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A history of Chinese hairstyles through the ages

By Lily Valette 27 December 2023

Header image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing (via Wikimedia Commons)

As personal as our hair might seem to us, it holds much more meaning than one would originally give it credit for. Its plasticity, visibility, and appearance make it an easy signifier of the norms and prevailing culture of a society at any given period of time. Hair has strong meanings in many regions and cultures; among them, it plays a major role in China, where hair-styling rules have historically held different kinds of social importance over the centuries. Read on as we dive into the history of hairstyles in China and its meanings.

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“The Night Revels” (original: tenth century; remake: twelfth century). Gu Hongzhong. Ink and color on silk. 28.7 × 335.5 cm. Courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing).

At the origin of hair tradition stands Confucius

Confucius, in his Classic of Filial Piety, wrote “Our body, skin, and hair are all received from our parents; we dare not injure them.” His philosophy on the body’s natural, inherited traits defined the styling of hair for generations, and keeping your hair long became a sign of showing respect to your elders. In fact, cutting off hair could even be perceived as maiming your body; thus, the hair was kept long. For practical reasons, hair was soon tied up in a traditional topknot. Dating back to BCE centuries, this tradition survived and strengthened, and it became a central event to return to when tracking historical and social changes.

Shaven Mongols and the shaving ban

Back in the thirteenth century, the Mongol Empire marked the first non-Han empire to rule on Chinese territory. Most of the Mongol population would keep their heads shaved. When the Mongol Yuan dynasty crumbled and was replaced with the Han Ming dynasty, a shaving ban was instated. As a clear sign of contrast to the previous empire, and a return to older Chinese traditions, this rule officially condemned those who shaved their hair (with castration, no less). Hair became a sign of virility for men who wore long locks up in buns.

A barbershop in Shanghai during the Qing Dynasty. Photo: William Saunders

Setting the queue into order

In the seventeenth century, shortly after the start of the Qing dynasty, led by the Manchu, the “queue order” ruled that the male Chinese population should shave the front parts of their head and wear a long braid down the back. It was enforced to encourage loyalty to the Qing government, and imposed on the Han Chinese with severity; men would face execution if they did not comply, while some were driven to extreme measures such as taking their own life rather than defy Confucian ideology. As such, the queue order is maybe the fiercest example of a Chinese sovereign using a ruling of hairstyle to signify a new reign. Its use faded out towards the end of the Qing rule, with youths adopting Westernised hair fashions.

(Speaking of hair holding power, in the eighteenth century, monks were accused of using hair queues for sorcery, resulting in a series of court cases that have been dubbed the Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. It only goes to show how much power we grant hair.)

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Dr Sun Yat Sen in 1911. Photo: Shanghai Tongsheng Photo Gallery

Hair evolution, hair revolution

After the 1911 Revolution and the establishment of the Republic of China, its first president, Dr Sun Yat-sen, imposed a hairstyle rule to mark the evolution of his regime, much like his predecessors. In 1912, a hair-cutting edict was passed and men had to don short hair. Despite some resistance from conservative parts of the population who disagreed with what they perceived as foreign cultural invasion, most Chinese men started to wear their hair short, and the rest is, as they say, history.

“Admonitions of the Instructress” (between AD 400 and 700). Gu Khaizi. Handscroll, ink, and color on silk. 24.4 x 343.8 cm. Courtesy of the British Museum.

It’s a man’s (hairy) world

At this point, you may wonder, what about Chinese women? Remarkably, the severe hair laws of the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the Republic, did not apply to them. Some texts suggest that, in a patriarchal society, ruling on men’s hair rather than women’s had much more impact, so imposing a hairstyle on women was not as big of a statement. Ironically, ruling out women from such hair laws was also a relevant social indicator.

Fortunately, through art, literature, and pictures that have endured the ages, we can gather more information about the different hairstyles that Chinese women loved. Loose buns, topknots, updos with elaborate ornaments—Chinese women are known to be creative with their hair fashions, and imbue them with meaning. Having had the freedom to develop different styles, the way that women wore their hair in ancient China become a way for them to symbolise their class status in society and their role in the family hierarchy. As time went on, hairstyles even evolved into a signifier of political ideals.

All of this goes to show that hair carries significant meaning in Chinese culture, no matter the decade or century, and a look into Chinese hairstyles through the ages allows us to gain a better understanding of Chinese culture and history as a whole.

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Lily Valette


Born and raised in the French countryside, Lily arrived in Hong Kong looking for an adventure. Passionate about books, she spent some time in Parisian publishing houses and is the author of an illustrated book about hair. Life in Hong Kong for her entails looking for seaside places to eat and a lot of hiking.

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