Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures

Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel & Barbara D. Miller
Foreword by Gananath Obeyesekere

Subjects: Anthropology
Paperback : 9780791437421, 314 pages, April 1998
Hardcover : 9780791437414, 314 pages, April 1998

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations


Gananath Obeyesekere


1. Introduction: Hair Tropes

Alf Hiltebeitel

2. Hair and Society: Social Significance of Hair in South Asian Traditions

Patrick Olivelle

3. Hairy Barbarians, Furry Primates, and Wild Men: Medical Science and Cultural Representations of Hair in China

Frank Dikötter

4. "Long Black Hair Like a Seat Cushion": Hair Symbolism in Japanese Popular Religion

Gary L. Ebersole

5. Bound Hair and Confucianism in Korea

Sarah M. Nelson

6. Politics of the Queue: Agitation and Resistance in the Beginning and End of Qing China

Weikun Cheng

7. Hair Like Snakes and Mustached Brides: Crossed Gender in an Indian Folk Cult

Alf Hiltebeitel

8. Living Ghosts: Long-Haired Destitutes in Colonial Hong Kong

James L. Watson

9. Cutting the Fringes: Public Hair at the Margins of Japanese Censorship Laws

Anne Allison

10. Cuts and Culture in Kathmandu

Julia J. Thompson

11. The Disappearance of the Oiled Braid: Indian Adolescent Female Hairstyles in North America

Barbara D. Miller

12. Afterword: Hair Power

Barbara D. Miller



An interdisciplinary exploration of the meanings of hair in Asia from classical times to contemporary contexts.


Hair—whether present or absent, restored or removed, abundant or scarce, long or short, bound or unbound, colored or natural—marks a person as clearly as speech, clothing, and smell. It defines a person's gender, sexual availability and desirability, age, social status, and even political stance. It may also act as a basis for discrimination in treatment by others. While hair's high salience as both sign and symbol extends cross-culturally through time, its denotations are far from universal. Hair is an interdisciplinary look at the meanings of hair, hairiness, and hairlessness in Asian cultures, from classical to contemporary contexts.

The contributors draw on a variety of literary, archaeological, religious, and ethnographic evidence. They examine scientific, medical, political, and popular cultural discourses. Topics covered include monastic communities and communities of fashion, hair codes and social conventions of rank, attitudes of enforcement and rebellion, and positions of privilege and destitution. Different interpretations include hair as a key aspect of female beauty, of virility, as obscene, as impure, and linked with other symbolic markers in bodily, social, political, and cosmological constructs.

Alf Hiltebeitel is Professor in the Department of Religion at George Washington University. He edited Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism and The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahaharata, both published by SUNY Press. Barbara D. Miller is Professor in the Department of Anthropology, George Washington University.


"The topic of hair is significant, because it is a universally accessible point of entry into entire cultural systems. It is a wonderful way to get readers to think about themselves participating in a cultural system by merely turning disciplined attention to the everyday matter of what they do with their own hair. I like the book's rich and concrete detail regarding views of hair in various Asian cultures, and the differing attempts by the authors to understand those views. The authors provide a great deal of insight and unexpected ramifications in their chapters and their bibliographies are superb resources. " — D. Dennis Hudson, Smith College