Manyu has beautiful salt and pepper hair. It is raven black highlighted with individual strands of white. She keeps it barely shoulder-length and carries a classic look that cannot be replicated in a hair salon. Last week she dyed it all black.

Dying hair is an annual event. Manyu does not like going gray any more than I like going bald, but she usually keeps the gray because she knows how much I like it. That all changes whenever she readies herself for a trip to Taiwan. Every winter just before Chinese New Year, she books a flight to Taipei, buys gifts for friends and family, refills her prescription for thyroid medicine, and dyes her hair. 

You won’t find many gray heads in Taiwan or China. The majority of Taiwanese/Chinese senior citizens, both men and women, have jet black hair – sometimes so black that it looks like a wig. If you google photos of US presidents meeting Chinese leaders, you will see one head of gray and one head of black. The one exception was Nixon meeting Mao, but I think that’s because Nixon also dyed his hair. I suppose FDR meeting Chiang Kai-shek was also an exception, but that’s only because Chiang had no hair at all. The photo I am posting with this week’s blog was taken from a CNN news story. The headline was not about the many dyed heads in the National People’s Congress, but about Xi Jinping bucking the trend by letting his hair go gray.*

Manyu does not necessarily conform to societal standards, so I asked her why she dyes her hair before going to Asia. She said she does it for two reasons. One is because her mom, all of her sisters, and all of her friends dye their hair (so there is an element of conformity in her decision). The other is an act of filial piety. It would be disrespectful to show the world that her black-haired mom is so old that even her daughter has gray hair. 

Neither of Manyu’s answers is generalizable. They don’t tell me why an entire society dyes its hair. For a culture that kowtows to its elders, why wouldn’t people want to show their true age? The only explanation I could find online is an ancient one that probably doesn’t hold true anymore. Apparently the people of imperial China did not object to gray hair so much as premature gray. Prematurely gray hair was an indication of personal anxiety, whereas black hair suggested a sense of peace and contentment. Ancient texts have been found with recipes for hair dyes made from just about anything dark and goopy. Black bean paste, crushed mulberries, and fermented tadpoles are among the ingredients.** 

I don’t care whether Taiwanese/Chinese octogenarians dye their hair black. I don’t care whether some Taiwanese/Chinese teenagers dye their hair white, green, purple, or blue. I do, however, hope my wife returns from Taiwan with a touch of gray.

*Jiang, Steven. March 9, 2019. “Gray leap forward: Xi Jinping shows natural hair color in a rare move for Chinese politics.” CNN. Found at: 

** Chang Chiung-fang. July 1997. “Taiwan panorama dye hard: Just a fashion statement? – Abracadabra!” (Scott Williams, trans.). Panorama. Found at: 

Steven Simpson