(Minghui.org) Traditional Chinese culture originated from the divine. This can be seen in all aspects of the culture, including how Chinese people used to wear their hair.
Many cultures around the world share legends of how divine beings created humans, but each story tells of a different group of divine beings and a different series of events. These different origins can perhaps be seen in people’s hair.
For instance, Asians tend to have straight black hair, while Caucasians often have blonde or brown hair, and African originated people have fine, curly black hair—reflections of how different divine beings created different humans in their image.
The existence of hair also pokes holes in Darwin’s theory of evolution. From an evolutionary standpoint, hair serves three functions: protection from the sun in the summer, heat retention in the winter, and general attractiveness.
However, humans defy these trends. If hair is needed for sun protection and heat retention, we would have evolved to have hair or fur all over our faces like monkeys do since anatomically, we have the same need as monkeys. Yet, there are noticeably hairless regions on our faces where monkeys have fur. At the same time, bald humans seem to live life just fine without sun or cold protection on their heads.
Eyebrows are also another mystery in the framework of evolution, which somehow grow at a slower rate than the hair on our heads, and in a different shape.
But if we take a step out of the framework of hair as an evolutionary need and think of hair as a product of intelligent design, these phenomena may be easier to understand. And if we look back into ancient legends surrounding the hair on our heads, we’d find that there is more to our tresses than meets the eye.
In ancient China, hair is often used as a symbol for age. A child, for instance, was often referred to as a “yellow-haired” boy or girl since Chinese children’s hair tended to be sparser and yellowish-brown. As they grew up, their hair would become dense, black, and shiny.
Hair and Coming of Age
A girl was deemed to reach maturity at age 15. Another word for a 15-year-old girl was jiji—which translates to “needing a hairpin.” It was customary for women to only pin their hair after coming of age.
A boy reached maturity at age 20, when he would be called a ruoguan, or someone who’s “ready for a hat.” This is also indicative of hairstyle, since men had long hair and would have to tie it up to fit underneath their hat once reaching maturity. The coming-of-age ceremony for a 20-year-old man would involve “crowning” him with a hat for the first time.
Hair and the Elderly
Elderly Chinese people would have gray or white hair, and if one ages past that point, the hair could actually turn yellowish again. We can see this used in context with a line from Jin dynasty poet, Tao Yuanming:
“Both the old and yellowed and the young with loose hair were contented.”
However, not all people would go gray. Those who followed spiritual practices were often an exception. Zhang Sanfeng, a renowned Taoist who lived through the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, once gave some advice to Emperor Yongle of Ming for living a long life.
“Have a calm mind with little earthly desires, and you will achieve longevity,” he wrote.
This tradition of self-cultivation continues in today’s practitioners of Falun Dafa, a meditation system based on the principles of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance.
An article in Minghui talked about an elderly mother who regained a youthful appearance and abundant energy after taking up the practice. She also got her black hair back. Noticing she was able to grow vegetables and sell them on the farmers’ market with ease, most customers thought she was only in her 50s. Whenever that would happen, the mother would smile and tell people that she was already 83.
Hair and Age in Literature
Nonetheless, the color of a person’s hair was generally used to refer to a person’s age, as seen in some famous poems.
“Read until midnight, continue at first light / Study not while your hair’s black, and you’ll weep when you’re white.” wrote Yan Zhenqing from the Tang dynasty.
Li Bai, one of the most famous poets in China, penned the following lines,
“Have you seen not the parents, who stand before a mirror and bemoan their strands / Ebony in the dawn of life, now faded to twilight snow?”
Since ancient times, China has also been known as Huaxia. Xia means a great country with grand rituals and rites, while hua refers to the elegance of clothing and writing, according to Kong Yingda, a scholar in the Tang dynasty.
The diverse and varied hairstyles sported by both men and women showcase this elegance, and are a hallmark of China’s divine-touched culture.
Starting from an early age, there were customs about how people wore their hair. For girls under seven and boys under eight, the hair was kept loose without any pinning or tying. After that, until children reached the age of 15, their hair is separated in the middle and bundled up on both sides of the head in a style called zongjiao, or goat’s horns. In fact, the phrase “friends of zongjiao” is commonly used to refer to two people who’ve been friends since childhood.
