The Qing Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty existed from 1636 until 1912 and experienced prosperous beginnings. The dynasty oversaw the cultivation of the arts, as well as economic developments and stability, which in turn facilitated the expansion of foreign trade. Yet despite this, the Qing dynasty is also widely documented for its crises and eventual downfall. From 1796, with the death of Emperor Gaozong of Qing, the dynasty began to face several challenges such as western imperialism, corruption, and extreme population growth (to name but a few). The final century of the Qing Dynasty experienced multiple revolts, rebellions and excessive treaties enforced by the United Kingdom as a result of defeat in the opium wars, plus the defeat of the first Sino-Japanese war. 

The Queue

It’s important that we first understand what the ‘Queue’ was and the context behind it. Hair was hugely significant within China. The Han Chinese people heavily embraced Confucianism and its notion of ‘filial piety’ (in simple terms: to be respectful to one’s parents). Thus, the cutting of hair was thought to be damaging to the body (which was gifted by the parents), causing disrespect to them if carried out. Han Chinese culture was oriented around this belief and so, Han Chinese people would not cut their hair, instead wearing more beautiful, intricate hairstyles. However, with the establishment of the Qing Dynasty, the Queue order was implemented, decreeing that all Han Chinese men (with the exceptions of monks) were to adopt the Manchu hairstyle of the ‘Queue‘ (a hairstyle categorised by shaving the front of the head and plaiting the remaining hair at the back of the head). This resulted in substantial resistance from Han Chinese people as it was believed that this was entirely against their philosophical and cultural practices. Determined to enforce this hairstyle and to evidence Han Chinese submission to Qing rule and the Manchu people, Han Chinese men were given an ultimatum; adopt the hairstyle or face execution.

Upon the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Han Chinese men were reported cutting off their braids to signify defiance against Qing rule and liberation from the Queue order, choosing to adopt shorter hairstyles instead. Since then, shorter hair has been the predominant style of men in China. This change in belief highlights the change in cultural values as a result of life under Manchu oppression. It should also be noted, however, that with the globalisation of China around this time period, Chinese people were also influenced in their abandonment of the Queue by a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment (otherwise known as Sinophobia). The Queue acted as a ‘signifier’ of an individual’s Chinese ethnicity, as well as being very significant in the conception of negative stereotypes. These stereotypes are still prevalent today, and were especially prominent within the 20th century, with numerous films, television shows, books and video games portraying stereotypical Chinese characters as having this hairstyle, among other negatively stereotyped characteristics.

Gender and the Queue

Alternatively, no laws were created pertaining to the hairstyles of Han Chinese women during this time period. Whilst there existed a hairstyle for women in Manchu culture called the Liangbatou (pronounced Lee-ang-ba-toe), it wasn’t enforced on Han Chinese women as the Queue had been on Han Chinese men. One theory for this is that laws on women’s hair weren’t necessary to substantiate the Qing dynasty’s ascension to power on account of women’s pre-existing lower standings within society. The main measures of achievement for women within the Qing dynasty were determined by one’s ability to provide male heirs and then practise abstinence upon their husband’s death in order to honour them (with this even being heavily rewarded). Yet, despite this, there is little evidence discussing why exactly the Queue was imposed on Han Chinese men but not the Liangbatou on Han Chinese women. Of course, the reasoning for this decision is purely speculative and this is just one of many possible explanations for this decision.

Finally, it should be noted that further reading into the laws of the Qing dynasty would expose the true extent of the attempts to erase the Han Chinese cultural identity. Whilst this article provides a simple, brief overview of the forced adoption of the Queue, this was but one of the forms of oppression experienced at the hands of the Qing dynasty, with there being considerably more complexities and laws than can be written about.