As the Middle Kingdom protects and heals itself during the COVID-19 outbreak, we want to share stories with you of the people of China, the people that make this country so beautiful. Before we can welcome you back here in person, we want to bring the people to you. These stories illustrate the deep complexity, humanity, and beauty that resides across this vast nation, and we hope that by sharing these real people with you, you’ll get to know a different side of China. This is #OurChina.
Collected by Cameron Hack, each story is a window into China and her people. In our next chapter of stories, we journey to a village in Guangxi Province that is home to the Yao ethnic minority. For Yao women, getting a haircut is, quite literally, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After cutting their hair at age 18, the women leave their locks to grow, washing them in a special shampoo of rice water before twisting the full length atop their heads. And what becomes of any errant strands that fall out? They save them. Although the tradition is slowly dying out, some women continue to carry it on.
“I’ve only ever had my hair cut once. My mom cut it when I was 18 years old to signify adulthood, and even then, my hair was already pretty long. This year I am 61 and my hair is about 160 centimeters long… Hair is very important to us, and any hair that falls out is also kept. No hair is thrown away.”
“To make cloth, we had to hunt for a special type of caterpillar”
I’ve only ever had my hair cut once. My mom cut it when I was 18 years old to signify adulthood, and even then, my hair was already pretty long. This year I am 61 and my hair is about 160 centimeters long. The hair that was cut about 40 years ago when I was 18 is still with me now. It’s wrapped within the new hair that is growing on my head and then covered with black cloth. My hair is very healthy and there are hardly any grey hairs.
Hair is very important to us, and any hair that falls out is also kept. No hair is thrown away. I wash my hair every two or three days using water from the local well. We go together, normally at night. It takes about half an hour, and then after I go home, I am ready to sleep. My hair is still wet, so I lay a plastic sheet on the ground and lay the hair on the sheet to keep it clean. While I sleep, the hair dries. I can have my hair showing at the front because I have given birth to children. I have three children – one boy and two girls. The girls are quite traditional, and they also have very long hair.
When we die, we are not cremated – we are buried. We will be dressed in brand new clothes and there will be a little makeup added to our faces. The hair is cleaned very well and wrapped upon our heads very neatly, ready to pass over into a new life.
I married at the age of 15, an arranged marriage. I was pretty young, and it was important for me to have long hair in order to marry him. My husband likes long hair, but back then, all the ladies had long hair. When I was young, I had my ears pierced with a needle. We melted down silver coins and made these earrings that I am wearing. It’s hard to find these kinds of earrings because there are many fake ones now. My clothes I made myself, including the dress, waistband, blouse, and the cloth on my head. It costs around 3,000 yuan altogether. They take a long time to make, and it’s not too easy.
When I was young, to buy cotton was very expensive. It was around 100 yuan for half a kilogram, and we couldn’t afford to buy it. To make cloth, we had to hunt for a special type of caterpillar in the surrounding forests and they were hard to find. To make any piece of clothing, we’d need to find a lot of caterpillars. I’ve always worn these clothes, even when I was a farmer.
We used to grow a lot, but since tourists have started visiting the mountains that we call home, we’ve stopped growing as much. We still grow tea and chilis which can be sold to tourists or to use ourselves. Apart from selling chili and tea, I also sell roasted sweet potatoes and corn. It’s much easier than growing rice. Our family has also opened up a hotel, which my children run very well. Each morning they drive me to the entrance of the park, which is where I set up the BBQ. When I’m finished, they pick me up, as we still live high in the mountains.
A few years ago, I went to travel to a big city where traditional people like myself are rarely seen. Because of my clothes and my long hair, many people were interested in taking photos of me and chatting. I was a little shy and I found it quite funny.
“There aren’t many ladies like me left”
Around ten years ago, I started studying standard Chinese as it was the only way I would be able to communicate with tourists to make money. Although my Chinese isn’t great, it’s enough. I have also tried to learn some English, which means I can also communicate with foreign tourists too. I can only say very simple things, like numbers and ‘good morning.’ When I speak to them, they are very surprised that a lady as old as me, 85, can speak English.
