Medieval hairstyles: From bianfa to top-knots in Northeast Asia

By Jack Wilson

In the 20th and 21st centuries, an individual’s hairstyle can bear distinct meanings. Closely cropped and beardless often brings to mind the military, business or politics, where it suggests professionalism. Hippies of 1960s America grew out their hair and beards and appeared, to their detractors, ragged and unkempt. Beards often suggest manliness, and for many Sikhs and Muslims, their facial hair holds great religious weight. Hair, or the lack of it, can hold too political connotations—see for instance, the associations of ‘skinheads’ in North America as a trait of Neo-Nazis. The treatment of hair as a part of identity, bearing ethnic, political and religious markers, is a constant throughout human history. Here, we will look at one specific period and region— North-Eastern Asia from 1100-1300—and see a number of hairstyles and the political dynasties associated with them.

This period saw today’s China and Mongolia go through a distinct power struggle. In the decades after the fall of China’s great Tang Dynasty in 907, much of North China remained, until the 1370s, under the rule of the ‘Conquest Dynasties.’ These were states founded by non-Chinese peoples who adopted the trappings of Chinese dynasties. These were the Liao Dynasty 大遼 (916-1125), established by the Khitans, a semi-nomadic people speaking a language related to Mongolian; they were succeeded by the Jin Dynasty 大金 (1115-1234), ruled by the Jurchen, ancestors of the Manchu and hailing from Manchuria; and finally, the Mongols themselves, who under Khubilai, a grandson of Chinggis Khan, established the Yuan Dynasty 大元 (1271-1368).


At the same time, today’s northwestern China in the Gansu corridor was controlled by the Xi Xia Dynasty 西夏(c.1038-1227), ruled by the Tangut, a people of Tibetan heritage in a diverse kingdom of Turkic nomads, Han Chinese and Uighurs. Only to the south was there a Chinese-ruled dynasty – the Song Dynasty 宋 (960-1279). The long co-existence of such powerful states resulted in numerous surviving textual and archaeological depictions of these peoples and their hair, as well as the interaction between different ruling ethnicities and their subject populations. The conquests of the Khitans, Jurchen or Mongols did not replace the existing Chinese population or even the preceding conquering people; hair became one means by which each of these states sought to assert, protect or enforce their identities in such a milieu. This article will focus on male hairstyles, which were the most dramatically distinctive, and policed, over this period.

It will be useful to first discuss the Han Chinese, the sedentary agricultural population which made up the majority of the Liao, Jin, Song and Yuan empires’ populations, bureaucracies and, in the case of the Song, the ruling class. For millennia, the quintessential Chinese hair was the top knot (顶髻). The soldiers of the Terracotta army in the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (d.210 BCE), all bear top knots. In Confucian and Daoist beliefs, it was of utmost importance to retain every part of the body, including the hair. The body was a gift from the parents; cutting the hair was damaging their gift, and therefore an act of grave disrespect. As filial piety was a key component of Confucian thought, this was no small matter; shaving top knots, for instance, was a punishment reserved for criminals. So, once reaching adulthood, the hair was not cut at all but instead tied tightly into a bun. The knot’s style, size, and exact placement varied over the dynasties, but remained a consistent feature until the Manchu conquests in the seventeenth century.

Han Chinese man with top knot – illustration by Jack Wilson

From the lowliest members of society to the Emperor himself, men wore their hair in top knots. The popular image in modern Chinese and Korean dramas where the hair is worn in a bun, but flowing loosely below it, is a modern invention. The style of headgear and accessories worn with it also varied greatly. Most common over this period (twelfth-thirteen centuries) was a putou 幞头, which could be a simple wrapping, to ornate and rigid ministerial hats such as the zhanjiao putou 展角幞头, with its distinctive ears.

