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A history of Chinese hairstyles through the ages

By Lily Valette 27 December 2023 | Last Updated 5 March 2024

Header image courtesy of Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. Photo: Eugene a (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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Terracotta Army. Photo: Lai Sanders (via Unsplash)

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, with the exception of Buddhist monks, cutting off hair was perceived as maiming your body; thus, the hair was kept long.

Dating back to BCE centuries, this tradition survived and strengthened, and it became a central event that communities returned during times of historical and social changes. To understand how deep this belief ran, note that cutting one’s hair was a punishment reserved for criminals.

For practical reasons, people in ancient China started tying their hair in various manners. Men soon adopted the traditional topknot. Having had the freedom to develop different styles, the way that Chinese women wore their hair in ancient China became a way for them to symbolise their class status in society and their role in the family hierarchy.

Photo: Augusthaiho (via Wikimedia Commons)

Noble women had more resources and therefore access to hair extensions, wigs, wires, and even hair gel. Made from wood or sesame oil and animal fat, among other ingredients, the hair oil was a staple in creating complicated hairdos. Loose buns, topknots, coiled updos with elaborate ornaments—Chinese women were known to be creative with their hair fashions and imbue them with meaning. Hair also became an indicator of marital status. Wearing your hair in a bun was reserved for married women. Unmarried women wore it down or half-down, as the free locks were considered seductive. Girls went through a coming-of-age ceremony at the age of 15, the ji li (笄礼; gai1 lai5; “hairpin initiation”) which declared them fit for marriage. It involved washing the hair and tying it with a ji pin.

For a long time, the most common hairdo among all social classes was a simple low bun. However, noble women were known to go over the top. Among the many incredible hairstyles thought to have been worn during the Han and Southern dynasties are the gravity-defying “nine-ringed bun,” with one or two loops on top of the head; the “cloud,” a cone-shaped updo where the bun was piled to one side of the head; the “spirit snake” twisted hair, which looked like a snake rising from the scalp, and the “letter 10” hairstyle, which got its name for its resemblance to the Chinese character for the number 10, “十.”

“Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses“ (late eighth–early ninth century A.D.). Zhou Fang. Colours on silk. 46 x 180 cm. Courtesy of Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. Photo: Eugene a (via Wikimedia Commons)

Hair rising to great heights

The Tang dynasty lasted nearly three hundred years and is remembered for its cultural profusion in many fields, such as painting, calligraphy, poetry, and various other art forms. Along with this cultural abundance came a change in style and dress. Clothes became more extravagant and vibrant, and hairstyles got more creative, too. Hair accessories became popular; whether made from gold, jade, ivory, metal, or wood, the material was an indicator of the wearer’s social class.

Through art, literature, and pictures that have endured the ages, historians have countless depictions of different ways in which women styled their hair. At that time, hair extensions and hair pieces became larger, with bun-shaped wigs often added to create more volume. A popular style for aristocratic women was the “lofty bun” famously depicted in Zhou Fang’s Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers. The variety of high double buns was rich and eventually permeated all social classes, except for unmarried girls and working women such as household maids who mostly adorned their heads with twin buns hanging on either side, sometimes decorated with ribbons.

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Shaven Mongols and the shaving ban

From the eleventh to the thirteenth century, Chinese territory was marked by its first non-Han rulers, namely the Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, who were related to Mongol and Manchu people. At a similar time, a portion of northwestern China was periodically ruled by the Xi Xia dynasty, and a portion of the south by the Song dynasty.

Within what was surely a constant power struggle, imposing hairstyles onto a population was one way to differentiate yourself and assert your power. Most of the Mongol population shaved the top and back of their heads, and the Mongol empire imposed the style on subdued populations. More particularly, during the Yuan dynasty, the hairdo for men was a shaved head with only one lock of hair at the top of the forehead, and two locks kept long behind the ears.

While there is no discovered record of women being required to wear their hair in a certain way, the class element in styling and ornaments strengthened. More complex hairdos were a sign of abundance and wealth. Among women of the Song dynasty, updos became ever higher (up to two feet tall in some cases) and bigger thanks to hair extensions. Headwear came in handy, with empresses wearing a fengguan (a head crown, or “phoenix hat”). Not all women had to go through life supporting a heavy updo—those of the middle class wore a simple bun covered with a head scarf.

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 men who shaved their hair (with castration, no less). Once again, hair became a sign of virility for men who wore long locks up in buns. Women also adopted more traditional updos and the mo’e headband made a comeback.

A barbershop in Shanghai during the Qing Dynasty. William Saunders. Photo: Ws227 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The look was decried in its own land but also abroad when anti-Chinese racism emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century. Not only was the queue mocked in representations of Chinese people, the contemptuous Pigtail Ordinance of 1873 banned the hairstyle entirely in efforts to reduce Qing immigration. Although the queue remained a strong symbol, its use faded out towards the end of the Qing rule, with youths adopting Westernised hair fashions.

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Photo: ShakataGaNai (via Wikimedia Commons)

Women were not concerned by the queue order. Remarkably, the severe hair laws of the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the later Republic, did not apply to them. Some texts suggest that, in a patriarchal society, ruling on men’s hair rather than on women’s had much more impact, so imposing a hairstyle on women was not as big of a statement. 

Consequently, there are few traces left to show a modern audience how women wore their hair during the Qing dynasty, but it seems married women under the Manchu rule adopted the erbatou (“head with two handfuls”) that created extensions on both sides of the head. 

Instead of tying the hair in complex ways, the look was eventually created by wearing a recognisable board headpiece. At the beginning of the dynasty, imperial women didn’t add a lot of decorations to their hair because the court didn’t have a lot of money. As the dynasty gradually became stronger, more hairpins and ornaments were worn by women of the court, and bigger headdress became a sign of wealth.

(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.)

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. The legendary revolutionary had lost faith in the Qing dynasty, and the story goes that he was the first man to cut his queue as a symbol of his revolution.

A bronze statue representing the cutting of the queue is on display at the Pak Tsz Lane Park in Hong Kong as a celebration of the revolutionary movement. 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.

Masculine hairdos became simpler in the twentieth century and so did women’s. Gone were the days of complex styling and accessorising—women started wearing shorter hair for the first time. For a period of time after the revolution, shorter hair was considered a sign of progress and of the liberation of women in society. A below-the-ear bob proved quite popular in the mid-twentieth century, and permed short hair saw a rise at the end of the twentieth century.

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. Nowadays, hairstyles have become means of personal expression, and don’t carry as much greater social significance as they used to. Nonetheless, future historians will probably be looking back at today’s film and photography records to analyse hair trends and what they meant.

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Lily Valette

Editor

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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