Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings 2018

Presented at Vancouver, BC, Canada; September 19 – 23, 2018

doi 10.32873/unl.dc.tsasp.0014



Copyright © by the author(s).


In Chinese culture, as in many other cultures, new clothes were a powerful symbol of prosperity and beginnings. Yet, with the development of the Qing economy, the second-hand clothes seller (guyi) thrived alongside the pawnshop business to occupy a vital role in the wider system of clothing provisioning: enabling the poor a means of covering their bodies, the privileged an opportunity to liquidate value in clothing possessions, and pretenders a chance to dress their way into different social roles. At the end of the nineteenth century, this established clothing system encountered seismic change, as Western dress systems were introduced, imperial and official clothing became obsolete, new fabrics and tailoring methods were introduced, and the geography of Chinese production and taste shifted from the Grand Canal cities of the Treaty Port cities. Using novels, diaries, urban rhymes, guild and pawnshop texts, this paper frames the humble second-hand clothing seller as a crucial agent in the interface between these encounters. I begin by outlining the second-hand clothes seller’s business practices and cultural position, before examining how this figure adapted to the new customers of the early Republic. With a focus on the Beijing trade, I seek to reconstruct the parameters of materiality, workmanship, and geography through which the second-hand clothing dealer assessed value, and contrast this with the art historical evaluation of Chinese clothing by Western collectors. By imagining the moment of encounter through which old clothes were given new value, I consider how the foreign buyer changed understandings of second-hand dress, and more fundamentally, what this history tells us about how objects transition different modalities of worth within the “Art-Culture System.”