A BRIEF HISTORY OF HAIR
“That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets.” — Mean Girls (2004)
March 28, 2020
“You like cutting your hair1 on camera, don’t you,” a friend remarks.
I guess it appears that way.
A week ago the lockdown order came for Los Angeles,
and like everyone else, I had an emotional fit.
Suddenly the seven inches down the back of my neck felt like a burden,
like heavy, breathing animal
yoked against my will.
Let’s make a show of it, I thought. On Instagram Live,
I tie off the ends of my hair (drenched teal, showing their bleach)
and snip it off in one go.
My friends watching in the comments section
cheer at the swish of scissors.
A performance of gender.
1 Kami in Japanese means “god,”
but it is also a homonym for “hair.”
You could say a god who knows itself creates in its own self-image;
even the kanji for hair 髪 is self-reflexive,
itself comprised of the kanji for “long hair” and “full, abundant.”
Kami assumes the presence of itself,
April 4, 2019
I start watching Chinese period dramas to improve my Mandarin,
but more than the language I’m enamored by the long tresses of the pretty male leads.2
These pretty boys are called “xiao xian rou” —
little fresh meat in Mandarin.
I love it! Reverse objectification.
For any afab person, it must feel like a victory.
The older conservative men of China, long steeped in Maoist rhetoric, lament the pretty boy trend.
What happened to the muscular man, on whose broad shoulders this country was built,
whose physical labor makes the bedrock of our country’s production!
What happened to that Communist hero!
But what can their wailing do; the teenage girls love their tasty xiao xian rou.
I grow my hair out, because I, too, sometimes get swept up in feudal era fantasies:
I fashion myself Ming Dynasty prince.
I, too, want the ladies to swoon when I pass. But
to my disappointment, long hair on me just reads
2 Hair is political, as anyone will tell you.
In pre-Qing China, your hair was considered to be part of the body
that was given to you by your parents, and altering it in any way
was a mark of ultimate disrespect. So men wore their hair long
just like the women, and long
before Western standards invaded the picture,
this, too, was considered masculine.
I love to imagine the union between man and woman in those days:
long black curtains of hair
mixing and intersecting, swirled together on the bed,
until you didn’t know whose hair ended
and whose began.
Like the bent arms of a galaxy.
June 7, 2018
I guess I don’t have a lot of respect
for my family
to be doing this hair-cutting business
over and over again.
I want to make a short film about being non-binary,
so I set up my camera in the bathroom3 and get to work once again,
bringing blades close against the throat
of the gendered body my mother gave me.
The film I call “TRI•FEC•TA,” a wry reference to scoring all three nodes of gender
in my singular lifetime, (surely a cause for celebration!)
and two years from now, I will show it to one of my non-binary friends,
who will off-handedly comment on my proclivity for cutting my hair on camera, making witnesses
of the world.
I self-destruct just to reconstruct.
The video shows me in front of my bathroom mirror, taking scissors,
then electric clippers,
to violate my womanly facade — at that time, a beautiful shade of nut brown.
The text appears patiently over the screen:
“i must’ve swallowed my boy twin in the womb
between us engendered the gradient abyss
i’ve killed him twice now
once in birth
and once in my head
i try reaching him through the only way i know how
(you’re watching me do it in reverse)”
3 “Queer culture is cutting your own hair in the bathroom,”
I once read in a tweet.
I could never find that tweet again, but I have a sneaking suspicion
that queer culture is just
the things we queer folks do over and over again
to an unnamed god.
June 5, 1998
For every little queer American kid,
Mulan was a rite of passage.
I secretly love that we are all united by a movie that sprang out of Chinese
if only because in present day, in all my queerness, Chinese culture
does not love me back.
Shang is bisexual! everyone crows, and every trans masc I’ve known
seems to have first seen themself reflected in Mulan.4
Who among us queers hasn’t sung along to That Song in tears,
knowing the outside
didn’t match the inside.
