What westerners now call a mandarin shirt is actually a form of dress that dates back to the ancient Han dynasty (207 B.C.E. –200 C.E. ) in China. At that time it was called the ju and was characterized by its high round neckline that was fastened off center. It was characteristically worn with a pleated skirt called a chun that was also fastened off center.
Ancient and modern mandarin shirts are very fitted to the body and are closed on the right side of the neckline and shoulder. They can have either long or short sleeves but generally have short sleeves. Their edges are often finished with a fabric binding of a contrasting color.
The chun-ju garment combination can be seen in figurines of the Han era and was the characteristic basic dress for many centuries in China. During the seventh to tenth centuries C.E. , the Sui and Tang dynasties spread Chinese culture, particularly dress, throughout all of Asia and beyond. That is why the mandarin shirt, and variations on it, are native dress in many areas of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and beyond.
Mandarin shirts evolved throughout Chinese history and are now the national form of dress. The shirt is sold in patterned silk to westerners. They are generally based on eighteenth-century styles of silk brocade fabric and today have metal buttons that duplicate the shape of the original knotted silk ones.
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Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.