Depiction of Emperor Lizong of Song (r.1224-1264), wearing a zhanjiao putou. The height of the hat allowed it to sit nicely over top of the knot. Illustration by Jack Wilson

The most obvious exceptions to these rules were Buddhist monks, who shaved their heads entirely. But the general association in medieval Chinese literature was that a person properly incorporated into Chinese culture (sinicized) wore their hair in top knots. Any other style was associated with one thing: barbarians. They were generally stereotyped as wearing braids, loose flowing hair or partially shaved heads.

The first such ‘barbarians’ we will look at are the Khitans, founders of the Liao Dynasty. Just as the top knot marked one as a part of Chinese culture, across most of Asia hairstyles also acted as cultural and political markers. Peoples of a given ethnic group (or subject to them) had to shave or grow their hair in a certain way, almost as a sort of medieval uniform. Wearing your hair in the style of the Khitan, for instance, could make you a Khitan, or as bearing allegiance to them. Such partially shaved hairstyles as we are about to see, were common across the Eurasian steppe going back to the Xiongnu, though information on the hair of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples before the Khitans tends to be spotty or known only from vague textual descriptions. For the Khitans we have a considerable body of information on their hair and appearance, in both written sources and visual. The two centuries of Khitan rule in North China left not only many Liao and Song Dynasty artwork depicting them but numerous Khitan tombs with paintings of Khitan life and culture.

The Khitans shaved the top of the heads, except for a strip along the temples and above the ears; sometimes it continued along the forehead or back of the head. At the temples it was left to grow long. Most depictions have it fall in front of the ears, or more rarely pushed behind them. This was called kunfa 髡髮 in the Chinese sources.

Khitans with kunfa hairstyle, based on variations shown in twelfth and thirteenth century depictions. Illustration by Jack Wilson

The Khitan hair bears great similarity to that of their imperial successors, the Jurchen, founders of the Jin Dynasty. There are considerably fewer visual depictions of Jurchen hair; those surviving artworks are reliably dated and located to the Jin Empire, and many Song depictions have the heads of the Jurchen covered by hats or helmets. Regardless, aided by written descriptions it seems the Jurchen style was to shave the front and top of the head, growing the hair in two pigtails behind the ears or on the back of the head. Called bianfa 辮髮, these could be braided, tied together with silk threads and forming quite a long set of tails. A tile carving from a Jin-era tomb in Shanxi sees the (likely) Jurchen horseman’s braids falling all the way to his belt. It seems that over time, these braids were increasingly tied together into one long cord. By the seventeenth century, this developed in the well-known queue of the Jurchens’ descendants, the Manchu, called bianzi 辫子.

Jurchen bianfa hair styles of the twelfth and thirteenth century. Surviving depictions are very uncommon. The multiple tresses of the first figure appear to have evolved into the famous queue of the Manchu, a single long braid from the back of the head. The Manchu Qing Dynasty successfully forced its Chinese subject to shave their heads into queues. Illustration by Jack Wilson

While the Khitans maintained separate administrations between their Chinese subjects and the Khitans, the Jurchen rulers in the early Jin Dynasty sought to enforce Jurchen hair and dress upon the Chinese population. During the reign of the third emperor, Xizong of Jin (r.1135-1149), orders were given from the top levels of government for the Chinese, in lands recently taken from the Song Dynasty, to forbid them from wearing Han clothing or hair on pain of death. While it is impossible to know how thoroughly such orders were carried out, we know that Song embassies to the Jin capital in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century lamented how the northern Chinese now dressed and wore their hair in the manner of ‘barbarians,’ or continued to play music in Jurchen style at ballets, much to the chagrin of an embassy in 1212.

The Jurchens’ ancestors, the Manchu of the Qing Dynasty, successfully enforced their hairstyle upon the Chinese population. By the start of the twentieth century, the queue had become, for the rest of the world, the stereotypical Chinese haircut. The overthrow of the Qing in the early 1900s saw many Chinese symbolically shaving their queues in an act of open defiance.