Everyone remembers the hair-cutting scene,
Mulan under black of night, alone, silent.
Orchestral music rising behind her.
Then the blade sings:
it cuts loose the dead, burdensome animal.
It doesn’t matter that Mulan disrespected tradition; she showed us her insides.
She knew herself.
4 I always hated that Mulan went back to her girl life.
For some reason I could never fully verbalize, I’d always wanted her
to stay boy, to stay Ping, shoulder-length hair tied into austere knot,
but without the secret. Everyone would know what she really carried on her chest, between her legs,
and be okay with it anyway.
To me, the transformation in the first half
was the real magic.
I should’ve known at the time
what trouble this desire would bring.
Two years before I was born, Judith Butler publishes Gender Trouble.
(Take a shot for any time a trans or non-binary person invokes the name Butler,
our collective informal gospel.)
This is, of course, the landmark book in which Butler terms all gender as a performance,
“a kind of imitation for which there is no original.”
In other words, a replication of falsehoods,
a snake that consumes its own rattled tail.
This would categorize heteronormativity as some kind of ersatz ritual:
actions that shed meaning
by each successive turn.
I’ve never known a god so destructive;
only ghosts and demons,
letting their psyches raze through our fantasies of love.5
If I make my body the site of reconstruction,
erecting temples here in mine own name,
can I, too, create myself in mine own image?
It’s no surprise Butler also came out as non-binary.
When you excavate gender only to discover all its diminishing returns
you really just want to find a way out.
5 Lady Rokujo, splitting through dreams,
with her long,
Chinese history, I like to facetiously summarize, is a story
about our people committing atrocities against ourselves.
Of course, this is not the whole picture:
what complicates matters is the many various ethnic groups that make up the category
In 1644, the Han-ruled Ming Dynasty falls to the Manchu, a tribe from Northeastern China,
and a year later, to prove their loyalty to the new Qing dynasty,
Han men were ordered to shave the front of their heads
and braid the rest of their hair into a “queue” per the traditional Manchu style,
lest they be executed
This, of course, chafed against the deeply held Confucian beliefs that cutting one’s hair
was an act of dishonor against one’s parents, so many men grew out their hair
as an act of rebellion.
Entire massacres were conducted against these agitators.
One report claims the entire city of Jiading was nearly wiped out.
It would surprise many to learn
those who carried out these killings
were Han themselves, loyal
to an order
that could only speak in blood.
Hair, as anyone will tell you, is political.
Hair means nothing and yet everything at once.
Hair sprouts fully-formed, Athena-like, from our heads — divinity6 already borne.
6 We do and don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun in Mandarin.
Do, because all mentions of he/she/it are pronounced “ta.”
But the devil is in the details of writing:
他 is assigned to he and 她 is assigned to her,
the difference split between them in their component parts:
他 contains the radical for “person,” and 她 contains the radical for “woman.”
This bifurcation has not always existed.
他 used to exist as the pronoun for everything and everyone,
encompassing all complicated existences,
but when Western influence came in the 20th century,
a differentiation for she arrived on the horizon.
(I don’t want to say everything is white people’s fault, but…)
Let’s go back to 他: man and woman combined as one,
beginning and ending on the same node of gender.
Some gender rebels have also suggested the neutral option 祂,
which has the radical for “god” —
like a divine presence
for the first time.
For a few weeks as a kid, I have long hair.
My mother always insisted on cutting my hair boy-short,
which I hated,
because everyone always mistook me for a boy,
but when my parents are gone for a month-long trip to Japan in the summer
of my sixth year, the hair pours
out of my head as if it knows itself to be sacred,
itself a perilous existence.
My grandmother braids it into pigtails one night
and I marvel at the beauty in the mirror: finally,
I know what it feels like to be a girl!7
For a few glorious weeks
I know what it feels like to be exactly what I am,
without having it taken or stolen with me,
and I know in all of my six years some semblance of peace.
Of course, when my parents return,
out come the shears.
