left are still haunting Chinese women.

Other than gender inequality in Chinese history, Chinese philosophy also plays a role in Chinese women’s decision making over what to wear. In China, there is no law regulating how people should dress or undress in public, but being humble and avoiding unwanted attention has long been part of the Chinese philosophy. Lao Tzu, one of the most famous Chinese Philosophers, writes in his book, Tao Te Ching:

The supreme goodness is like water.

It benefits all things without contention.

In dwelling, it stays grounded.

In being, it flows to depth.

In expression, it is honest.

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In confrontation, it stays gentle.

In governance, it does not control.

In action, it aligns with timing.

It is content with its nature,

and therefore can not be faulted. (Tao Te Ching, 8).

This poem taught the Chinese the importance of humility. When we think about water, we know it is so vital because it nourishes everything around it – plants and animals – yet it doesn’t draw any attention to itself, nor does it expect compliments or recognition from others. Instead, water stays humble at all times. The quality of water shows in the ocean as all streams eventually flow to it, because the ocean is at the lowest of all. As an easterner who has been exposed to the western world for more than three years, I found these eastern aesthetics and ideas particularly interesting, because they have formed such a sharp contrast with their western counterparts. While the easterners try to be more like water in their day-to-day lives, move in silence, stay grounded, and avoid unnecessary attentions, the westerners assert the importance of individuality and expression, try to outdo others in every affair; they are like a group of determined mountaineers who are competing to be the first one to reach the mountaintop. And through this contrast, I gradually realized that I’d been granted a wonderful opportunity to absorb the best parts of both worlds: I can be a seed that hides underground, like the easterners, when I need to absorb the nutrition, so that I can eventually bloom, like the westerners, when the best time for me to shine has come.

Whereas San makes a solid point claiming that women are the victims of society’s views, another author, Wang, believes that the criticisms are only words. Standing on the opposite of San, Wang writes an article titled “I Refute ‘I Wish Chinese Girls the Freedom of Dress’” that directly speaks back to San’s work. Wang’s central idea is that “Chinese laws already give women the right to wear what they like. The society is also open and tolerant, but people have the right to disagree, and San wants to deprive others of the right to express their opinions”(1). Wang argues that no matter who is being judged, San, Alimjan, the daughter, the girlfriend, or any other person, “it doesn’t mean she has been deprived the freedom of dressing”(1). The reason is that, after all, “they are only people’s opinions, not a limitation to any freedom”(1). Therefore, Wang’s conclusion comes to Chinese women do posse freedom of dress. Through Wang’s argument, we can see that he agrees with part of San’s definition of freedom of dress which states that a girl can dress as she pleases; however, Wang opposes to factoring in others’ words and actions into this debate of freedom, because doing so itself is a violation of others’ freedom of speech. As I contemplate the true meaning of freedom of dress, Wang’s argument becomes more reasonable and it starts to make more logical sense, because even in the freest country, personal freedom is not without resistance; what’s different is not the opinions of others, but those of the individuals themselves. It is just like the author Toni Morrison once said: “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Although San and Wang have different opinions over whether Chinese women possess the freedom of dress or not, they both agree with the fact that women are being judged for what they wear. This consensus raises a new question: why are women visual objects? San attributes this problem onto the stereotypes of women. Those stereotypes are like locks that locked women wherever they go; and to San, the keys are in the hands of men. In “I Wish Chinese Girls the Freedom to Dress,” San specifically criticizes three types of prejudice on women. The first one is the double standards. San writes: “Some people supported Reyizha because her body is in good shape. Although it seems like they are supporting the freedom of dress, they are actually body-shaming those girls who are not in good shape according to their aesthetic standard”(3). Those girls are the victims who are often openly mocked for dressing in a way that accentuates their imperfections. The second one is slut-shaming, demeaning girls who violate society’s expectations regarding sexuality, assuming whoever displays herself revealingly is a slut, and that she must have had sexual relationships with a ton of men. The third one is an extension of slut-shaming, called irrational accusation. Some people think that “if a woman dresses so revealingly, then she deserves to be sexually harassed or even raped”(3). San questions her readers, “Is it really women’s fault if they are sexually harassed?” San quotes an exhibit in Belgium called “What were you wearing” that showed women were wearing all kinds of styles of clothes when they were being violated. So, “attributing such a mistake to the victim’s clothes is “undoubtedly an excuse for the rapist and a secondary injury to the victim”(3).

San’s view on slut-shaming collides with Leora Tanenbaum’s book I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet. In her book, the concept and consequences of slut-shaming are discussed as Leora Tanenbaum explored the confusing world filled with sexual objectification, stereotyping, and double standards, which girls have to navigate. Tanenbaum writes: “Society encourages girls to be sexualized on the one hand and punishes them for it on the other” (81). This collision between men’s expectations and judgments of women perfectly explains why are women visual objects, and it shows us the consequence of slut-shaming: women are affected as a community. San and Tanenbaum’s convergent opinions reveal that San’s concern is far beyond the dress itself; it’s more about people’s judgments over a girl’s morals and characters behind the dress. On the contrary, it seems like Wang’s argument doesn’t address the problem on that level. Wang mainly takes the literal meaning of freedom of dress into account, but in reality, the “different eyes,” “vulgar jokes,” and “insulting words” (1) are making it hard for women to just go ahead and wear whatever they want as Wang images, because others’ feedback is one of the only few guidelines we have on how to dress, since there is no specific rule regulating what’s appropriate to wear other than. Therefore, dress for the occasion has become the general dress code for both men and women. Part of Wang’s argument doesn’t hold water because he only sees the tip of the iceberg and misses the more substantial portion, the portion that is the foundation of the entire mass.

At the end of her article, San expresses her intentions in writing “I Wish Chinese Girls the Freedom of Dress,” which is to remind us that women dress to please themselves, and no one has the right to judge them except for themselves. San respects and understands those who are conservative and feudal, but she also hopes that these people will not demand or even insult others with their own unilateral cognition. They should at least respect women, and “don’t try to find hidden information in women’s clothes”(3).

The battle between freedom and tradition is still ongoing, so there will hardly be a consensus on freedom of dress in the short run. However, it is without a doubt that body-shaming and slut-shaming do exist as a form of malicious judgments on the way a girl dresses made by ignorant people. Although these judgments are, indeed, crude on the one hand, they are also lawful on the other hand, because it is only fair if one is granted freedom of dress, and others are granted freedom of speech. These two breeds of freedom are inseparable and complementary, and the existence of one breed is incomplete without the other. So, the real freedom of dress is based upon the solid foundation of freedom of speech. It lies between a person’s confidence and courage -- to be unafraid of what other people think, and not demanding a whole society to support your choice. Only so can a person truly possess the freedom of dress.

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Freedom of Dress: the Aspect of Chinese Traditions. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“Freedom of Dress: the Aspect of Chinese Traditions.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Freedom of Dress: the Aspect of Chinese Traditions. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2023].
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