Haircuts Kill Uncles

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as HZ.

HZ: This involves a Mandarin wordplay, so it might not translate into English, but I think it’s funny. So there’s a saying in China, that in January—like lunar calendar January, the whole month of New Year—you can’t cut your hair.

BD: Why is that?

HZ: Because it will kill your uncle on your mother’s side. Your mother’s brother. Because in Mandarin, we differentiate your mother’s siblings and your father’s siblings.
So your mother’s brother is “舅舅” (pinyin: jiù ji), and your father’s brother is “弟弟” (pinyin: dì di). The saying goes “正 月 剃 头 思 旧” (pinyin: zhēng yuè tìtóu sī jiù) meaning that if you cut your hair in the first month of the year, your uncle is going to die. In the Qin dynasty, when the Qin government took over, they forced all the Hun people to shave their heads, and change their hairstyle. So if you look it up, the first half of the head is shaven, and there is hair only in the back half. But a lot of people who didn’t like the new government and were reminiscent of the old regime, they protested by not cutting their hair. Being nostalgic, the word for that are the last two characters in the saying, “思 旧” (pinyin: sī jiù). But it sounds very much like “死 舅” (pinyin: sǐ jiù), which means “to kill your uncle.” So people just started saying that cutting your hair will kill your uncle. A lot of people still choose to not cut their hair in the New Year’s month.

BD: Does your family believe it?

HZ: It’s obviously silly, and I don’t think it really matters. But everyone keeps saying it, and Chinese people are very superstitious. So if they really don’t need it, they will try not to cut their hair. It’s totally baseless, but people still avoid that. Old barbershops just close their businesses in the lunar new year month.



The article above discusses the same saying, as it is thought about today in modern day China. The informant is quite accurate in that many people today do not believe the idea that an uncle will die, if they cut their hair during the first month of the lunar year. But the article also introduces another saying into the mix—”a time for the dragon to raise its head.” So there’s two contrasting ideas about getting a haircut during the lunar new year month. The photo caption introduces another superstition, that “getting a haircut on the second day of the second Chinese lunar month, which falls on March 6 this year, is likely to bring good luck.”

These varying superstitions around hair cutting and luck (whether it be good or bad) are all related to how words are spoken and thought of in Mandarin, or related to numbers and numerical values. I feel that this marks the significance of attributing specificity in meaning in Chinese culture. My informant, a linguistics major, would definitely agree.