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Choice Chengyu: Speaking of the Hair and Now

Ancient idioms about hair

Hair has been an important part of identity, status, and fashion in China for centuries. Confucius once said: “Our body, hair and skin are given by our parents and we shouldn’t damage them lightly. That is the first step of filial piety. (身体发肤受之父母,不敢毁伤,孝之始也).” Though ancient people did on occasion cut their hair, they often kept it long, and would not make changes to it casually. Since then, hair styles have evolved from the queues of the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911) to the relatively uniform cuts of the Mao era to an avenue for self-expression after the reform period—sometimes rebelliously, as with the dyed and spiky locks of Shamate culture in the last decade.

The importance of hair has led to many related idioms entering common parlance. Some can be used to describe one’s appearance and mood, while others are even relevant to one’s career and marriage.

披头散发 pītóu-sànfà

With one’s hair in disarray

It seems widely accepted that carefully combed hair is an important part of one’s appearance. If someone doesn't keep their hair neat, they might be criticized for untidiness using this chengyu.

She went to the office with her hair in disarray.
Tā pītóu-sànfà de qù bàngōngshì le.
她披头散发地去办公室了。

蓬头垢面 péngtóu-gòumiàn,

With disheveled hair and a dirty face

This is an even stronger phrase for disorderly appearance

He was uncombed and unwashed, just like a beggar.
Tā zhè péngtóu-gòumiàn de yàngzi, xiàng shì gè qǐgài yīyàng.
他这蓬头垢面的样子,像是个乞丐一样。

白发千丈 Báifà qiān zhàng

A thousand zhang of white hair

Keeping hair tidy is relatively simple, but it’s more difficult to prevent it from turning gray. Hair goes gray not only because of ageing; sometimes sorrow can also cause it. Poet Li Bai (李白) of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) once wrote: “My whitening hair would make a long rope, yet could not fathom the depth of my woe. (白发三千丈,缘愁是个长 Báifà sānqiān zhàng, yuán chóu shì ge cháng).”

This line gave birth to this idiom, which describes one who appears faded because of grief and sorrow, though it is rarely used in daily conversation nowadays. (A zhang is an old unit of measurement equal to 3.33 meters).

沈腰潘鬓 Shěn yāo Pān bìn

Shen Yue’s waist and Pan Yue’s hair at the temple

Pan Yue (潘岳), also known as Pan An (潘安) was a scholar of the Jin dynasty (265 – 420), and was known as one of the “Four Most Handsome Men of Ancient China.” But it’s said Pan’s hair went gray at the temples when he was only in his early 30s. So people used “Pan’s hair” as a synonym for “premature aging.”

The Shen in the first half of this chengyu was Shen Yue (沈约), a scholar and official in the Northern and Southern dynasties (420 – 589), who was also famous for his handsome appearance. But when Shen lost the emperor’s trust, he became seriously ill. In a letter, Shen told his friend that his waist had become thinner and thinner in the past few months, and he knew he would die soon. Thus, people used “Shen’s waist” to refer to “emaciation.”

Put together, this idiom describes people being unhealthily thin and aged. Li Yu (李煜), the ruler of the Southern Tang state during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907 - 960), once wrote in a poem:

Once I became a captive, my waist became as thin as Shen Yue, and my hair as gray as Pan Yue.
Yídàn guī wéi chénlǔ, Shěn yāo Pān bìn xiāomó.
一旦归为臣虏,沈腰潘鬓消磨。

鹤发童颜 Hèfà-tóngyán

White hair and ruddy complexion

Gray hair doesn't necessarily mean looking aged. Some old people can look very young even though their hair has gone white. This chengyu describes such people, with 鹤发 meaning the hair was as white as a crane’s feathers, and 童颜 meaning one looks as young as a child. It generally means “healthy in old age.”

She met an old man with gray hair and a ruddy complexion, just like an old immortal from folk tales.

Tā zài lùshang yùdào le yí wèi hèfà-tóngyán de lǎorén, jiù xiàng mínjiān gùshì lǐ de lǎo shénxiān yīyàng.

她在路上遇到了一位鹤发童颜的老人,就像民间故事里的老神仙一样。

结发夫妻 Jiéfà fūqī

Hair-knotted couple

This chengyu refers to a husband and wife by the first marriage. It is said that in ancient times, when people got married for the first time, the bride and the groom would each cut off a wisp of hair, and tie them together with a knot. So, married couples are called “hair-tied husband and wife.”

We are a hair-tied couple, and should support each other in difficulties.
Wǒmen shì jiéfà fūqī, yùdào kùnnán yīnggāi hùxiāng fúchí.
我们是结发夫妻,遇到困难应该互相扶持。

束发封帛 Shùfà fēngbó

Tie the hair and wrap it into cloth

In the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), there was an official named Jia Zhiyan (贾直言), who was exiled to a remote part of the empire in the south. Before leaving, Jia said to his wife: “It’s hard to say whether I will survive this time. Since you are so young, if you meet someone nice, you are free to remarry. Don’t wait for me.” But Jia’s wife didn’t agree. She tied up her hair and wrapped it with a cloth, and said: “I will wait until you unwrap it.” Jia didn’t come back until 20 years later, and found his wife's hair still wrapped up in cloth—when he unwrapped it, her hair was already long enough to reach the ground.

This chengyu emerged from the story, and refers to a woman’s loyalty to her husband.

削发明志 Xuēfà-míngzhì

Cut hair to demonstrate one’s convictions

Cutting off one's hair could also be a demonstration of resolve. In the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BCE), when Gou Jian (勾践), the King of the Yue State, was defeated and taken captive by Fu Chai (夫差), he shaved his hair and swore to take revenge. After serving as Fu Chai’s prisoner for three years, Gou Jian was allowed to return to his own state. He spent ten years carrying out reforms and planning another attack. Eventually, Gou Jian defeated Fu Chai and annexed Wu state.

The chengyu generated from this story is often used jokingly today. For example, when you see a friend has had their hair cut before an exam, you can say:

Did you cut your hair to demonstrate your aspirations?
Zěnme? Yào xuēfà-míngzhì a?
怎么?要削发明志啊?

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Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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