China’s national wave of infusing daily fashion styles and beauty routines with tips ‘n tricks of yore, like those found in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), continues to grow to exuberant lengths. Haircare is the latest field to get a lil’ TCM TLC. Braiding past and present, Temper decided to comb through the looks and politics of Chinese hair. Because we felt like it.
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A Whiff of TCM
Chinese wellness label Fengsi (丰丝 in Chinese) offers shampoo lines inspired by ancient Chinese haircare praxes based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The brand’s product range (we’re talking USD 15-ish for a 300-ml bottle) incorporates herbs like polygoni multiflori and essential oils like atlas cedarwood oil, all straight outta the ancient “how to get luscious locks” manual. One buyer review on online shopping platform JD.com read, “There’s a hint of that typical piquant TCM smell. It’s tolerable, but doesn’t smell too great, though, haha! After one month of using it, my hear does feel softer and appears stronger.”
With the upsurge of guochao (国潮| guócháo or “national wave”) –referring to the consumer habits of buying domestic brands–since the late 2010s, TCM has started to appear more frequently in marketing campaigns as a trendy cultural element. But according to Jing Daily, “its real relevance came when COVID-19 hit two years ago. During the pandemic, the state’s official institutions endorsed TCM as an effective COVID treatment and promoted TCM education in mass media, further boosting its legitimacy and popularity in mainstream culture.”
In TCM, the condition of our hair is a direct reflection of the condition of our blood, liver and kidneys. Hair is thick, dark, healthy and glossy when there is an abundant flow of kidney essence and liver blood—guys, this is TCM lingo, bear with us. If there is a deficiency, our hair may turn dull, lifeless and brittle. The deficiency may even lead to premature greying and thinning of the hair.
According to The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, the earliest written work of TCM compiled over 2,200 years ago during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) hair greying and thinning should start only from the late 30s to 40s for both men and women, in the natural aging process. “Premature greying and thinning of the hair can relate to factors such as deficiencies in the kidneys, liver, blood, spleen and stomach,” it reads.
Both the external application and internal consumption of Chinese medicine, as well as acupuncture treatment, can help improve hair problems by dispelling the pathogenic factors (blood heat, wind and dampness), and enhancing the functions of the liver and kidneys. Now you know. Sort of.
With this whole “return to your roots” (#weheartcheesy) vibe Chinese consumers got goin’, Temper wondered and pondered… Hair has been an important part of identity, status, and fashion in China for centuries. But what did Chinese hairstyles look like in the olden days? And what were the politics at play?
Tying the Knot
In ancient China, young women wore their hair down or in simple styles to show they were unmarried. Maidens traditionally kept their hair in braids until their 15th birthday, when they went through a coming-of-age ceremony call the jīlǐ (笄禮| also translates as “congratulations”) or Hair Pinning Ceremony. During the ritual, the girl’s hair was washed, combed into a twist, and held together with a pin, called a jī (笄). A girl who’d completed the ceremony was considered an adult eligible for marriage. When engaged to be married, Chinese women would take the pin from their hair and give it to their (male) fiancé. And that’s not all…
The still-standing idiom “hair-knotted couple” (结发夫妻| jiéfà fūqī) refers to a husband and wife by the first marriage. In ancient times when people got married for the first time, the bride and groom would each cut off a wisp of hair and tie them together with a knot.
Once a girl was married, propriety and pragmatism took precedence. Now busy with family and household affairs, she had no need to parade her hair in front of strangers. Married women in ancient China wore their hair tied up in a variety of styles ranging from the practical to the elaborate, depending on social rank and the latest fashions. The simplest was a knot of hair tied at the nape of the neck. More elaborate versions from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) included wigs, ornamental combs, pins, and even fresh flowers.
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A simple married updo started with combing the hair up into a high ponytail near the top of the head. Then, carefully arrange it into a large, loose bun so that it sits in the center of the head, above the forehead. In the past, Chinese women steeped strips of wood in hot water to produce a sticky gel. They would use this with a combination of wire to keep their hair in place.
