Cataloguing Chinese hairstyles

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Chinese porcelain saucer dish decorated with a female figure sitting on a bench with a child offering her a lotus flower, Kangxi period (1662-1722), at Polesden Lacey, NT 1245638.1. ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

As part of my research into Chinese wallpaper I have been noticing the elegant hairstyles of many of the female figures. I have been trying to work out whether certain hairstyles can be associated with certain periods, which in turn might help with dating wallpapers that we don’t have much documentation for.

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Female and male figure in a Chinese woodblock print used as wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, NT 872998. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

I have facetiously dubbed one of the hairstyles ‘the triple gourd’, as the hair is piled up and tied in such a way that it forms three globular shapes, ending in a loop.

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Chinese porcelain serving dish, part of a 25-piece dinner service, depicting two female figures in a garden, c. 1695-1710, at Shugborough, NT 1270511.2.2. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Another hairstyle could be called ‘the kidney bean’, as the hair rises up from the back of the head in one slightly curved vertical shape.

Both of these styles can be seen in mid-eighteenth-century wallpapers, but on porcelain they seem to appear earlier, perhaps from the late seventeenth century onwards.

Newly conserved wallpaper in the private quarters at Saltram, Devon

Chinese painting on paper depicting female figures in a garden, used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram, mid eighteenth century, NT 873000. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Some Kangxi-period (1662-1722) porcelain depicts female figures with more voluminous, globular hairstyles, which one might call ‘the persimmon’.

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Chinese porcelain plate decorated with a lady seated at a table, her head resting in her hand, c. 1690-1720, collection of Captain George Francis Warre, given to the National Trust by Mrs. George Warre, 1961, at Dudmaston, NT 813530. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

And in addition to those there appear to be other hairstyles, fabric haircoverings and a variety of hair ornaments as well as flowers or flower-shaped jewellery.

The Chinese Bedroom with wallpaper depicting scenes from daily life, at Saltram, Devon

Chinese woodblock prints of female figures pasted onto a partition in the Chinese dressing room at Saltram, NT 872998. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Some of these styles may have been regional, while others may have been associated with particular classes or roles, but much of this remains unclear. Regardless of whether the descriptive names suggested above catch on, I think the time has come for a proper taxonomy of Chinese historical hairstyles.

8 Responses to “Cataloguing Chinese hairstyles”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Can’t help thinking there must be some scholarship somewhere on historic hairstyles in China… How about this for starters – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9Z6vCGbf66YC&pg=PA79 – where p.81 refers to various sorts of bun…

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you very much, Andrew, that is fascinating. I don’t know of any scholarship on hairstyles (‘historical follicography’?) within the realm of Chinese art history, but as you say you would have thought that someone somewhere has written about it.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Well, historic hairstyles in Europe have been studied, no? Think of the ladies at the court of Louis XIV. It would be odd if no one had ever looked a similar questions in other cultures.

    From the snippets, this book also looks relevant:
    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=wPcnAQAAMAAJ&q=%22happy+travelling+bun%22+hair

    It mentions various named styles as the “half-turned bun”, “reverse bun”, “happy-travelling bun”, “worried bun”, “lily bun,” “obedient bun”, “lingering bun … and we can add to the ones from yesterday, “gazing-gods bun”, “cloud bun”, “double handing-down bun”, “flower bun”…

    There must be some scholarship on this issue in China, at least. This source mentions the “spiral shell bun” and suggests there is much more that could be said:
    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=wKYpAQAAIAAJ&q=half-turned+bun+hair

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Absolutely, I just hadn’t spotted any Chinese works mentioning hairstyles, but you have clearly identified some, which is great. I love those poetic descriptive terms, like ‘worried bun’ (a euphemism for ‘bad hair day’?), ‘obedient bun’ (with not a hair out place, presumably) and ‘lingering bun’ (sounds rather sensuous). And it confirms that this is an avenue of research worth exploring.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Oh, doubtless. The terms are great – it would be good to understand what they mean! I was hoping some Chinese scholars – or at least scholars of China – might chip in!

    I am sure there are nuances and layers of meaning that most observers miss, much like people today viewing an allegorical painting without much understanding of the allegory. Or missing allusion to Bible stories, or Milton, or other aspects of the shared culture from years past that are not so much part of mainstream common knowledge in the 21st century.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I will make enquiries among some Chinese scholars I am in contact with.

    And yes with a lot of this Chinese material in European country houses it is only now or recently that we are beginning to rediscover their original significance and iconography. My recent post about the representations of love and desire in Chinese pictures – more or less invisible when seen through a traditional western lens – is one example.

    Another example is the use of images from The Romance of the West Chamber on Chinese porcelain, which I similarly wrote about a while ago, and which were traditionally simply viewed by westerners as quaintly elegant people in interiors and gardens.

    So although I am fascinated by ‘chinoiserie’ I am also very pleased when we manage to overcome the traditional miscomprehensions by which Chinese objects were treated as ‘chinoiserie’.

  7. William R. Sargent Says:

    Emile ~ PEM has a small book of Chinese export gouache paintings of hairstyles. Check with Karina Corrigan. I think is has been photographed.
    Bill Sargent

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much, Bill, that sounds very interesting. I will ask her.

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