The queue hairstyle (or pigtail) was worn by Chinese men between the 1600s and the early 1900s. The queue was a hairstyle in which the front and sides of the head were shaved and the rest was plaited into a braid, this was originally a Manchu (a north-eastern Chinese region) hairstyle. In 1644, a Manchu army conquered China and thus the Qing dynasty born. It was then ordered that all Han Chinese* men had to shave and braid their hair (except for Buddhist monks and Taoist priests). The queue was originally a symbol of submission but was also a sign of repression; the Qing Dynasty used this to show their dominance in China.
Traditionally, Chinese men and women grew their hair long and then styled it in elaborate ways; the queue denied them their cultural right to grow their hair. Many men refused to shave their heads, to show defiance to the Qing rule, but were executed. The policy of the Qing dynasty’s queue was “lose your hair, keep your head; or lose your head, keep your hair”. Not shaving your hair was treason against the emperor and was punishable by death. So a Chinese man without a queue was the same as a dead man.
In 1873, California, the Pigtail Ordinance was enforced; this meant that all prisoners had to have their hair cut within an inch of their scalp. This would have significantly affected Chinese immigrants, as keeping their queue was the only way to secure their chance of returning to China.
* Han Chinese: a Chinese ethnic group that originated from the Han dynasty, 206 BC- 220 AD.
Reference image of Chinese men with queue hairstyles from asianhistory.about.com
This object from the Worcester City Museum Collection was researched and written about by Bethany Khan.