Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Combs: Small Ob­jects with Great Im­pli­ca­tions

Small Ob­jects with Great Im­pli­ca­tions

China Scenic - - Contents - By Huang Jin­sui Pho­to­graphs by Dong Maiy­ing, and as cred­ited

The comb: this small, unas­sum­ing ob­ject has ex­isted in China for mil­len­nia, grad­u­ally evolv­ing from a sim­ple hair- straight­en­ing tool into an item en­trusted with new mean­ings and iden­ti­ties.

The comb: this small, unas­sum­ing ob­ject has ex­isted in China for mil­len­nia, grad­u­ally evolv­ing from a sim­ple hair-straight­en­ing tool into an item en­trusted with new mean­ings and iden­ti­ties, even­tu­ally be­com­ing an im­por­tant com­po­nent of China’s tra­di­tional cul­tural her­itage.

A His­tory of the Chi­nese Comb

The ear­li­est, most prim­i­tive combs were an­cient man’s own two hands. With­out the con­cept of hair­dress­ing, it was dif­fi­cult to avoid messy, tan­gled hair, and re­mov­ing knots by hand was te­dious work. The comb was cre­ated to meet these needs. Ex­ca­va­tion of Ne­olithic ru­ins found in places such as present-day Pix­ian County, Jiangsu Prov­ince and Yongchang County, Gansu Prov­ince, uni­ver­sally turns up an­cient five-pronged bone combs. It is likely that these ear­li­est combs were de­signed around the form of the hu­man hand, with its five fin­gers.

Of­ten in­cluded among these early combs is the “Biji” comb, a par­tic­u­lar sub­set of fine- toothed, some­times dou­ble-edged combs, which arose af­ter the ear­lier, more an­cient combs dis­cussed above. The ear­li­est such ob­jects re­cov­ered date to the late Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod ( 770– 476 BC), and are said to have been one of the in­ven­tions of a man named Chen Qizi. The teeth of the biji combs are much finer and more evenly-dis­trib­uted than those of ear­lier an­cient combs; the rudi­men­tary an­cient combs seem fully ca­pa­ble of sim­ply main­tain­ing and straight­en­ing hair; the finer de­sign of the newer biji combs seems to in­di­cate they placed an em­pha­sis on clean­ing hair and re­duc­ing itch­i­ness.

Although, of course, there is no de­fin­i­tive doc­u­men­ta­tion to con­firm the in­ven­tor of the combs, the busi­ness has its own leg­end, which it has passed on for a thou­sand years or more: re­port­edly, in Changzhou, Jiangsu dur­ing the era of the myth­i­cal Yel­low Em­peror (c. 2697–2597 BC), a skilled ar­ti­san named He Lian be­gan to pro­duce combs. Soon, He Lian was

drafted into the army of Chi You, the leg­endary tribe leader and cre­ator of met­al­work­ing and weaponry. Chi You’s army was de­feated by the Yel­low Em­peror in the Bat­tle of Zhuolu (an area lo­cated in present-day Zhangji­akou, He­bei Prov­ince), where­upon He Lian was taken pris­oner. While in prison, He Lian con­tin­ued to pro­duce combs, un­til he was mis­tak­enly con­victed the crime of in­vent­ing a “mon­strous ob­ject” (the comb) and thus con­demned to ex­e­cu­tion.

How­ever, He Lian had be­friended a prison guard, Huang Fu, who knew of He’s in­no­cence. Huang helped him pro­duce a wooden comb to present as a gift to Queen Lei Zu (a concubine of the Yel­low Em­peror). Upon try­ing it, Lei Zu fell in love with the comb, and de­cided to pe­ti­tion for le­niency on be­half of He Lian. When Huang Fu re­turned to the prison de­liver the good news, how­ever, he dis­cov­ered that He Lian had al­ready been be­headed in his ab­sence. Huang Fu thus passed his knowl­edge of the comb’s pro­duc­tion tech­nique on to the world. Both men are hon­ored by later gen­er­a­tions as fa­thers of the comb in­dus­try.

