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Hair-Raising History

A look at just a few of the hairstyles in Chinese imperial history


Hair-Raising History

A look at just a few of the hairstyles in Chinese imperial history


Enthusiastic theater-goers and those who enjoy watching films might be particularly in agreement here – the costumes to any plot are an important part of the show. This certainly applies to Chinese history, and indeed almost any civilization. Aesthetics have always held a deeply entrenched, influential role since the beginning.

Or to put it more simply: appearances do matter.

Hopefully you saw our feature on the evolution of Chinese women’s clothing. But now, have another look. As well a fantastic display of the clothes themselves, the graphic also shows beautifully that women’s hairstyles were intricately crafted, almost like artwork throughout history.

In fact, it wasn’t just women’s hairstyles that were aesthetically important. Among both sexes, hair and hairstyling have held an important position since ancient history in China. Hair was highly cherished, and most of all its treatment was about more than just beauty or a means of expression of personality. It was a statement, and could tell others all sorts of things about you from your social status to your political affiliations to your life choices.

In the Classic of Filial Piety, Confucius is quoted to have said, “We are given our body, skin and hair from our parents; which we ought not to damage”. Obviously, just because something is attributed to Confucius, it is not a reason to take it as a given that you could therefore look at someone’s hair and know everything about them. However, there have certainly been a number of stories surviving from history of head-shaving being a punishment for some sinners or criminals. Some have even suggested that it was done in tangent with castration, as a meaningful physical punishment. And another commonly referenced story is that of the feared general Cao Cao, whose hair was cut off as a military punishment rather than suffering the death penalty, as it is claimed this way it would insult his soul. Never mind cutting your nose to spite your face – maybe cutting your hair to save your head seems more appropriate.

It would be too difficult and unrealistic to go through every phase or ‘do in Chinese history, so instead we will just have a look at a few significant trends:

The Han Dynasty: Hair Binding

In the earliest dynasties, the Han hairstyle of men winding up their long hair into a bun on top of their head and then sometimes encased in linen. It also became a distinguishing feature between the Han people, the dominant society under the newly unified China, and other ethnic groups.

The Han Dynasty also based their coming-of-age ceremonies around a change of hairstyle. For young Chinese men, at around the age of 20 a ceremony would be held in an ancestral cap where he would be given a special cap and a name for adulthood. After this ceremony, the man could no longer wear his hair long, but instead would comb it into the bun described above.

For girls, this ceremony marked when the girl became a woman and was therefore ready to marry. Held at around the age of 15, after the ‘hair-pinning’ ceremony the woman’s hair would be worn pinned up with a gold, jade or wood hairpin depending on her social status.

The Tang dynasty

This was the period when a number of different styles grew, and it was especially the case for women. Starting out from the pinned bun on the top of the head, many creative shapes and variations emerged, such as the ‘dangling hoops’, ‘double screw’ and ‘twisting snake’ as well as a range of hair ornaments.

The Queue Complex

The cultural integration of the Manchu Qing dynasty and the Han Chinese of the area would be an interesting story for another article, but one thing that the Manchus brought with them in 1644 was their traditional hairstyle of the Queue. Infamously, two years later, the Qing rulers ordered that all Han Chinese men would have to adopt the long iconic plait as a sign of submission to their new rulers. Such was the resistance that the crime of not cutting your hair was declared as treason, punishable by death. The queue became a symbol of the struggle between the two parties in many products of literature at the time.

Perhaps you’ve seen replicas of some of the iconic imperial hairstyles in Chinese television series or films. Next time you do, have a closer look – the hairdos of history were not just symbols of style but symbols of society.


Want to have a go at styling yourself? See our tutorial How to Style Your Hair Like a Taoist Master.