Your hair or your uncle? There can only be one!

Updated: 2012-01-06 08:01

By Chloe Chen (陈洁) (China Daily)

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Your hair or your uncle? There can only be one!
A little boy has his hair cut outdoors to welcome the upcoming Chinese New Year. [Gao Jian / for China Daily]

With the approach of the Chinese New Year, many Chinese people have to make a choice: to cut their hair or lose their uncles (here, 舅舅 jiùjiu, your mother's brothers).

It's obvious uncles are much valuable than haircuts, especially during the Spring Festival, when uncles are quite useful for handing out lucky new year's money (压岁钱 yā suì qián). So no matter whether you are a boy or a girl, in order to save their uncles' lives, everyone would prefer to have their hair cut before the eve of the Spring Festival (除夕夜 chú xī yè). That's why barber shops are always so busy this time of the year.

How did this custom come about?

In the year 1645, one year after Qing troops conquered the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and ruled the Han people, the Qing government issued an order commanding all Han men to cut their hair into queues, bald in the front and braided in the back. It was a traditional hairstyle for Manchu people. In order to enforce this order, all the barber shops posted a large official notice, saying "Your Hair or Your Life (留头不留发,留发不留头 liú tóu bù liú fà, liú fà bù liú tóu)".

However, this order was not popular with the Han people. They invented a curse of sorts - if you cut your hair in the first lunar month of the new year, the uncles on your mother's side would die (正月剃头死舅舅 zhēngyuè tìtóu sǐ jiùjiu).

Manchu people didn't want their uncles to die either. The Qing government allowed people to refrain from cutting their hair during the first lunar month.

A few centuries later, this custom is still alive. Maybe some people just believe this saying because they're superstitious, but if you look at the history of the custom, you will realize it was born of serious historical conflict. We should feel lucky we were live in an era that doesn't connect hair style with nationality dignity.

I do not have uncles, so I can cut my hair at any time of the year. I prefer the quietest times, and because of this saying, the first month of the lunar new year is a time I can get my hair cut in peace.