Coin­ci­dently, the biji comb has an ori­gin that is also re­lated to prison: dur­ing the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod, a man named Chen Qizi was im­pris­oned at a prison in Yan­ling County (present-day Changzhou, Jiangsu); the dark and dank en­vi­ron­ment of the prison caused Chen to suf­fer from lice. One night, Chen was sleep­ing while the jailer was mak­ing his rounds. So the ir­ri­tated jailer whacked Chen’s head with a bam­boo pole, which splin­tered apart — scat­ter­ing strips of bam­boo across the floor.

Once the jailer had gone, Chen Qizi had a bright idea, and used the linen threads of his cloth­ing to weave the strips of bam­boo to­gether into a comb, which he used to clear the dust and lice from his hair. Upon hear­ing of this new in­no­va­tion, Prince Ji Zha, fourth son of King Shoumeng of the State of Wu, re­leased Chen Qizi from prison and or­dered him to open a bam­boo comb work­shop — and thus the biji comb was born.

Combs as a Fash­ion Trend

Aside from their prac­ti­cal uses, combs also came to as­sume all man­ner of spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance.

A great many jade combs were re­cov­ered dur­ing ex­ca­va­tions of Liangzhu Cul­ture (3400–2250 BC) ru­ins, which were al­most uni­ver­sally placed on or around the oc­cu­pant’s heads, and were com­prised of in­tri­cate pat­terns and del­i­cate carv­ing. Carv­ings in the ru­ins of­ten de­pict a de­ity, wear­ing an in­verted-trape­zoidal, be­jew­eled crown that it­self re­sem­bles a comb. From this, we can spec­u­late that the crowns de­picted re­flect a cus­tom of the era: mem­bers of the no­bil­ity would in­sert jade combs into their hair buns to rep­re­sent their own ma­jes­tic sta­tus.

For the no­bil­ity, these combs were a form of crown: their sig­nif­i­cance as sta­tus sym­bols far out­weighed their im­por­tance as mere dec­o­ra­tions. Later, dur­ing the Qin and Han dy­nas­ties (221 BC–206 AD), women would make use of fine-toothed combs, but seemed to have rarely stuck the combs up­right into their hair, as they once did in the past. The sta­tus of these combs as fash­ion ac­ces­sories seems to have be­gun dur­ing the Wei and Jin dy­nas­ties (220–420 AD). By the ad­vent of the Tang Dy­nasty (618–907 AD), these up­right combs were all the rage. As the combs grew con­tin­u­ously smaller and more del­i­cate, the style they rep­re­sented con­tin­ued to flour­ish.

By the mid-tang Dy­nasty, a more “over­sized” hair­style be­gan to ap­pear, fea­tur­ing two of the combs jut­ting out of the wearer’s hair bun in op­po­site di­rec­tions. With the rapid spread of up­right combs as a fash­ion style, fine-toothed combs be­gan to lose more and more of their prac­ti­cal use, evolv­ing into al­most

purely dec­o­ra­tive ac­ces­sories; of­ten made of light and thin gold, sil­ver, or cop­per, and carved with or­nate pat­terns, fine-toothed combs were spe­cially made for dec­o­rat­ing, press­ing, or fix­ing hair buns — and had no prac­ti­cal use­ful­ness for ac­tu­ally comb­ing one’s hair. The lav­ish­ness of the up­right combs’ de­signs, mean­while, con­tin­ued to in­crease with­out end. Built dur­ing the late Tang Dy­nasty, the Mo­gao Caves of Dun­huang, Gansu Prov­ince, con­tain a par­tic­u­larly im­pos­ing mu­ral de­pict­ing a woman whose grace and poise is ac­cen­tu­ated by a pair of prom­i­nent gold combs up­right jut­ting from her hair, and strings of jade and pearl dec­o­rated on her head.

In pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing, the cloth­ing and dec­o­ra­tive styles of the Song Dy­nasty (960–1279) are of­ten re­garded as hav­ing been more aus­tere than those of the Tang Dy­nas­tic pre­ced­ing it. Hairstyles, how­ever, seem to be the ex­cep­tion to this rule. Though the Song Dy­nasty lacked the volup­tuous hairstyles of the pre­vi­ous era, and or­nate up­right combs were seen less of­ten, the combs them­selves be­gan to grow larger and larger in size, and more ex­ag­ger­ated in shape and pat­tern.

