Traditional Chinese Combs: Small Objects with Great Implications
Small Objects with Great Implications
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”.
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.
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
➲ 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.