In a previous blog (Dusty the Cowboy, and other clichés), I briefly looked at a series of Sea Island Sugar sacks from the 1930’s and the cliché clothing of the dolls portrayed on the sacks. The Scots wearing a kilt, the Dutch wearing clogs, etc. In this blog I want to have a look at one particular sack with the image of a Chinese boy.
The boy is wearing a cap, a cloud collar, a short jacket decorated around the sleeves and hem, dark trousers and soft shoes. It is clear that the artist who had drawn the image had some knowledge of Han Chinese dress. Another feature is the boy’s hair that is portrayed as a single long pigtail down his back.
The pigtail, more properly known as a queue (also written cue), was a feature of Chinese dress with many deep and at times violent associations. The wearing of a queue was specifically associated with the Manchu people from the northeast of China. In 1644 the Manchu Qing dynasty became the ruling house of the country, and all Chinese boys and men, including Han Chinese, were expected to shave the front and the top of their heads and wear the rest of their hair in a single, long queue. Not wearing this form of Manchu hairstyle was seen as a form of resistance and an insult to the Manchu rulers. Many men were executed for not wearing their hair in the official style.
In a reversal of events, during the 19th century there are various reports of (Western) people cutting off the queues of Chinese men in America and elsewhere as a bit of fun, without realising the political importance of the pigtail. It would appear that a Chinese man was not able to return to China without having the queue.
In 1912 the Qing dynasty fell and almost overnight the wearing of the Manchu queue was dropped, or more literally, the pigtails were cut off by the thousands.
All of this brings us back to an unusual item in the TRC Collection (TRC 2004.0089). As part of a gift of Asian textiles that the TRC was given in 2004, there was a queue complete with decorative black silk plait ending in three tassels. The full collection, including the queue, dates from the early part of the 20th century and was given to the TRC by the family of a Dutch official who had lived and worked in Indonesia and China from about 1900.
So why did this Dutchman preserve the queue – was it cut off as a bit of fun, was it sold as a tourist item, or was it cut off in 1912 as a revolutionary act against the defunct Qing dynasty and as a symbol of massive change and the ‘modernisation’ in China? We will probably never know. But by the 1930’s this simple length of plaited hair had become deeply embedded as a cliché image for a Chinese man’s outfit and suitable for a toy printed on a sugar sack, although it was some 25 years after the wearing of such a hairstyle had fallen out of general use.
Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Wednesday 6 May 2020.