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Ancient Chinese Hairstyles

2008-06-23

Few modern Chinese people are aware that hair used to be considered a holy and deeply personal item in ancient China.

In the book of Filial Obediences (Xiao Jin), sages tell that "our body, hair and skin are granted by our parents and we should not be allowed to destroy them. That is the base of filial obedience."

Hair-style rules

Ancient people followed the words of such sages and seldom cut their hair throughout their whole lives. Women's hair-styles witnessed some changes, depending on the aesthetic standards in different dynasties, while men's remained static. But there were still some general rules to be followed, making it easy to specify people's ages, sexes, marital situations and social positions at first sight.

In general, teenage children would tie their hair up in plaits on the top of their heads, one on each side. After boys reached adulthood, they would comb all their hair into a top-knot (called a Jiefa in ancient Chinese), which they either covered with a square cloth or with a hat. People at Jiefa age are expected to get married and in ancient Chinese Jiefa Fuqi means a wife and husband who married when they were young.

Girls would not be allowed to coil up their hair with hairpins unless they were married, if she did so her husband and parents-in-law would look down upon her because she hadn't followed the rules for women's behavior.

Imperial women always guided hair-style fashion in ancient China and there were many professional hair dressers serving in the palace, creating many different hair styles patterns, using beautiful gold, jade or pearl hairpins.

People valued their hair highly and seldom cut it short unless there was something really important happening.

The best-known story involving hair-cutting is set in the Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280) when Cao Cao, the famous politician, strategist, led an army out to battle. Cao commanded that the soldiers should keep their horses off farmer's crops and anybody daring to break the rule would be killed.

Unfortunately Cao carelessly let his own horse step into a field of crops. The commander tried to commit suicide but was stopped by his followers. Finally Cao decided to cut his hair as a penance.

Chinese women in ancient China were not supposed to go out and be seen in public. They usually cut off a lock of their hair and sent it away with lovers or husbands who were going to leave them for imperial examinations or other business. The hair would remind the men that somebody was waiting for them at home and they should hurry back quickly.

Cutting hair short was also a way of marking prisoners in ancient China. Even after they had been released from prison, people would continue to classify them as bad people upon seeing their short hair, which would become a long-term sign of their criminality.

Monks and nuns however believed that hair was a source of troubles. They shaved off their hair upon deciding to devote their life to Buddhism, symbolically announcing their liberation from all attachment to mundane reality.

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