The most commonly found garment of the Song Dynasty is the beizi , a front closure overcoat that is not fastened in front so that the inner coat is shown. The beizi can be in different lengths – above the knee, below the knee, or ankle length. The sleeves can be either broad or narrow. There can be either side slits reaching as high as the armpits, or none at all.
It is quite a curious phenomenon that the beizi is popular among people of both sexes and all social strata at the same time. In Song paintings, we can find both aristocratic women and maidservants’ wearing beizi of basically the same style.
The beizi was preferred by men of the Song Dynasty as an informal wear at home because of its unfastened front, the relaxed waistline and its flexibility in length and width. In a painting called Tuning the Zither, which was said to have been done by the Zhao Ji, the Hui Emperor of the Song Dynasty, the emperor himself was seen wearing the beizi in a dark colored material. In Song Dynasty paintings in the Dunhuang Grottos, a famous character was found wearing the beizi, whereas the same character in the Tang Dynasty painting was still wearing a round collared gown commonly found in Tang costumes.
Although there seems to be no social status or sex attached to the beizi, it is still more common to find it on people of the higher or middle strata. The heavy laborers preferred short jackets and trousers for their convenience. What people of higher or middle social strata wear, it seems, are more reflective of the cultural and aesthetic aspirations of that time, and Song Dynasty is no exception. The popularity of beizi in the Song Dynasty is closely related in the cultural development of that era. The silhouette of the Song beizi is straight, as compared to the curvaceous shape of the Tang garments with open collar, wide skirt and the fluid veil covering the entire body. In general, Tang people were much more extravagant in the way they dressed, while the Song people preferred the reserved and contained elegance. The psychological orientation of the Song garment seemed to be more in line with the prevalent ideology of the time – a sense of order that was to be obeyed between the emperor and his subordinates, the father and the son, the husband and the wife. Any desire of the individual had to take the back seat.
The classic Chinese aesthetics was played to the fullest in the Song Dynasty, as reflected in the white walls and black tiles in architecture, the single colored glaze in ceramics, and the casual and free style of landscape painting in art. Even plants and flowers were given different human characters, so that the plum blossom, the orchid, the bamboo and the chrysanthemum were appreciated not only for their external appearance but also for the virtues with which they were endowed. Compared to anything that tried to win the admiration and curiosity of others, the Song people preferred the simple elegance of the beizi, which reflects the “less is more” sense of beauty of people at that time.