The Queue Hairstyle

Chinese men with queue hairstyles enjoy a meal
via Wikimedia

For several hundred years, between the 1600s and the early 20th century, men in China wore their hair in what is called a queue. In this hairstyle, the front and sides are shaved, and the rest of the hair is gathered up and plaited into a long braid that hangs down the back. In the western world, the image of men with queues is practically synonymous with the idea of imperial China - so it may surprise you to learn that this hairstyle did not actually originate in China.

Where the Queue Come From

The queue was originally a Jurchen or Manchu hairstyle, from what is now the northeastern section of China. In 1644, an ethnically-Manchu army defeated the Han Chinese Ming and conquered China. This came after the Manchus were hired to fight for the Ming in widespread civil unrest during that period. The Manchus seized Beijing and established a new ruling family on the throne, calling themselves the Qing Dynasty. This would turn out to be China's final imperial dynasty, lasting until 1911 or 1912. 

The first Manchu emperor of China, whose original name was Fulin and whose throne name was Shunzi, ordered all Han Chinese men to adopt the queue as a sign of submission to the new regime. The only exceptions allowed to the Tonsure Order were for Buddhist monks, who shaved their entire heads, and Taoist priests, who did not have to shave.

Chunzi's queue order sparked wide-spread resistance across China. Han Chinese cited both the Ming Dynasty's System of Rites and Music and the teachings of Confucius, who wrote that people inherited their hair from their ancestors and ought not to damage (cut) it. Traditionally, adult Han men and women let their hair grow indefinitely and then bound it up in different styles.

The Manchus cut short much of the discussion on queue-shaving by instituting a "Lose your hair or lose your head" policy; refusal to shave one's hair into a queue was treason against the emperor, punishable by death. To maintain their queues, men had to shave the remainder of their heads approximately every ten days.

Did women have queues?

It is interesting that the Manchus did not issue any equivalent rules about women's hairstyles. They also did not interfere with the Han Chinese custom of foot-binding, although Manchu women never adopted the crippling practice themselves, either.

The Queue in America

Most Han Chinese men acquiesced to the queue rule, rather than risking decapitation. Even Chinese working overseas, in places like the American west, maintained their queues - after all, they planned to return home once they had made their fortunes in the gold mines or on the railroad, so they needed to keep their hair long. Western people's stereotypes of Chinese always included this hairstyle, although few Americans or Europeans likely realized that the men wore their hair that way out of necessity, not by choice.

In China, the issue never entirely went away, although most men found it prudent to follow the rule. In the early 20th century anti-Qing rebels (including a young Mao Zedong) cut off their queues in a potent act of defiance. The final death-knell of the queue came in 1922, when the former Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Puyi, cut off his own queue.

  • Pronunciation: "kyew"
  • Also Known As: pigtail, braid, plait
  • Alternate Spellings: cue
  • Examples: "Some sources say that the queue symbolized that Han Chinese were a form of livestock for the Manchu, like horses. However, this hairstyle was originally a Manchu fashion, so that explanation seems unlikely."
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Queue Hairstyle." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). The Queue Hairstyle. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Queue Hairstyle." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).