Looking back at past perceptions of Chinese people one of the most recognizable features was that of a person in a pigtail. This image can be seen in many movies, television shows and cartoons throughout the twentieth century. I don’t know how many times I saw a cartoon character manage to dig through the center of the earth to find themselves in China confronted by a man in a straw hat with a goatee and pigtail. It was an image that many generations grew up recognizing. But the remarkable thing is that in 1911 pigtails were banned in China. So why would China ban something so simple as a haircut? The last time I checked they weren’t North Korea.
China’s ban on pigtails was not a fashion ban, but more of a political statement. Up until 1911 China was ruled by the imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty. It was an absolute monarchy and all that changed in 1911 with the Hsin-hai Revolution, also known as the Chinese Revolution. And as is generally the nature of revolutions, changes in customs once related to the old regime soon become an outcast from the new society.
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During the Qing Dynasty, the pigtail was a sign of submission to the dynasty. In fact, all Han Chinese were generally obliged to wear one. Following the overthrow of the emperor, China banned pigtails because of this exact reason. But China hasn’t been the only country to ban pigtails. It also happened in San Francisco in 1873.
In 1873 San Francisco introduced a local ordinance banning pigtails for prisoners. This was during a surge of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco at the time. Unfortunately, the target of the ordinance were the Chinese.
I know that this appears to be racist, but they actually seemed to have the welfare of the Chinese at heart. A large number of Chinese immigrants were completely impoverished, and as a consequence lived in overcrowded and dilapidated boarding houses. This was a violation of the Sanitary Ordinance. Instead of following the ordinance, the Chinese immigrants opted to go to prison instead for the free accommodation and food. The officials identified a growing prolem and banned the pigtail for prisoners in response, hoping that it would discourage them from going to prison.