Of these, the most eye-catch­ing by far was the “crown comb”. Be­gin­ning dur­ing the mid–north­ern

Song Dy­nasty (960–1127) and con­tin­u­ing through the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (1127–1279), women grew es­pe­cially par­tial to­wards tall crowns, big hair buns, and big combs — the taller the hair bun, the bet­ter. Of­ten, women would even go so far as to in­stall false hair atop their nat­u­ral buns, in­creas­ing their height fur­ther still. The afore­men­tioned dec­o­ra­tive crowns were of­ten made of gold, sil­ver, pearl, and jade; the large corol­las of these crowns tow­ered as high as three chi (a Chi­nese unit; three chi ap­prox­i­mately equals to one me­ter), and were shoul­der-width, of­ten droop­ing down to reach the wearer’s shoul­ders. A one- chi -long comb, adorned with silk flow­ers of all sea­sons, was ad­di­tion­ally em­bed­ded into these crowns. These fash­ion con­struc­tions were known as “yearly scener­ies”.

Women of the cap­i­tal city who ob­sessed over their luxurious crown combs even­tu­ally drew the at­ten­tion of the impe­rial court. In the year 1049, the Song Em­peror Ren­zong (reigned from 1022 to 1063) specif­i­cally is­sued a de­cree re­strict­ing the size of both crown combs and combs gen­er­ally, and ban­ning the pro­duc­tion of the ex­pen­sive white ox­horn crown combs. Fash­ion, how­ever, could not be con­trolled — even by impe­rial edict. Fol­low­ing Ren­zong’s death, the ex­trav­a­gance of the crown combs reached truly im­mense lev­els, with combs be­ing man­u­fac­tured from ma­te­ri­als in­clud­ing ivory and tor­toise shell. Although tow­er­ing crown combs had grown rarer, by the on­set of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty, women con­tin­ued to place greet es­teem in the beauty rep­re­sented by their hairstyles.

Hair Bind­ing and Mat­ri­mony

In an­cient China, giv­ing a comb as a gift be­tween a young man and a young woman was seen as a sign of life­long com­mit­ment — as was hair bind­ing. To­day, south­west China’s Miao, Wa, and Zhuang eth­nic­i­ties con­tinue the tra­di­tion of giv­ing combs as gifts sig­ni­fy­ing ro­man­tic com­mit­ment. The Wa peo­ple have an es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing ro­man­tic cus­tom whereby groups of three to five young suit­ors will visit a girl’s house, and take turns ser­e­nad­ing her, in an at­tempt to im­press — much like song­birds com­pet­ing to find a mate. If the girl se­lects a suit­able match from among

her courtiers, she brings out a stool and a comb, and pro­ceeds to comb each lad’s hair. If the girl re­ally likes one, she will drag the comb­ing process out as long as pos­si­ble, her hands al­ways mov­ing gen­tly. If the two are truly in­ter­ested in one an­other, they may com­mit to a se­ri­ous ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. Is it any won­der that the comb is per­ceived as hav­ing mag­i­cal prop­er­ties? If combs can find true love, then what can’t they do?

The del­i­cate na­ture of combs can be as­cribed en­tirely to their func­tion, namely groom­ing a head of fine hair. The an­cients be­lieved that one’s hair was al­most sa­cred, and should not be dam­aged. Hav­ing one’s hair plucked was seen as an act of ex­treme dis­honor, worse even than be­ing whipped. It’s easy to see the im­mense sig­nif­i­cance and solem­nity that was at­tached to hair, and the var­i­ous ways it could be ar­ranged.

A for­mal and tra­di­tional Chi­nese wed­ding cer­e­mony al­ways in­cludes a comb. As recorded in the Clas­si­cofrites : upon be­trothal to an­other house­hold, an­cient girls would bind their hair with a silk rope. On the day of mar­riage, the groom would break the rope him­self. This tra­di­tion grad­u­ally evolved into an­other wed­ding cer­e­mony, wherein the bride and groom would each take a lock of hair and in­ter­weave them to­gether us­ing a silk rope — a silent oath be­tween Heaven and Earth. The true sig­nif­i­cance of the vows rep­re­sented by the hair bind­ing rite is known only to those who have par­taken in it.

