While most people wouldn’t think twice about having a piece of hair fall out, some women in China go out of their way to save every single strand which has ever grown on their head.
Generations of women continue the unusual practice in the Longji Rice Terraces, in the south of China, as part of a Red Yao tradition. The Red Yao community is a branch of the Yao ethnic minority, one of the 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities in China, who reside in the mountainous terrain of the southwest and south.
Those who choose to stick to tradition allow their hair to grow uninterrupted throughout their lives, apart from one meaningful haircut which takes place when they are 18 years old. The women believe the longer their hair, the longer they are going to live.
Photographer and teacher Cameron Hack learned of the practice during his visit to the area for the page Humans of China, where he came across women whose hair has reached two metres in length, he told UNILAD.
Every strand lost during brushing or washing is kept; a seemingly taxing task but one that indicates just how ‘precious’ the hair is to those who partake in the tradition.
Cameron spoke to one mother (pictured below) who, at the age of 61, has hair measuring 160cm (1.6 metres). She described her locks as being ‘very healthy’, with ‘hardly any grey hairs’, and her daughters are following in her footsteps as they also have ‘very long hair’.
In keeping with tradition, the mum-of-three explained she’s only ever had her hair cut once, when she was 18 years old, to signify reaching adulthood.
Her haircut came three years after an arranged marriage, for which it was ‘important’ for the woman to have long hair.
I was pretty young and it was important for me to have long hair in order to marry him.
The cut off hair did not go to waste; over 40 years later she is still holding on to it, keeping the unattached, dead hair wrapped together with the living strands, and held in place with a black cloth covering her head.
Speaking of the practice and her hair care routine, the 61-year-old said:
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 and I use the water from the local well. We go together and it’s 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 [dead] hair on the sheet to keep it clean. While I sleep the hair dries.
While the mum-of-three uses water from a well to tend to her hair, a couple of the women Cameron spoke to described how they would wash their precious locks with the water they used to clean rice before they cooked it.
One of the women continues to do this, insisting it keeps her hair ‘shiny and healthy’, while another, 50-year-old woman (pictured below) has opted to switch to shampoo.
Speaking of her own routine, the 50-year-old said:
The hair growing on my head now reaches down to my ankles.
[Rice water] gave our hair a really clean and shiny look, now I use shampoo.
Before, after washing my hair I would lay it onto the floor in the sun to dry but now I can afford to buy a hairdryer. I wash my hair every two or three days and it takes me about an hour and a half or so.
Any hair that falls out while washing will also be kept.
One 90-year-old woman (pictured below) explained although her hair was ‘so long and very beautiful’ when she was younger, she has less now in her older years. Her daughter has chosen not to keep up the tradition.
At its longest, the elderly woman’s locks would reach the floor, where it would ‘coil up’. Similarly, one 83-year-old Yao woman said her hair is ‘shorter than before as with old age some has fallen out’, but still both women hold on to the lost strands.
The latter spoke of how her husband thought her long hair was ‘very beautiful’ and explained she didn’t think she’d have been able to marry him if she hadn’t had long hair, though it’s unclear whether she too had an arranged marriage.
The 83-year-old (pictured below) said:
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.
Though the women have different approaches to the tradition in terms of caring for their hair and passing the practice on to their children, their efforts all culminate in the same way.
Rather than being cremated when they die, the women are buried with all the hair they have grown and kept throughout their lives, which is wrapped on top of their heads.
Speaking of the ceremony, the 61-year-old mum-of-three said:
We will be dressed in brand new clothes and there will be a little makeup added to the face. The hair is cleaned very well and wrapped upon our heads very neatly ready to pass over into a new life.
The women could make money by selling their hair, as many other women in China do, but all hair is ‘sacred’ to the Red Yao community and after years spent caring for it the ladies are fond of their long locks.
One woman, pictured above, explained:
I really like my long hair. It might be because it’s all I’m used to and I don’t know any different as I’ve had long hair for as long as I can remember.
Cameron was able to capture images of the women wrapping their hair up onto their heads, but despite their efforts to maintain their locks not all of the women get to show it off.
Those who shared their stories appeared to differ in their justifications for having hair on show, with one relying on childbirth as a reason while another said her marriage made it acceptable.
Take a look at their lengthy hair below:
One 85-year-old woman (pictured below) explained her hair ‘can be seen’ because she has children, saying:
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 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.
Rather than wrapping the hair from her once-in-a-lifetime haircut back into the living locks, the 85-year-old woman opted to keep it at home ‘in a safe place’.
However, another member of the Red Yao community said:
Before I married my hair could not be seen. It was wrapped around the top of my head into an O shape. After I married I was then allowed to reveal some hair at the front in a kind of ball shape.
With clothes homemade from ‘a special type of caterpillar [from] the surrounding forests’, earrings formed from melted silver coins, and their intricately wrapped hair, the ladies’ traditional way of life has proved to be intriguing to those from outside the community.
Some of the women recalled being stopped by passersby when they ventured into bigger cities, with the 61-year-old mum-of-three saying:
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.
Similarly, the 85-year-old said:
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.
The Yao community has also become of interest to tourists who visit the area after it ‘became famous for being a beautiful place’, one of the residents explained.
Visitors contribute to the locals’ income, as the women described selling souvenirs and goods such as chilli, tea, roasted sweet potatoes and corn, as well as running hotels, serving local food in restaurants and carrying suitcases up and down the mountains to earn money.
One woman spoke of how she’d opened up her house as an attraction, explaining:
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.
While some of the women have started learning English words in order to speak with tourists, for the most part the minority is sticking by its long-standing, traditional ways.
Speaking of the community, one of its members said:
I truly believe that anyone you’ll meet here will treat you well and that my minority, the Yao minority, are honest and true people.
With younger generations of women continuing the traditions, hopefully the meaningful practices of the Red Yao community will not be lost.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.