Ancient hair traditions

How Ancient Chinese Got Their Hair Cut

Hair was almost sacred to some ancient Chinese, and hairdressers eventually cashed in

On June 1, when Shanghai finally began to exit a grueling two-month lockdown, many people’s first port of call was the hair salon. People queued for hours to see their favorite stylist, while others gave up on a salon cut and got their trim on the street from enterprising barbers who brought their equipment outside.

Some had gone three months without a trim, and begun to grow new lengthy styles—something Confucius surely would have approved of, as in ancient times, Chinese wouldn’t cut their hair for just any reason. Indeed, the sage 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.”

From the Xia dynasty (2070 – 1600 BCE) to the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220), cutting off all or parts of one’s hair was a harsh penalty dished out to criminals, known as “髡刑 (kūnxíng).” Though hair-cutting wouldn’t cause physical harm, it would ruin one’s social standing and immediately mark out the shorn individual as a criminal in public. According to the Book of Jin (《晋书》), in the Three Kingdoms era (220 – 280), historian Chen Shou (陈寿) witnessed his father suffer a haircut for poor leadership on the battlefield when assisting general Ma Su (马谡) of the state of Shu in battle against the state of Wei.

Want to continue reading?

Log in or register now to read the full story


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

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.

Related Articles