The Manchu queue: One hairstyle to rule them all

Society & Culture

How did the queue — a hairstyle characterized by a bare forehead and a single long braid of hair — come to define the Qing dynasty, and subject those who wore that hairstyle to mockery from outsiders?

This Week in China’s History: July 21, 1645

In the summer of 1645, the Ming capital at Beijing had fallen; Manchu armies had taken the Forbidden City and defeated the rebels that had overthrown the Ming, and were now moving south, toward the cultural heart of China: Jiangnan (literally, “south of the river”), i.e., the Yangtze River Delta.

Myriad threats — logistical, military, environmental, geographic — faced the nascent Qing dynasty, which the Manchus established, and Jiangnan may have been the greatest challenge. It was at this moment that the Manchu leader — not the emperor, but Prince Dorgon — issued a monumental decree…about hair.

Dorgon required men in China — with a few exceptions — to take a specific hairstyle called the “queue.” Essentially, men had to shave the front half of their head, leaving a bare forehead. From the ears back, the hair would grow long and be braided. It was this long braid (often called a pigtail, though I have happily never seen a pig with any such tail) that came to be the identifying feature of the hairstyle, especially (but not only) in the West.

The order of July 21, 1645, was part of a long process involving hairstyles and the Manchu conquest of China. The queue, or something like it, had long been a feature of central and northeast Asian men, documented since at least the Northern, or Toba, Wei dynasty of the 6th century. It was common for northern tribes to enforce queues upon conquered peoples.

Nurhaci, the Manchu leader who coined the name, at first seemed to take a different tack. In 1618, as Manchu armies moved into what is now Liaoning province, Nurhaci promised that Chinese who surrendered without a fight would be permitted to maintain both their property and their customs — including their hairstyle. Although apparently successful, this policy soon changed: in the 1620s, Chinese coming under Manchu rule were compelled to take the tonsure.

Almost as soon as the Forbidden City was in Manchu hands, in June 1644, Dorgon ordered that all Chinese men take the queue, but resistance from Chinese elites convinced him to withdraw it. A year later, in June 1645, a revised order required all Chinese in the military to adapt the queue. This was seen as a practical matter, enabling Manchu forces to easily identify who had submitted to the dynasty and who had not.

Finally, in July, Dorgon expanded the decree and once again ordered that all Chinese men must shave their heads and begin growing the queue within 10 days or face execution. Manchu soldiers might carry out the directive, or enlist barbers to do so.

For the Manchus, the head-shaving policy was efficient and practical. It was easy to accomplish and compliance was simple to verify. In The Great Enterprise, Frederic Wakeman writes that the policy “not only brought rulers and subjects together in a single physical resemblance; it also provided them with a perfect loyalty test.” Nor were the Manchus the first to impose these demands on the Chinese population. In his article on the queue, historian Michael Godley writes that in 1179, the Jurchen Jin dynasty — the Jurchens were ancestors of what became the Manchus — required “Tartar dress and hairstyles” as early as the 12th century. The Mongols who had conquered China in the 13th century wore their hair in a similar fashion, and the style became widespread and even popular.

Why, then, did the queue elicit such opposition in the 17th century?

Ming rulers had forbidden the queue partly to establish that they were a Chinese dynasty, in contrast to their Mongol predecessors. No one who wanted a career in government or a Confucian education could adopt “foreign” hairstyles. By the time of the Qing conquest, Chinese gentlemen wore their hair long, and long hair was also considered a mark of masculinity as well as cultural identity. Confucian — or more properly, Mencian — ideas about the body as a gift from one’s parents encouraged the preservation of every part of the body, including hair.

What the Manchus considered a familiar and convenient method for ensuring loyalty and integrating a population, many Chinese considered (in Wakeman’s description) “a humiliating act of degradation.”

Dorgon’s 1645 decree sparked a full-blown resistance movement. Peasants, who were used to being ruled from far away and had little in common with the upper classes, might have shrugged off the Manchu victory as yet another dynastic transition, but the queue made the conquest impossible to ignore. By imposing the hairstyle on all Chinese, regardless of social class, occupation, or geography, the Manchus may have achieved the opposite of their goal. Rather than unifying the empire, the queue helped unify Chinese opposition to it. Merchants, farmers, literati, and artisans found former distinctions washed away as soon as they were required to adopt the same hairstyle.

Not all complied, of course. One resister, quoted in Wakeman, was arrested in 1647 and told that his crimes would be forgiven if he would just accept the queue. He responded, “To cut off my head is a small matter; to shave my head is a great matter.” He was beheaded.

Eventually, both the Qing dynasty and the queue were established across China. The long braid became its essential feature, easily identified and, by the late 19th and 20th centuries, derided. Chinese nationalists began to see the queue as an emblem of Manchu oppression. In one famous example, a British observer ridiculed a Chinese high-jumper whose queue knocked the bar off its post at an international competition. “The queue,” reported the missionary journal Chinese Recorder, was just one example of the many useless appendages that China needed to remove if it was to modernize.

Ironically, what had been enforced and resisted as an emblem of Chinese subjugation to a foreign dynasty became seen around the world as an essential aspect of Chinese identity, one so vital to the interests of a Chinese man that the U.S. Supreme Court — at a time when anti-Chinese legislation was rampant — struck down a San Francisco law that required all prisoners to have their heads shaved to within an inch of their scalp. Just three years before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the court ruled that this so-called “Pigtail Ordinance” was discriminatory and that “the deprivation of the queue is regarded by them as a mark of disgrace, and is attended, according to their religious faith, with misfortune and suffering after death.”

It certainly was true that removal of the queue would place any Qing subject in jeopardy with their government, making returning to China difficult. Perhaps it demonstrates the success of the policy that the marker of Manchu authority was now so entrenched that it was seen as an essential part of being Chinese.

When the Revolution of 1911 overthrew the Qing, clipping of the queue was an easy way to demonstrate where one’s loyalty lay, but the chaos of the era could be seen in hairstyle choices as well. Fake queues were for sale to help men navigate the shifting political sands. The author Lǔ Xùn 魯迅 named his most famous character, a victim of hapless revolution, “Ah Q,” with the Roman letter representing both a verbal and visual pun on the Manchu’s hairstyle. The last Qing emperor finally removed his queue in 1922, 10 years after abdicating the throne, but the symbol lives on in popular conceptions of late imperial China.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.