The Story of the Comb In­dus­try

Surely the credit for the rise of Changzhou’s fa­mous comb in­dus­try must be given to the Grand Canal, built by the Em­peror Yang of the Sui Dy­nasty (581–618 AD). The Grand Canal, link­ing Bei­jing and Hangzhou, hap­pened to pass by Changzhou, caus­ing the city to de­velop into a trans­porta­tion hub. As mer­chants crowded the banks of the canal to sell goods to pass­ing boats, a hand­i­craft in­dus­try be­gan to flour­ish. By the time of the Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644), the area around Huashi Street (out­side Changzhou’s west gate) and Mushu Street (out­side Changzhou’s south gate) had be­come known far and wide as a cen­ter of comb pro­duc­tion.

Ben­e­fit­ing from fa­vor­able trans­porta­tion con­di­tions, Changzhou’s combs eas­ily reached the cap­i­tal.

Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911), rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Suzhou Weav­ing In­sti­tu­tion (a bureau in charge of the sup­ply and trans­porta­tion of impe­rial trib­u­tary tex­tile) would travel to Changzhou ev­ery year to meet with comb pro­duc­ers, to or­der dozens of combs made of valu­able ma­te­ri­als such as ivory, gold, and fine woods, all to present as gifts to the em­peror; Changzhou combs thus gained a rep­u­ta­tion as “royal combs”. The Em­press Dowa­ger (Cixi) owned a Changzhou-made ivory comb, which is to­day dis­played in Bei­jing’s Palace Mu­seum — fur­ther demon­strat­ing the high sta­tus once held by Changzhou combs.

As the comb pro­duc­tion in­dus­try con­tin­ued to thrive, the comb dye­ing and re­pair in­dus­try also pros­pered. Women of the Tang and Song dy­nas­ties en­joyed ivory combs, and it was con­sid­ered fash­ion­able for the ivory to be dyed red or green, and be carved with in­tri­cate pat­terns. Ac­cord­ing to records, many crafts­men made a liv­ing walk­ing the streets and al­leys of Lin’an City ( present-day Hangzhou) dur­ing the South­ern Song-era, prof­fer­ing their skills mend­ing combs.

At the same time, with the ad­vent of such del­i­cate combs, it was only nat­u­ral that a pair of skilled hands would be re­quired to use them. Girls from wealthy houses would of­ten have their ever-present hand­maid­ens as­sist them with dress­ing and groom­ing. Even­tu­ally, hair groom­ing be­came a spe­cial­ized pro­fes­sion. Girls from more or­di­nary back­grounds would of­ten ask an­other woman to as­sist them with their hair on their wed­ding day — a role which would even­tu­ally evolve into to­day’s hair stylists.

As waves of Can­tonese mi­grants jour­neyed north to make a liv­ing dur­ing the late Qing and early Re-

pub­lic of China Era, many ended up in Shang­hai. Shang­hai na­tives re­ferred to some newly- ar­rived Can­tonese women as “hair comb aun­ties”. These women worked as hair stylists along Shang­hai’s glit­ter­ing Bund, meet­ing the high ex­pec­ta­tions of their cos­mopoli­tan Shang­hai cus­tomers. Be­fore styling the hair, the aun­ties would first go through it with wooden and fine-toothed biji combs to re­move filth and mas­sage the scalp, a process that could some­times take as long as an hour. The var­i­ous meth­ods of ty­ing the hair up into braids or buns was never dull, as each cus­tomer had her own spe­cific style re­quire­ments. Fi­nally, an old-fash­ioned ver­sion of “mousse” (con­sist­ing of sap ex­tracted from elm wood shav­ings) was ap­plied to help hold the hair ar­range­ments in place, which were then cov­ered by hair­nets, upon which all man­ner of dec­o­ra­tions were worn.

