Fur skins from various wild animals were used by the ancient Chinese as protection from the elements and later as a mark of status. One of the words discovered in the earliest Chinese writing is the hieroglyph for fur.
Fur’s popularity grew considerably during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Numerous fur garments were stored in the warehouses of kings to be handed out as valuable gifts. Differences in the quality and types of fur garments symbolised the difference in social status of the wearers. Only the kings and emperors were entitled to wear the most expensive fur garments, while those of high ranks looked for furs of high quality and softness. During this period, a much wider range of furs began to be used. Skins from sheep, fox, deer and sable followed by mink and members of the rodent family became staples of the emerging production of fur garment and accessories in China.
Around 200 BC, at the beginning of the Han Dynasty, the discovery of silk and other fabrics, and the development of arable lands in central China resulted in a temporary downturn of fur’s popularity in the dress code of the Royal family. Nevertheless, the northern tribes continued to use fur, resulting in fur becoming associated more and more with these cultures.
T he last imperial kingdom of China, the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911 AD), was founded by the Man tribe who came from the colder, northern part of China. Under their rule, fur clothing reached another peak in popularity. The royal court developed a complicated dress code whereby the emperor’s servants recorded the exact date when the emperor would dress in different fur garments to coincide with the changes of the seasons. These records provide an insight into the many types of furs worn by the emperors. The most exalted fur was sable - used exclusively by the emperor -not even his wives could wear a sable coat!
With the opening up of China to trade with the West, fur in China now is a highly popular luxury influenced by Western fashion, although a new wave of Chinese designers is taking up the fur mantle.