What Is a Mao Suit?

The Chinese Version of a Business Suit

Chinese Clothing: Mao Suit
circa 1975: Chinese communist leader and first President of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong (1893 - 1976) with Deng Xiaoping at Peking. Getty Images

Also known as the Zhongshan suit (中山裝, zhōngshān zhuāng), the Mao suit is the Chinese version of a Western business suit.

The Style

A Mao suit is a polyester two-piece suit in gray, olive green or navy blue. The Mao suit includes baggy pants and a tunic-style button down jacket with a flipped collar and four pockets.

Who Made the Mao Suit?

Dr. Sun Yat-sen, considered by many as the father of modern China, wanted to create a national dress.

Sun Yat-sen, also known by the Mandarin pronunciation of his name, Sun Zhongshan, advocated wearing functional clothes. The suit is named after Sun Zhongshan, but is also referred to as a Mao suit in the West because it was the suit Mao Zedong often wore in public and encouraged Chinese citizens to wear.

During the Qing Dynasty, men wore a mandarin jacket (a jacket with a straight collar) over a bulky, long gown, skullcap, and pigtails. Sun combined eastern and western styles to create what we now call the Mao suit. He used the Japanese cadet uniform as a base, designing a jacket with a flipped collar and five or seven buttons. Sun replaced the three inner pockets found on Western suits with four outer pockets and one inner pocket. He then paired the jacket with baggy pants.

Symbolic Design

Some people have found symbolic meaning in the Mao suit’s style. The four pockets are said to represent the Four Virtues in 管子 (Guǎnzi), a compilation of the philosophical work named after the 17th-century philosopher, 管仲 (Guǎn Zhòng).

Additionally, the five buttons allude to the five branches of government in the constitution of the Republic of China, which are executive, legislative, judicial, control, and examination. The three buttons on the cuffs represent Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (三民主義). The principles are nationalism, people’s rights, and people’s livelihood.

The Mao Suit's Popular Days

The Mao suit was worn in the 1920s and 1930s by civil servants in China. A modified version was worn by the military until the Sino-Japanese War. Nearly all men wore it after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. 

During the 1990s, the Mao suit was mostly replaced by the Western business suit. However, leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, wore the Mao suit for special occasions. Most young people favor Western business suits, but it’s not uncommon to see older generations of men wearing Mao suits at special occasions.

Where Can I Buy a Mao Suit?

Nearly all markets in Chinese cities large and small sell Zhongshan suits. Tailors can also make custom Mao suits in a day or two. Or Zhongshan suits can also be bought online here.