Now, we don’t mean to split hairs – yes, we’re gonna keep knocking out dem cheesy puns– but if the women’s household duties got so tangled in with their long tresses, why not just get that pixie on? Well, Confucian values in ancient China held that hair is a gift from the parents to be treated with the utmost respect. For both men and women, haircuts were considered a serious breach of filial piety (孝| xiào), only done under special circumstances.
The only women who would cut their hair were the widows, some among them even shaving it off.
Chinese women have sported different hairstyles during different periods of time. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.), women used to tie their hair in loose buns with some untied hair hanging down their backs. This era was a discriminatory period for women given they were not allowed to be educated and were often seen as being inferior to men.
The Tang Dynasty (618- 907) is often celebrated as one of the most glorious periods in Chinese history. It was a time of great cultural reform and advancement. Prosperity in the period not only allowed women to be freer, but it also resulted in a large variety of hairstyles getting adopted. A typical Tang woman would arrange her hair in loops or tie it up above her head.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644), China’s population numbers boomed. Women during this period used to tie their hair in buns and adorn it using ornaments. This was the last Chinese dynasty of to be ruled by ethnic Hans (90.
The Qing (1644-1911) was the final dynasty in the country’s history before the communists took over. It was ruled by non-Chinese Manchu tribes. Females started using bigger back decorations on their hair during this time. While their ladies-in-waiting wore simple pins, queens wore pins that were adorned more exquisitely.
But when it came to the male hairstyle, this Manchu-ruled period was one messy bun.
Time to Queue Up
In his article “The Psychology Behind Chinese People’s Hairstyles,” published in Beijing Science and Technology Life magazine in 2005, historian Zhang Minglu said that in addition to being the symbol of ethnicity and class, the foremost function of Chinese hair was to serve as a declaration of political alignment and a political weapon.
Chinese hairstyles for men have changed only a few times in history. From antiquity until the Qing Dynasty, Chinese men kept their hair long, in accordance with the Confucian view that long hair was a sign of piety and virility, like we mentioned earlier. The men used to wind up their hair and keep it bound at the top of the head.
When the Manchu people took national sovereignty, one of the first things they did was to order civilians to shave their heads. Unshaven heads, therefore, became a clear sign of dissent.
During Qing times, the empire passed the “Queue Order,” which mandated that Han Chinese males tonsure the front parts of their heads as the Manchu people did.
Han Chinese resistance to adopting the queue was widespread and bloody. The Chinese in the Liaodong Peninsula rebelled in 1622 and 1625 in response to the implementation of the mandatory hairstyle. The Manchus responded swiftly by killing the educated elite and instituting a stricter separation between Han Chinese and Manchus.
In 1645, the enforcement of the Queue Order was taken one step further by the ruling Manchus when it was decreed that any man who did not adopt the Manchu hairstyle within 10 days would be executed. The policy literally stated, “Keep your hair and lose your head, keep your head and lose your hair.” That puts having a few split ends in perspective, now doesn’t it.
The intellectual Lu Xun summed up the Chinese reaction to the implementation of the mandatory Manchu hairstyle by stating, “In fact, the Chinese people in those days revolted not because the country was on the verge of ruin, but because they had to wear queues.”
The queue became a symbol of the Qing and a custom except among Buddhist monastics. Some revolutionists or students who studied abroad cut their braids. The 1911 (Xinhai) Revolution, which ended the Qing and led to the establishment of the Republic of China, sparked a complete change in hairstyle almost overnight. The queue became unpopular as it became associated with a fallen government; this is depicted in Lu Xun’s short story Storm in a Teacup in which Chinese citizens in Hong Kong collectively changed their dos to short haircuts.
FYI, Han Chinese women were never required to wear their hair in the traditional women’s Manchu style, i.e., the liǎngbǎtóu (两把头), a tall headdress that features two handfuls of hair, parted to each side of the head, sometimes with the addition of wire frames, extensions and ornamentation, although it was indeed another symbol of Manchu identity.
