Bai Juyi: The Tang dynasty’s baldest poet

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

The thinning and graying of the hair on one’s head has been a preoccupation of many writers throughout Chinese history, but none more so than the Tang dynasty’s Bai Juyi (772–846).

Sighs for the fallen

All these illnesses and worries my heart has known
My scalp has advanced ahead of its years!
It gives up the ghost with the touch of a comb
The hairs drop out and are no more.
So long and rest in peace, I say
Spared their brothers’ silken fate.


So wrote the twenty-nine-year-old poet Bai Juyi, voicing a gripe that would stay at the forefront of his mind for decades to come: the state of his hair, or more precisely, the progressive thinning and graying that would eventually leave him with white whiskers and a bald head. Here he presents his prematurely lost hairs as men struck down in their prime; at least, he notes, dying young has saved them from the alternative fate of becoming threads of silk, that is, going white with age.

A late imperial depiction of Bai Juyi. The illustrator has clearly taken care to include the poet’s famously receding hairline. Wikimedia Commons

Throughout his life Bai Juyi paid keen attention to the gradual graying and thinning of his hair, symbolic as it was of the swift march of time. So frequently does the status quo of his scalp appear in his writings, in fact, that it became one of the characteristic traits of his poetic oeuvre.


One online article charts the poet’s preoccupation with his own hair by age, listing 22 references from Bai’s poetry from age twenty-six through to sixty-five. This selection is far from exhaustive, but includes such gems as “Just ten days after starting this new job, I looked in the mirror and noticed I had sprung two new gray hairs!” (age 34); “My black sideburns have been accosted by threads of snow: a robe of deep emerald spattered with dirt and mud!” (age 44); “Nowadays I only wash my hair once per year…but my head just keeps on being half-bald” (age 45); and “My dark whiskers have already turned to snow, but still no word on when I’ll get to retire!” (age 52).

For adult males in the Tang dynasty and through much of Chinese history, hair was worn long, as Confucianist thought stipulated that cutting one’s hair was an unfilial act. Typically, this long hair was secured in a top-knot while one went about one’s daily business. This was usually wrapped in a kerchief (as in the above depiction of Bai Juyi), or, on more formal occasions, stood in its assigned spot within the black hat worn by state officials.

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang during an audience at court. A depiction of the style of hats worn by state officials in the Tang, painted during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368).

As we have seen in the opening poem, Bai Juyi’s obsessing over his hair quality was not a simple case of vanity. Rather, his concerns sprung from what this gradual, yet conspicuous, change made it impossible to deny any longer: the loss of his youth and the nearing of the end. Ever a man of perspective, however, Bai did not lose sight of the facts that these were but small worries in the grand scheme of things. As a state-employed governor, Bai lived a privileged life, if a busy one. In another poem, composed at the age of forty-one, he acknowledges the minuteness of his own problems compared to the plight of the common people in the vicinity.

Upon hearing grief-stricken howling

Yesterday in the southern quarter
We heard the raw shrieks of grief.
They said it was a wife
Wailing for her husband
Gone at twenty-four.
Same today in the northern borough:
Heart-wrenching howls of grief.
They said it was a mother
Wailing for her son,
Just six- or seventeen.


The wails ring out all over town
As untimely ends are meted down.
We all bob about in this sea of life
Yet few get to have their hair go white.
I’m over forty now;
Luckier than most.
Thinking upon this
I see that snowy head
Shining brightly back at me
And I do not resent it.

A late imperial depiction of Bai Juyi. Note the unruly white hairs waving about at the back of his neck. Too short to be neatly secured in the top-knot underneath his hat, this was quite possibly a nod to his hair poems on the part of the painter.

Later on in life Bai appears to have come to terms with his baldness, at points even embracing it. In one poem, composed when Bai was around fifty-eight, he reflects how, for all his anxiety over the matter as a younger man, when baldness finally arrived, he discovered that it came with its own perks. Lighter the weight of one top-knot and fewer the two chores of washing and combing his hair, Bai describes with relish the simple pleasure of pouring a ladle of cool spring water over his pate on a hot summer’s day. Comparing his newfound freedom from hair accessories from the chains of his worldly attachment to his lost strands of hair, he signs off with a remark which can be paraphrased as “I finally see why monks shave their heads!”

Dr. Elizabeth Smithrosser holds a PhD in Chinese history from the University of Oxford. She is currently Lecturer at Leiden Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden University, Netherlands. Click here to see her Institute page.


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Poems in order of mention: Tan fa luo (嘆髮落); Quanshe zhaoying zaoqiu shu shi, ji Yuan shiyi, jian cheng Li silu (權攝昭應,早秋書事,寄元拾遺,兼呈李司錄); Yue xin (約心); Yin mu gan fa, ji Lang shangren ershou (因沐感髮,寄朗上人二首); Zi yong (自詠); Wen kuzhe (聞哭者); and Jie fa luo (嗟髮落).