By age 15, the hair would be tied up in one bundle. Girls would pin their hair for the first time, as mentioned in the definition of jiji above.
Hairstyles Through the Dynasties
Hairstyles worn by adults differed between dynasties. Mo Shang Sang in the Han dynasty described a young woman, Luo Fu, who wore “a falling bun on her head with pearl earrings.”
Mulan Ci from the Northern and Southern dynasties described Mulan “combing her cloud-like hair, and then putting a yellow flower in it before a mirror.”
Many of these hairstyles were divine in origin. According to Zhi Hu Zi, the Lady Queen Mother once came to visit Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty. Impressed by the fashion of the heavens, which were nothing like anything he’s ever seen on earth, the emperor ordered the ladies of the imperial court to emulate the goddess’ hairstyle. He christened the hairstyle the “flying fairy bun.”
Another example of a hairstyle that had otherworldly origins was the “enchanted snake bun.” This style was said to have been discovered by Lady Zhen, wife of Emperor Wen of Wei, when she saw a green snake transform into the figure of the bun in the palace one day.
Then there are the “soaring bun” and the “bun of halcyon clouds”—Sui dynasty styles which evoke the ethereal mists of divine realms by appearing to float effortlessly around the head of the wearer.
The Tang dynasty was the apex of Chinese culture, with elaborate hairstyles to match. The spiral bun and lily knot were both in vogue at the time, but the most iconic styles of the era were “reverse-tied” buns, where the bun would start with a ponytail at the top of the head and then be tied in ornate ways, sometimes around various shaping implements. Notable reverse-tied styles included the “double blade bun,” the “skyward bun,” and the “sycee bun.”
The Zanhua Shinü Tu (Court Ladies Adorned by Floral Ornaments) by Zhou Fang and Daolian Tu (Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk) by Zhang Xuan depict scenes from the Tang dynasty.
The ladies in these images have full, round faces and plump, healthy bodies, and wore splendid clothing along with hairstyles that sat high above their heads. Together with jewelry of gold, silver, jade, and other precious materials, they embodied the elegant and luxurious aesthetic of the prosperous Tang dynasty.
Han Xizai Yeyan Tu (The Night Revels of Han Xizai) illustrates a scene from the Five Dynasties—the period which preceded the Song dynasty. In this painting, the ladies had high buns tied near the back of the head, and wore an array of delicate hair accessories within them. The overall look gives an impression of animated grace.
During the Song dynasty, Emperor Lizong’s court ladies wore towering buns atop their heads, which were called “high cone buns.” The Jinci, a temple built during the dynasty, had female statues modeling this hairstyle.
Influenced by the holy crowns of Buddhism and the lotus diadems of Taoism, people in the Tang and Song also liked to wear diadems and circlets of their own featuring imagery of lotus flowers, phoenixes, and other auspicious symbols.
In the Song dynasty, a trend for women’s headwear was called the “views of the year,” where women would array themselves in hairpieces featuring seasonal flowers. The four flowers that they used were peach blossoms for the spring, lotus flowers for the summer, chrysanthemums for the fall, and plum blossoms for the winter—each sublime in its own way.
Spiritual cultivators had their own hairstyles that differentiated themselves from the rest of society. Monks and nuns shaved their heads clean and wore cossacks as a sign of their commitment to freeing themselves from worldly concerns. Taoists have a unique bun they wear, along with corresponding robes.
Conversely, the loss of traditional culture in our modern society can also be seen from people’s hairstyles. Nowadays, many people pursue hairstyles that are exotic and disheveled. If we continue like this as a society, we may forget where we came from and how to get back.
Although hair grows on the skin, it is well-connected with the body. Under a microscope, hair is a cylindrical shaft consisting of several layers. When a person’s Greater Heavenly Circuit is opened, the energy would flow through every part of the body, including within each of these tiny cylinders.
Chinese medicine believes that the hair is related to blood and the kidneys. Some common sayings in Chinese medicine demonstrate these connections, such as “the blood begets the hair” and “the state of the kidneys can be seen in the hair.”
Doctors of Chinese medicine use a four-step examination process: first they look at the patient and try to find any visible anomalies. Then they listen for any auditory cues of a patient’s condition. After that, they ask the patient to tell them about his or her condition, and finally, they take the patient’s pulse.
