February 3, 2016

A look at China’s superstitious relationship with grooming

In celebration of the coming Chinese New Year of the monkey, we delve into China's hair-raising history and its superstitious relationship with grooming.

By RJ In stubble

新年快乐 or Happy Chinese New Year [pronounced /sshin-nyen kwhy-ler/] for those of you who can’t read Mandarin. You’ve probably heard of some of the more common practices around Chinese New Year such as handing money-filled red envelopes to your friends and relatives and the luckiness of the number eight. Well, in celebration of the coming Year of the Monkey — the most pilose of primates — we thought we’d have a countdown from eight of interesting trivia on China’s often hair-raising relationship with grooming.

1. NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION TO CUT YOUR SPENDING? EASY IN ANCIENT CHINA

Let’s get straight down to the bottom line: money. Interestingly, coinage during the Zhou dynasty of ancient China took the form of “dāo” or sharp coins that greatly resembled straight-edge razors. Although we think they are pretty cool-looking, they certainly can’t have been comfortable to carry around.

Chinese Money Shaped Like Knives or Straight Edge Razor Blades

2. HAIR OR WEALTH? A MATTER OF SPLITTING HAIRS

If you thought the link between wealth and grooming stopped there, you were mistaken. At Chinese New Year, well-wishers typically proclaim 恭喜發財 to one another. The New Year greeting — literally translated as “congratulations to become rich” — shares syllables with the word for “hair”. It is for this similarity between the terms for “hair” and “prosperity” that many of the superstitions surrounding Chinese New Year relate to grooming.

3. BARBERING IN MODERN CHINA: A CUT-THROAT BUSINESS (AT CHINESE NEW YEAR)

One of the most persistent traditions of the Chinese New Year involves not going to the hairdressers during the first lunar cycle of the New Year. Getting one’s hair snipped in the first month of the lunar calendar is considered to have a detrimental effect on your financial luck for the coming year and will sever any chances you have of you striking rich! As a result, many barbers and hairdressers have a difficult first month of the new year. Things generally start to pick up on the second day of the second month, however, as tradition holds that having one’s hair cut on this day — commonly referred to as ‘the day the dragon raises its head’ — holds good fortune.

4. BARBERING IN ANCIENT CHINA: A BARBARIC AFFAIR

These perduring traditions, however, are not only the result of similar sounding words. Not cutting one’s hair has a rather gruesome history that can be traced back to 1645 when Dorgon, who had conquered China, issued an edict for all Han Chinese men to shave the front of their heads and wear their hair in the traditional Manchu style. The Han Chinese considered shaving one’s head as an insult and Dorgon gave them an ultimatum: your hair or your life! It is said that barbers during this time were told to carry the severed heads of those who refused on bamboo poles as a way of intimidating the citizens into submission. Supposedly, up to a million non-compliers were executed.

5. HAIR DOS OR HAIR DON’TS?

It’s not just cutting the hair that the Chinese are wary about. The same goes for washing it. Although upheld less in this day and age. Washing one’s hair during Chinese New Year (which lasts a week) is still discouraged. To do so would be to wash your luck down the drain. So, it looks like it’s going to be a bad week for your ‘do if you are celebrating Chinese New Year.

6. DON’T FENG WITH THE SHUI IN THE BATHROOM

It would seem that grooming just doesn’t get a good rap as far as China is concerned. In feng shui — the Chinese philosophical system of harmonising everyone with the surrounding environment — the bathroom is often considered a negative space that should be closed off. Perhaps this is why GfK discovered, in their study of 22 countries, that the Chinese spent the least amount of time on grooming with an average of less than three hours per week.

7. A SHAVE SO CLOSE IT’LL MAKE YOU LOOK TWICE

Did you ever see that Surrealist film, An Andalusian Dog, by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. Well, if so, you might just remember a particularly gruesome scene in the opening half where a razor slices through the eyeball of the lead actress. As much as you wished that kind of horror would remain in the boundless fictive imaginations of the 1920s surrealist movement, it turns out a similar practice has existed in China for centuries. The ancient craft consists of having a barber gently graze the blade across the eyeball and is reputed to improve the clarity of life’s beauty. If you fancy an eye-ball shave and want to avoid a live repeat of An Andalusian Dog, perhaps it’s best to avoid taking an appointment with the barber’s apprentice and leave this shave to the professionals.

8. FROM DYNASTIES PAST TO DATE – SHAVING THE WAY INTO THE FUTURE

In 2013, History.com published an article of the five leaders in Chinese history you should know about whose time in power span from 221 BC to 1989. These five men: Qin Shi Huang (221-210 BC); Kublai Khan (1279-1294), Sun Yat-sen (1912), Mao Zedong (1949-1976) and Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) all left there mark on China, but what strikes us is the fading facial fuzz from Qin Shi Huang’s grizzly mane to Kublai Khan’s groomed moustache and beard and onto last century’s less hirsute leaders of China.

Qin Shi Huang (221-210 B.C.)

Qin Shi Huang (221-210 B.C.)

Kublai Khan (1279-1294)

Kublai Khan (1279-1294)

Sun Yat-sen (1912)

Sun Yat-sen (1912)

Mao Zedong (1949-1976)

Mao Zedong (1949-1976)

Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989)

Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989)

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