The Chinese man and his queue

These days there are so many excellent sources of information available that we have a reasonably good idea about the customs and traditions of people around the world. We are less influenced than our forbears by stereotypes shaped by historical prejudices or the motion picture industry.

In London, for example, we no longer really expect to see every gentleman wearing a pinstriped suit and bowler with a copy of The Times and brollie in hand. Nor do we expect all the Australians we meet to be sporting a wide brimmed hat with corks dangling from the brim.

Stereotypes, however, are often based on fact and tell an interesting tale. Take, for example, the Chinaman and his queue. We no longer see Chinese men wearing their hair in this fashion but the fact is that for over two centuries almost all Chinese men had a queue. How did this come about?

It all began in the mid-17th century following China’s invasion and subsequent colonization by the Manchus. Rising out of China’s northeast (around present-day Heilongjiang Province), the Manchus were an alliance of tribes that seized power in Beijing following the demise of the Ming dynasty. They established their own dynasty, the Manchu (also called the Qing), which was to last around 250 years until 1911 when imperial China collapsed and the country fell into civil war. But, although nowadays they are part of modern China and are considered to be Chinese, at the time of their rule they were regarded as hated foreign invaders by the Han majority.

Traditionally, Manchu men wore their hair in a long pigtail known in the West as a queue. They shaved their head cleanly except for a portion towards the back from which the hair was allowed to grow without cutting. It was then braided into a long queue that was left to hang down the back. Only at times of mourning were they permitted to forgo the necessary regular shaving of the bald part. Men of the defeated Han race, which by around 1650 had been almost totally subjugated, were also required by the Manchus to wear their hair in this fashion.

In the early days of Manchu rule, only former soldiers and officials of the old Ming regime had to comply; the death penalty was imposed on those who refused. Some defiantly shaved their whole head and became monks in the sanctuary of Buddhist monasteries while others rose up in rebellion. Once the new regime had become firmly established, the law was applied to all Han men.

The new law, however, was strongly opposed. Chinese culture had long been dominated by Confucian thought, central to which was a strong belief in filial piety and respect for ancestors. Everything you were or owned was a gift from your ancestors. This included your body. Shaving the head, therefore, was considered to be disrespectful since it meant the disposal of a gift from your forbears. Therefore it had to be resisted.

For the Manchus, on the other hand, forcing the Han Chinese to wear their hair in a queue was a demonstration of their authority and a mark of subjugation. It was also regarded as a mark of loyalty. A man without a queue was viewed as disloyal to the regime and would be treated as a traitor. Almost invariably, this meant the death penalty so that even after the regime was swept away in the 1911 revolution, many men retained their queues just in case it returned.

So our old stereotyped image of the pigtailed Chinese of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is an accurate reflection of how Chinese men looked at the time but, more significantly, it is a symbol of one nation’s domination by another.