Hair is part of the looking phase of diagnosis, and a useful clue for Chinese medicine doctors to pick out any ailments. A healthy Chinese person’s hair is black and lustrous, while an unhealthy person’s hair is often yellowish and dry. Like withered grass, it is brittle and prone to splitting.
A person’s appearance, including hair, can be a reflection of his or her nature.
For instance, people with thick hair could be persistent or stubborn. On the other hand, those with thin and soft hair may be more thoughtful and have complex minds.
People with hairlines that are closer to the top of the head could be more open-minded and wise.
Most people have a flat or roundish hairline, but some people have a widow’s peak. These people may be prone to having a bad temper.
The cultural importance of hair to Chinese people can be further seen in just how often it is represented in literature.
Lin Xiangru, a high official of Zhao in the Warring State period of China, had very emotive hair.
When the king of the powerful Qin nation offered to trade 15 of his cities for the precious Heshi jade disk owned by the King of Zhao, the King of Zhao worried that the king of Qin would not actually honor his end of the deal. Lin volunteered to go to Qin to check on the king.
When he arrived, he found that the King of Qin was showing the jade to his officials and his ladies, with no intention of offering up the cities. Lin took the jade disk in his hand, and grew “furious enough that his hair stood up and almost knocked off his hat.” He castigated the King of Qin for not keeping his promise. In the end, he was able to take the jade disk back to Zhao safely.
Yue Fei, one of the most famous generals in Chinese history, also had expressive hair. He once wrote about the invasion of the Jurchen and humiliation associated with it: “My hair stands up in anger and tips off my hat.”
Another story was about Cao Cao, the penultimate grand chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Once, when the wheat was ripe, he issued an order for soldiers not to damage the wheat crops and decreed that any violators would be executed.
However, his own horse startled one day, and trampled a wheat field. When Cao was about to commit suicide, his advisor stopped him, saying that he could not do that because then their army would have no leader. Because people in the ancient times cherished their hair like their own body, Cao cut off his own hair as a disciplinary measure.
Sun Jing, also from the Han dynasty, studied very hard. To avoid dozing off, he tied his hair to the support beam of his house. Whenever he would doze off, his hair would tug against the beam and wake him up. Through this study method, he became a great scholar.
Tao Kan, a general in Jin dynasty, was born to a poor family. Once, his friend Fan Kui came to visit him on a snowy day, but Tao’s family didn’t have enough food to host Fan and his men.
“Please do not worry. I will figure something out,” his mother assured him.
She took out the hay that padded their beds, and chopped it up to feed the horses of Fan and his men. She then cut off her hair and sold it to buy rice and vegetables. Tao was a well-remembered official in Chinese history and his mother was also celebrated as one of the most virtuous mothers.
Wu Zixu was a general in the Spring and Autumn period. After the King of Chu killed his father and elder brother, he also pursued Wu. Wu fled to the nation of Wu. However, before he could enter, he must past the Zhaoguan checkpoint, which was under the King of Chu’s control. The night before he was to pass the checkpoint, Wu became so worried that his hair turned white overnight. The next day, he was able to pass the checkpoint successfully because of his white hair, and safely arrived in the nation of Wu.
Mei Sheng was a scholar in the Han dynasty. When Liu Bi, the King of Wu, planned to rebel against the emperor, Mei attempted to stop him saying the risk was huge, “like dangling a thousand pounds off a hair.” Later on, Liu failed and was killed.
China was also known as the land of the divine, and home to a vast and colorful culture enriched by deeper meaning. The above were just a few examples of how this manifests in the realm of hair—just a small portion of this grand civilization.
In closing, there is still one more hair-related anecdote that connects ancient tradition to our modern world.
Liu Bowen, a sage and prophet of the Ming dynasty, once predicted the future in his prophecy, Shaobing Ge (Pancake Song):
“The person [who would introduce the great way] is not a monk or Taoist. He wears an everyday person’s hairstyle.”
He also mentioned people would not cultivate in temples, and that they would cultivate while living in the secular world.
This coincides with the practice of Falun Dafa in today’s China. With about 100 million practitioners, the practice emphasizes the principles of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance, the essence of traditional Chinese culture. At this special era in history, it connects past and present, leading us from thousands of years of history toward a brighter future.