7 I don’t think I ever really knew what it felt like to be a girl.
For starters, I was notorious for hating the stereotypically feminine things:
the color pink, playing house, dresses. For another,
I always played with the boys. You could chalk this up to simply being a tomboy.
After all, many tomboys grow up without all sorts of gender trouble
and settle comfortably into being cis women. Me, I knew there would be trouble
the day I took my first standardized test
and was met face-to-face with the gender question:
male or female?
I couldn’t fill out the female bubble.
My pencil moved towards “male” — did I feel more like boy instead?
No, that wasn’t quite right either. Stuck
between the two, I eventually had to settle for the female option.
I didn’t have time to dawdle about it; on with the test.
I didn’t even know there was another choice.
I love growing my hair out, to tell the truth.
My hair grows fast, ripping through the calendar year like a runner on their last breath
and so begin all my grand experiments:
bleaching, dying, shaving the sides.
My hair goes through five different colors before I’m done with it.
Even though I desire more and more masculinity,
I keep growing my hair out.
In a way, I say, this is rebellious, for me to embody the masculine ideal
from 500 years ago.
I’m fulfilling a dream for my six-year-old self, who could never have
such long hair!
But I am hiding something.
I am still living in the past.
More accurately, I can’t let go of woman I look like.8
When you’re afab, there are certain rewards you get when you walk through life
as a conventionally attractive and feminine woman.
For years, I’d used that woman as armor, to hide that more
I held inside.
She fought wars for me; how could I let her go?
But the more I rely on her, the more
she sinks her long nails into me, a vengeful ghost.
You must remember that Lady Rokujo, too, was a beautiful and lovely woman
long before she stalked Genji’s dreams out of rage.
Ghosts are so because they long outlive their usefulness;
they curdle amongst the living.
I have to live on, do you understand?
I have to find different words, different expressions,
different nodes of being,
for who I am.
The old gods can no longer serve.
I have to cut all of it away.
8 “I just want to be a feminine boy without being a boy,”
another afab non-binary friend relates to me, and I don’t know yet
how to reconcile this impossible yearn with the meaningful phrase, “you are beautiful as you are.”
I am forever stuck in the continuum, I guess:
boy versus girl, long hair versus short hair,
self-image versus imagined self.
Think of it this way: the word “non-binary”
tells you what I’m not, not what I am.
Which leaves me constantly redefining and renegotiating
my gender, which means I’m forever coming out to myself
as something new and something else,
none of which has extant words
but if I dive again and again into the fold
like some ritual that accumulates in meaning
by each successive turn,
reveals a being that
comes close to
March 28, 2020
Here I am in the bathroom again,
my phone broadcasting
my rebellion and insolence
to the world (or, at the very least, my 200 Instagram followers).
Would you go so far as to call this a political act? I don’t know.
Everyone wants to call my body a site of political debate:
whether I am or am not female (I’m not), whether I do or do not deserve rights (I do).
I’m simply tired.
I just want my inside to match my outside,
even if that is just for a moment
as I try to figure this weird gender thing out.
I know myself to be already divine.
I ready the blades in front of my reflection;
Mulan would be proud.
If it doesn’t happen on camera, in the era of social media, did it happen at all?
But it’s not the recording of it that’s important.
It’s not even about the audience.
I do like cutting my hair in front of the camera —
because of the finality of my decision.
Once I press record, I know I can’t back out.
If I look into the lens, there, in its pinprick,
it emerges — a way out.9
9 I had to let go, for the last time, that armor.
I let go.
I cut my hair again, god gracing
the angeltips of my shoulders.
jonah wu is a queer, non-binary writer and filmmaker currently residing in Los Angeles, CA. Their work is usually a deep dive into their Chinese American upbringing and explores the intersection between mental illness, trauma, dreams, memory, and family history. Their writing has been published or is forthcoming in Longleaf Review, Jellyfish Review, The Aurora Journal, Sinister Wisdom, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and others. You can follow them on Twitter or Instagram @rabblerouses.