Making the Cut
After the 1911 revolution, Chinese men started to keep their hair short in accordance with Western standards. Sporting a tonsured head was seen as a “threat” by the communist regime since it might indicate one’s loyalty to the previous Qing Dynasty.
And even after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, hair’s complicated relationship with politics did not end.
In the 1950s, a short bob, cut just below the ears, a simple style favored by female communists and soldiers, was widely imitated by Chinese women.
Professor of Modern Chinese history Chen Mingyuan’s book Dress Warmly, Eat One’s Fill and Be Well-off, dubbed this style the “liberation hairdo” as it signified women becoming their own masters.
The only sign of individuality was the different hairpins and silk flowers. But Chen did add that “younger women were still in favor of braids, one on each side of the head. A typical compliment paid to a girl at this time was, “she has two pigtails that dance to her movements.”
When the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) began, women cut off their long braids and opted for the movement’s shorter hairdo to show their revolutionary spirit, as scholar (and former Red Guard) Gu Nong wrote in his article “Cultural Revolution and Hair,” published in Xun’gen magazine in 2000. Gu stated, “at that time, there was an unspoken rule: one braid was seen as feudalistic, two as capitalistic, and shoulder-length hair as purely revisionist.”
Harsh treatment toward “capitalist-roaders” could also start with their hair. In an essay titled “Records of 1966 and 1967,” writer Yang Jiang describes an incident in which half her hair was cut off, giving her a “yin-yang head,” an insulting punishment often used during the era.
From the late 1970s, when China began to implement the reform and opening-up policy, hairstyles became purely a personal choice to demonstrate individuality and aesthetic preferences. Permed hair, such as afros (noooo, people, this was not “cultural appropriation” but a way for women to celebrate their new-found femininity and let it roam wild; leave it be, we beg of you) and long permed waves again became trendy. By the 1980s, perms were common, along with short bobs – always a favorite among Chinese women.
By the late 1990s, hair dye became a significant trend. As Chinese women embraced more possibilities for their haircuts and colors, the country has also begun to see a growing variety of hair accessories and haircare products.
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The Dye Is Cast
Chinese Gen Zs looove their hair dye. And, what’s more, they looove doing it in the privacy of their own home. DIYs give them a sense of accomplishment, a way to showcase personality, and how to dye a special hair color has even become an ice-breaking topic for socializing in the past couple of years.
Plus, compared to professional hair salon services, the cost of homemade hair dye is relatively low, with prices ranging from tens of yuan to one or two hundred yuan (a couple of bucks to USD 30-ish). At the same time, dyeing hair at home is more convenient, and time-saving, which appeals to the busy younger Chinese generations.
According to Shanghai-based market research firm Daxue Consulting in 2021, another notable trend is the preference for catchy hair colors. “Students in China are restricted to either dye or perm their hair according to the ‘Code of Conduct for Middle School Students’. Graduating from school means accessing freedom to pursue beauty in their sense. According to the report ‘Generation Z Beauty Consumption Trend report’ jointly released by CBNData and Alibaba’s online shopping platform Taobao Live, in the past three years, the online consumption of coloration products by Generation Z has increased year by year in China,” the firm wrote. Although brown remains the most popular color, the proportion has gradually decreased and Chinese youth have developed a preference for colors like blue, gray, and pink.
Another firm Roaring Twenties 2.0 favorite is leave-in haircare (免洗护发| miǎnxǐhùfà ), which blends in nicely with the nation’s developing “lazy economy.”
This particular economy refers to a new type of consumption, which by nature is timesaving, labor-saving, and convenient. The trend has been taking over bathroom cabinets rapidly because it meets people’s diversified and ever-increasing consumer demands.
The leave-in haircare products emerging on the market correspond with the tendency of a “lazy economy”. According to the “Tmall Hair Care Industry Consumer Trend Insights” report jointly released by CBNData and Alibaba’s Tmall online shopping Walhalla, “lazy” haircare products like dry shampoo have gradually become the new market favorites.
Love is in the hair.
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