IT'S EARLY MORNING in the Houhai area of Beijing. About a dozen young men and women in jeans and T-shirts have gathered outside a coffee shop. They start pulling old-style robes over their clothes; layers of them, with wide sleeves, multiple collar-bands and fabric belts. One or two take off their shoes and replace them with ones made from black cloth. Passersby stop and stare; tourists photographing a nearby lake turn their cameras on the group and take pictures of them instead. Someone asks: 'Are you making a film here?' The answer is no. The group's making a point, though. Their outfits are Hanfu, or Han costumes, a traditional form of dress that characterised the Han race for more than three millennia, before the arrival of the Qing dynasty in 1644. The reason for wearing them, the group's leader Li Minhui says, is to revive a cultural identity which they believe is being eroded by western influences - and China's ethnic minorities. Underpinning their actions is a fierce sense of pride. But what disturbs some, is just how fierce they feel. Li, an ex-soldier now working for China International Publishing Group, is one of the founders of the Han Network, an online community whose stated raison d'etre is to be 'a website for the Han people, a home for the essence of Han, a platform for the Han culture and the birthplace of the Han costume movement'. It has 36,000 members, with an average of 2,000 postings a day, making it the most influential Hanfu website on the mainland. For Li, the traditional Hanfu is just the beginning of what he hopes will be a wider cultural revival, one that will stamp out unwanted influences, western or otherwise. 'We were learning the western culture to strengthen ourselves at first, but now it corners our own culture,' says the 32-year-old. 'To revive the traditional culture, which is based on Han culture, we have to revive our clothing first, because it has a direct visual impact on the general public. Since other ethnic minorities have their own clothes, why can't Han, the majority of our nation, have our outfits as well?' he asks. Li set up the Han Network in January 2003 after discovering a site called the Manchu Network in 2000 which he says was full of anti-Han comments. He says his criticism of the comments were removed from the site which spurred him to post articles objecting to online forums such as Xici.net. He then started calling for a revival of Han cultural identity. His comments were ignored or ridiculed by many, but he found some people whose thoughts echoed his own. And soon after, the Han Network was born. Eleven months later Wang Letian, left his home in Zhengzhou, Henan in full Han costume and wandered around the city for a day, photographed by other members, who then contacted a Chinese newspaper in Singapore, which ran a story on it. Further media attention encouraged Li's followers to go beyond their virtual community and into the real world. Since then, Li's website has organised hundreds of Hanfu shows nationwide - with the clothes being the main focus. Sometimes they recite ancient poems, play the guqin (a traditional stringed instrument) and perform ancient rituals such as offering sacrifices to Confucius. The largest show took place in Tiananmen Square during last year's National Day holiday, attracting more than 100 people dressed in Han costume. Li's group is not the only one calling for a Han revival. Another prominent Hanfu site, Tianhan, was founded in June 2004 and boasts more than 10,000 registered members with about 500 daily postings. Neither groups are happy with the fact that Tang suits and cheongsams are often used to represent China's culture, not believing they are Chinese enough: both outfits are derived from Manchu-style clothes that forcefully replaced the traditional Han costume when the Manchu-dominated Qing court came to power about 360 years ago. Tianhan wants the Han traditional costume to replace the western-style academic dress worn in Chinese universities' graduation ceremonies. Both groups want Chinese athletes to wear Hanfu at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 'How can the product of a civilisation of an ethnic minority group lasting for about 300 years represent the civilisation of 5,000 years?' Li says. Neither group believe China's 55 ethnic groups - which makes up 9.5 per cent of the population - will feel uncomfortable at their suggestions. 'The Hans are the majority of our country. Putting more of the Han characteristics on our national clothes is a reflection of the fact,' says Ye, administrator of Tianhan. 'I don't see the ethnic minorities will have a problem with that.' Both sites attract a similar range of followers: mostly well-educated, affluent young people in their 20s or 30s, mostly from wealthier regions and the cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou. 'It's closely related to the economy,' says Ye. 'As the ancient saying goes, 'one can only think of spiritual things when he no longer worries about his food'.' The problem, however, is that many of the sites' members have opinions which are anything but spiritual. United by the internet, Han Network and Tianhan have given voice to tens of thousands of people with a shared interest in Han culture - enthusiasts, nationalists, but also racists. The targets of their views generally are the other ethnic minority groups, in particular the Manchurians, Inner Mongolians, Tibetans and Uighurs of Xinjiang, inspiring resentment for either previously ruling the country or wishing to break away from it. Many of Li's followers are resentful of what they see as a favourable policy towards minority groups (some ethnic minorities are exempt from the one-child policy; and there are rules stipulating state-owned enterprises in autonomous regions should recruit a certain proportion of ethnic minority jobseekers, though these are not always adhered to). Such 'privileges' originally designed to ensure compliance with Chinese rule is arousing resentment with groups such as Li's, who argues that a favourable policy towards minorities will weaken the Han powerbase. 'The policy is to make them stronger and then encourage them to leave us. What's the use of being simply good to them?' asks Li. 'Sometimes we should demonstrate our strength ... to teach the separatists a lesson.' Others are even stronger in their denouncements. 'For those who opposed our Hanfu movement, we should have a slaughter like what happened in Rwanda!' cries one member of Li's group, using the name Public Waistcoast. The other main target of Han Network's vitriol is Japan. 'The Yamato race and the Han have conflicted interests. Japan feels China's rise is threatening its leadership in the East Asia region and tries hard to prevent China from its resurgence,' argues Li, who says most of his members are anti-Japanese. Despite heavy internet censorship on the mainland, Li says he has never been called up on his site's anti-Japanese comments, although he once had to cancel a Hanfu show planned for last April in Shanghai because of the sensitive timing (that month, there were massive anti-Japanese protests in the city). Han Network inevitably has alliances and shared activities with other anti-Japanese sites. Li claims his group has donated about 2,000 yuan to a campaign related to the Diaoyu Islands dispute, organised by anti-Japanese website Patriotic Alliance. Lu Yunfei, who runs Patriotic Alliance, however, wants nothing to do with Han Network. 'We can't accept some of its administrators' repulsive views towards the ethnic minorities,' says Lu. 'We stand for the unity of our nation and all the ethnic minority groups are part of our nation.' Instead, Lu has linked up with Tianhan, which has a relatively milder emphasis on cultural revival, with less antagonism towards ethnic minorities. While sites such as Li's may view themselves as patriotic nationalists, Zhu Dake, an independent cultural critic in Shanghai, says their objectives are the opposite of true nationalism. 'It's a racial nationalism movement,' Zhu says. 'Hanfu represents the Han people's wish to conquer the other ethnicities in terms of aesthetics. On one hand, it meets the nationalists' cultural nostalgia for their country. On the other, the narrow concept of the Han costume excludes the other ethnic groups. This is against the notion of the nationalism, which aims at the unity of all ethnicities.' He doubts the Hanfu movement will go far, believing that the government, concerned about ethnic unity, will intervene if the movement gets too extreme. And the general public won't buy it either, he says. 'The general public doesn't care about the concept behind the clothes,' he says. 'They just care about whether the clothes are fashionable and beautiful enough. But the Han costume obviously doesn't have these characteristics.' The reactions from the astonished onlookers at Houhai seem to confirm this. 'I still think Tang suits and cheongsams look better,' says a grey-haired Han Chinese who gave his surname as Ding. 'The Han culture is already strong enough here,' adds Yao Bo, a Manchurian book publisher. 'Their language is the official language and their culture is the basic culture of the whole country. I don't know why they are still emphasising how special they are by showing off their clothes.'