To­day, the biji fine-toothed combs have al­ready be­come rarely-seen an­tiques. The in­va­sion of myr­iad va­ri­eties of mass mar­ket combs has com­pletely sup­planted the mar­ket space once held by tra­di­tional wooden combs. But, as women gaze into mir­rors and style their hair to­day, they may imag­ine a time of or­nately-carved wooden win­dows, fine muslin fans, and the scenery of clas­si­cal-era south­ern China. One can as­sume that, no mat­ter how times may change, the im­plicit cul­tural knowl­edge of mil­len­nia will en­sure that the des­tiny of hair and comb will for­ever re­main “in­ter­twined”.

Photo/ Chen Runxi

A comb­ing lady, whose oc­cu­pa­tion was hair­dress­ing, fa­cial care and mak­ing up for brides and rich ladies in an­cient China, is re­mov­ing the hair on a bride’s cheek with a thread, mak­ing the skin look brighter and smoother, a typ­i­cal rou­tine be­fore wed­ding cer­e­mony.

Photo/ Zheng Xum­ing

The falou (hair bas­ket), an un­fa­mil­iar hair ac­ces­sory even for mod­ern Chi­nese, was used in an­cient times to neaten women’s stray hair, en­sur­ing a groomed and tidy hair­style. It is also an im­por­tant item in a bride’s dowry.

Dec­o­ra­tive knob Comb back

Comb tooth

➲ The jade comb on the left was un­earthed in the tomb of Fu Hao, the fa­mous queen and a mil­i­tary gen­eral of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dy­nasty (c. 1600–1046 BC). The wood lac­quered

biji comb is cur­rently housed in Xin­jiang Uygur Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion Mu­seum. The tomb back is dec­o­rated with ge­ometrized float­ing cloud pat­terns, which were painted with red, yel­low and green lac­quer on a black back­ground.

This is a Tang Dy­nasty copy of the fa­mous art­work of Jin Dy­nasty’s Gu Kaizhi

Ad­mo­ni­tion­soft­he­courtin­struc­tress , which de­picts a scene of the dress­ing and mak­ing up of a royal lady.

This South­ern Song Dy­nasty jade comb was dis­cov­ered in an an­cient tomb in Jiangn­ing Town, Nan­jing. This half-moon­shaped comb with del­i­cate and in­tri­cate open­work carv­ings on its back is now kept in the Nan­jing Mu­seum.

Dur­ing the Tang and Song eras, it was pop­u­lar among women to wear combs as hair dec­o­ra­tions. In this paint­ing, a sec­tion of a copy of Tang painter Zhou Fang’s work Paintin­gof­tun­ingth­e­lute and­drink­ingtea , a royal fe­male pins a comb in her hair. Photo/ Gao Chun­ming

The Ming Dy­nasty gem-in­laid goldld back wood comb was un­earthed in Daqian­gaqiang­men Town, Wuxi, Jiangsu (top) andnd the jade-in­laid gold back wood combb was un­earthed in Anzhen Town, Wuxi,i, Jiang-jiangsu (bot­tom). These are both dis­played­layed in the Nan­jing Mu­seum.

This Can­tonese folk cop­per­plate etch­ing was pub­lished in the French pic­to­rial L’univers il­lus­tre in 1858. It de­picts the scene of a woman help­ing an­other comb her hair. Photo/ FOTOE

This Tang Dy­nasty wood comb is cur­rently in the col­lec­tion of the Xin­jiang Uygur Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion Mu­seum. Photo/ Ai Ke

This is a bro­cade comb-and-mir­ror pouch un­earthed in the Shan­pula Ceme­tery in Lop County, Xin­jiang. It was used to store combs and a mir­ror. These pouches first ap­peared dur­ing the Han Dy­nasty. There are two types: dou­ble-bagged and sin­gle-bagged. Photo/ Ai Ke

Tra­di­tional Chi­nese combs were made of a plethora of ma­te­ri­als. Combs made of gold, sil­ver, bronze, jade, ivory, bone and wood have been ex­ca­vated in var­i­ous ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites. This Qing Dy­nasty flower-and-bird pat­terned hawks­bill shell comb is housed in the Na­tional Mu­seum of Scot­land.

In 1983, this gold comb was dis­cov­ered in a Tang Dy­nasty de­pos­i­tory in Yangzhou, Jiangsu. This thin and del­i­cate comb was not crafted to brush one’s hair but used as a hair ac­ces­sory to tidy fly­away hairs.

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