Despite owing official vassalage to the Jin Dynasty, the Tangut of the Xia Xia Dynasty do not appear to have ever been required to wear their hair in Jurchen braids. Instead, they maintained their unique partially shaved style. First mandated by the founding Tangut Emperor in the 1030s, Weiming Yuanhao (Jingzong of Xi Xia), those who wished to be considered Tangut had to adopt the hairstyle known in the Chinese sources as tufa 禿髪, on pain of death. Here the top of the head was shaved in a sort of tonsure. In front of the ears the hair was grown long, framing the face.

Tangut tufa hairstyle. Illustration by Jack Wilson

The haircut of the Mongols is perhaps the most distinctive, and best known of the epoch. Described in sources from China, the Middle East and Europe, it is depicted in tomb murals and artworks from China, Iran, Japan and beyond. In the famous Yuan-era portraits of Chinggis and Khubilai, it can be seen peeking out from under their hats. It was made up of two distinct parts; a central lock (kegül), in the middle of the forehead, with the rest of the head shaved except for two twisted ‘horns,’ or braided loops which fell behind the ears (šibülger) down to the shoulders. Altogether they were called nuqula, and were most usually known in Chinese as pojiao 婆焦.

Mongolian nuqula hairstyle. The lock on the forehead was called kegül, while the braids behind the ears were šibülger. The appearance stood out dramatically to the peoples the Mongols encountered, and descriptions of it are given in numerous languages (such as Latin, Persian, Arabic, Chinese) and visual sources from China, Iran, Japan and more. Illustration by Jack Wilson

Like the Jurchen, early in their conquests the Mongols sought to violently enforce their coiffure on the conquered peoples. Ögedai Khaan’s (r.1230-1241) letter (written c.1231) demanding the submission of Korea opens with the line:

Strength of Heaven! Words spoken from Heaven: those people we get who do not braid their hair will have their eyes blinded, their hands removed, their legs crippled!


The early conquests of the Jin Empire saw the Mongols seek to enforce the adoption of their hairstyle upon that population: a 1214 meeting between Chinggis Khan and the Buddhist monk Haiyun saw Chinggis demand that the bald-headed monk grow his hair out in Mongolian style. As doing so was against his religion, the monk forcefully argued, and in time managed to persuade the khan to let him retain his shaved head. Only gradually did the Mongols ease their demands for religious clergy to grow or shave their hair; by the 1230s, Song embassies noted that former members of the Jin court who joined Daoist temples were able to maintain their Jurchen haircut. During his Siege of Samarkand in 1220, Chinggis Khan demanded the Turks who surrendered from the garrison have their head shaved in the Mongol nuqula. But the Mongols did not pursue their efforts at forced hair-cuts past the 1230s. For instance, there is little indication of these styles being forced onto the southern Chinese once the Mongols conquered the Song Dynasty.

But the Song, even before their fall, could not escape the nuqula. The Songshi 宋史, the official dynastic history of the Song Dynasty, seems to indicate that young boys and men in the Song Dynasty (at least, before war broke out between Song and the Mongols in the mid-1230s) were cutting their hair to emulate the Mongolian fashion. During the height of the Liao and Jin Dynasties, the Song government passed laws forbidding the wearing of barbarian hairstyles and clothes. Some of this legislation had to be passed repeatedly, indicating some trouble in implementing it

Hair served as a means to demonstrate allegiance to the new dynasty and remained difficult to shake off. Berke Khan of the Golden Horde, the famous early convert to Islam, was described by Mamluk embassies as continuing to wear his hair in traditional Mongol fashion. After Korea was finally subjugated late in the thirteenth century, the Korean kings intermarried with the family of Khubilai Khaan and eagerly adopted Mongolian affects; Mongol language, clothing and hairstyles remained part of Korean courtly life until after the Yuan Dynasty was forced from China in 1368. The Ming Dynasty, the succeeding dynasty which ousted the Mongols, passed laws forbidding Han Chinese from wearing Mongol clothes or hair; though he did allow those Chinese with Mongolian names to keep the hair.

Jack Wilson recently completed his MA thesis at Central European University, where he offered a reassessment of the life and career of Nogai and his role in the late thirteenth century Golden Horde. You can visit the educational videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History.

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