I still live quite a traditional life, and I spend a lot of my time making cloth with this old wooden machine. It takes a long time to make a big enough piece of cloth that can be turned into something that would be used or worn. I don’t particularly like making cloth, but its something I am used too. I’ve been doing it for years now. At the age of 18, my mom taught me. It looks complicated, but once you know how to do it and where all the bits go, it’s easy – just boring.
The hair on my head can be seen as I have given birth, but around here, you’ll see younger girls with their hair hidden under a black cloth. Our tradition is that if you haven’t had children, your hair can’t be seen. But if you have, you can display a little at the front. I’ve only ever cut my hair once, and that was when I was 18. I kept the hair that was cut, and now it’s at home in a safe place.
There aren’t many ladies like me left, and a couple of years ago, I went to Beijing for a small trip. Lots and lots of people were interested in me – my hair and my clothing. They all wanted to take photos and chat with me. I didn’t mind as they were nice. I really liked it there.
“The hair on my head can be seen as I have given birth, but around here, you’ll see younger girls with their hair hidden under a black cloth. Our tradition is that if you haven’t had children, your hair can’t be seen. But if you have, you can display a little at the front.”
“I have had to learn [Chinese]”
My husband is 93 and he can’t speak Chinese very well. Up until a few years ago, nor could I. Since tourists have started visiting us, I have had to learn; otherwise, I couldn’t sell souvenirs to them.
I am younger than my husband, 10 years younger. He thought my long hair was very beautiful when I was younger. If I didn’t have long hair then, I don’t think I would have been able to marry him. When we were younger, pretty much all ladies we knew had long hair. The ones that didn’t belonged to another minority, which he wouldn’t have married into anyway.
My hair is shorter than before, as with old age, some has fallen out. All the hair that falls out is kept, and when we die, we are buried with it on top of our heads. Sitting here is much easier than before when we were farmers. I am very happy, as I can still spend time with my husband even though I am old.
“We had the chance to find our own husbands back then”
I live in one of the oldest houses in this village. It’s around 50 years old, and altogether, there are five of us who live here. It’s made of wood and balances on stilts, as we live close to the river. The house is filled with old things, and I open it for people to see. I don’t want any money, but I do sell some souvenirs and I am happy when people buy them. Now that I am 90 years old, I am no longer able to work. This is a way I can make a little money. My two children also help me. They have opened a restaurant that serves some local and traditional foods.
As I have grown older life has become better. When I was younger, we were poor and couldn’t afford simple things like salt. Since the tourists have started visiting the place where we live, we can all make money. In turn, we can live quite well.
After years of hard work farming with my husband, my body often aches. I married him when I was 20, but it wasn’t arranged. We had the chance to find our own husbands back then, unlike others at that time in China. He died five years ago. In this old house, I have some fond memories of him and us together.
I cut my hair once at the age of 18. When I was younger, my hair was so long and very beautiful. When I took it down, it would reach the floor and coil up. The older I’ve become, the less hair I have. It has fallen out, but the hair that has fallen out I have kept. Some young girls here still follow tradition and keep their hair long, but not my daughter.
I made the clothes that I am wearing when I was younger. At around the age of 60, we stop wearing bright red or pink clothes. Instead, we wear black with just a little color sewn into the collar or cuffs. My mom taught me how to make clothes. Before, I would use an old wooden machine to make detailed patterns which took a long time to make, but it was worth the effort.
About Humans of China
Cameron Hack has made it his mission to collect the stories of China’s people since arriving in Beijing in 2014. By leveraging the online community, he’s been able to connect with members from some of the Middle Kingdom’s most fascinating – and in many cases, disappearing – communities. Almost 200 stories later (and counting), Cameron has recorded such diverse narratives as the women with bound feet and what life is like with protective tattoos.