Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 13, June 18-24

Hey Ayi, I have a hair issue, several actually; perhaps you could help me with the following questions:

1. What's with the weird tufts on little Chinese boys' heads?

2. Why don't Chinese men wear pigtails anymore?

3. Should I be afraid to go into a 24-hour hairdresser?

Val E. Girl

Dear Girlfriend,

Braids, ponytails and strange head shaving patterns have been common in China since the time of the earliest human settlements. Bone needles found in archaeological excavations in places like Banpo, Shaanxi Province, were probably used to hold hair in place, showing that a cool coiffure was de rigueur in the Middle Kingdom long before the invention of the hair salon. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), hairstyling techniques had advanced to the point where oils and unguents were used to hold up hair arranged in buns or twists resembling teapot handles and wings of bats or butterflies. You can have your hair arranged in the same way today at any photographers studio: just ask for a Tang Dynasty wedding outfit and be prepared to spend a few hours in the company of a hairstylist and to foot a bill in excess of 500.

But to get back to your questions: Chinese parents often shave their infant sons' heads to keep the little critters from getting too dirty and to avoid lice and other infections. A little tuft of hair is often left unshaven on the front of the kid's head. Some say the tufts should be 'peach-shaped', the peach being a Chinese symbol of longevity, although the tufts on my grandsons head make him look more like a broken tennis ball than any kind of fruit. A more practical reason for leaving a tuft is to provide a handle when shaving a rowdy youngster who may object to the razor. Babies are first shaved when they are about a month old, an event often celebrated with a feast and gifts for the child.

One hairstyle you don't see on the streets of Beijing anymore is the Manchurian queue or pigtail, made famous by countless historical films set in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The pigtail was originally a symbol of subjugation, imposed by the conquering Manchus at the start of the Qing Dynasty. A long braid hanging down from the back of the head resembles a horses tail and symbolized the speed and endurance of the animal that made the Qing conquest of China possible. The hairstyle consisted of a long braid at the back of the head, with a half-moon shape shaved into the hair above the forehead. Thick hair was fashionable, so the hirsutely-challenged added false hair and even entire false braids. Although the pigtail was initially an unwelcome imposition on Han Chinese men by the invaders, criminals and undesirables were forbidden to wear a ponytail so the style became a status symbol. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, resurgent Han nationalism made cutting off the ponytail a patriotic duty representing the casting off of the yoke of the Manchu Empire.

After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, proletarian short hair became the universal style. Some women, like your ayi, continued to wear short braids but the unisex 'bowl' cut became the standard coiffure throughout urban China. This all changed again in the eighties with a massive influx of foreign hairstyles and hair treatment products like conditioner and gel. Blond, red, purple and even blue hair dye is popular today, as are treatments to make straight Asian hair curly. Much of this alteration of nature goes on in little roadside hair salons. They are usually marked with a spinning red, white and blue barbers pole and the characters Lifa Dian, literally meaning hair repair shop. Most of the hairdressers in Beijing are not from the capital and usually have no residence permit. This is one reason why small hairdressers often close down: the police chase illegal provincial barbers away. The other reason is that many of these 'barbers' actually have no ambitions in the hairdressing industry, and prefer to spend their time in the company of paying gentlemen whose hair needs no fixing at all.

Some 24-hour hairdressers are of this type and best avoided if you actually want a haircut, but amazingly enough there are many hair salons that stay open until the wee hours just for the purpose of styling your hair. Avoid hair salons with a ten hairdresser to two barber-chair ratio and you should be fine. Women usually pay about 30 for a cut in a good small salon; men with short hair get charged 10-20. Finally, gentlemen with too much hair and not enough cash should consider the sidewalk barber option. On roadsides all over the city, white-coated people with a chair, a mirror, a bowl of water and pair of scissors cut hair for as little as 1, although the price can go up to as much as 5 if you are a foreigner sitting outside the Workers Stadium. To get the most out of your visit to the barber, try these useful words and phrases:

Barber Shop: Lifa dian

Cut/trim hair: jianfa or lifa

Hairstyle: faxing

Perm: tangfa

Electric perm: diantang

Chemical perm: lengtang

Blowdry: chuifeng

Shave all the hair off: tige guangtou

Beijing-style box-top haircut: xiao pingtou

Trim a beard: xiu huzi

I want to dye my hair blue: Wo yao ba toufa ranchang lansede

Give me a cool hairstyle: Wo jiangde kude faxing

Please straighten my hair: Qing ba wode tofa lazhi

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