Hair do’s and dont’s have been a tricky subject in Chinese culture ever since the Manchu conquest in 1644. It has been observed by many writers and scholars that the transition from late imperial to modernity was, for many Chinese who lived at the turn of the twentieth century, marked, among other things, by radical changes in hairstyle. For men it meant getting rid of the queue, often under threat of death, while for women it often meant choosing to adopt it, as a marker of a student lifestyle. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, while men adopted Western-style short crops, women chose the Hollywood-inspired bob. All this variety changed, of course, with the Communist revolution, and for many years, until at least the late 1980s, coloured ribbons tied to the end of pigtails was the biggest concession to female hair fashion. But with the economic changes of the late 1980s more women and men started to perm their hair, at least in the big cities. By the early 1990s, new hairstyles started to appear in the streets of Shanghai and Beijing, the most striking of which was the long unruly manes of rock-stars and artists. And for the past four years, the most striking hairdos are the bleached heads of Japanese inspiration that transform many Chinese urban youths in transnational visions of peroxide.
Clearly, China’s huge population provides great potential for the beauty business. As the standard of living improves following market reforms, Chinese people are increasingly willing to pay high prices to have their hair done. Imported beauty products are more popular, since people are prepared to pay for quality and the profit margin is correspondingly higher. Decleor, a French cosmetics and skin care products enterprise, first ventured into the China market in 1996. Now, it has just opened its third beauty salon in Beijing at the China World Trade Centre. According to Decleor, although there are countless hair and beauty salons in Chinese cities, the market holds bright prospects because large professional operations are still few.
According to the Chinese Association of Hair-stylists and Beauticians, beauty and hairdressing has been the fastest growing service sector in the mainland in recent years, with turnover leaping to 25 per cent per annum. As people are paying more attention to their overall appearance, the services offered by hair salons have extended from simple haircuts and shampooing to include treatment, styling, scalp treatment and hair planting. In addition, hair salons are also offering services in makeup, manicure, fitness training and body shaping.
These days there are over 1.2 million beauty and hairstyling operations in China, employing more than 6 million people and grossing Rmb24 billion a year.
Recently, Shanghai’s avant-garde artists have also turned to hairy matters. Generation X Neo-Conceptualist Shi Yong (b. 1963) created ‘image advertising’ that comprised a series of fake ad campaigns soliciting the public to vote on Shi’s hairstyle. New York-based artist Gu Wenda (b. 1955) is known as the ‘hair artist’, partially because of his hairstyle (a shaved crown flowing into a black mane well past his waist). But more to the point, he is best known for his ongoing succession of installations realized in different parts of the world and constructed of hair from around the world.
Godley, Michael (1994). ‘The End of the Queue: Hair as Symbol in Chinese History’. East Asian History 8 (Dec): 88–94.
Hiltebeitel, Alf and Miller, Barbara D. (eds) (1998). Hair. Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Kuhn, Philip A. (1990). Soulstealers. The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Sun, Lung-kee (1997). ‘The Politics of Hair and the Issue of the Bob in Modern China’. Fashion Theory 1.4: 353–65.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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