Capping Ceremony: The Chinese Coming of Age

If you have never heard of the Chinese Coming of Age Ceremony, you are definitely not ignorant – the ceremony that elaborates the entrance into adulthood in China is not longer in practice in the general sense – but everything about this tradition is totally worth a visit!

It all started in the beginning of the Chinese civilization, marked by these slavery states named Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties, roughly between 2070 BC and 256 BC. The very early Xia and Shang Dynasties involved quite a lot of myths, so let us begin our discussion starting from the Zhou Dynasty. At that time, the empire was established upon the principles of rites and harmony, and more concretely expressed would be the governing system, the ceremony system and even the clothing system. Our story begins from such clothing system, and more specifically, the capping system. You may find this funny, but throughout the oriental history, wearing decent and appropriate hats trumps outstanding clothes, which can be seen from the character that means hat, cap, or crown, “冠”. This character has a top, which means coverage; On the bottom left there is a character “元”, which means origin or head; The bottom right side has “寸”, in here it suggests obeying a law, a principle. Therefore, the capping ceremony was a priority, it marks the entrance of adulthood for boys, it means from this moment on, the boy is a man. This ceremony normally arrives at the age of 20, and after which, the young man can get married and even rule the country.

This is a ceremony that has been performed until the end of the empirical China, with variations, sometimes an emperor-to-be can receive this ceremony earlier in order to ascend to the throne sooner; And sometimes a young man receives this ceremony a few days before his marriage. But overall, the coming to age has always been between 15 and 20. The girls also receive a coming of age ceremony at the age of 15, but it has more to do with new hair-dos than wearing a hat. The more prominent periods of time for such tradition had been the Han ruling periods, including these prosperous times of Tang, Song and Ming. In the Yuan and Qing Dynasty due to the minority ruling and the subsequent cultural identity disparity, this tradition eventually was disregarded and forgotten. What came after the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was a long period of Westernization and radical social change, such tradition therefore never had another opportunity to be revived.

So, what kind of hats are involved? Do people from all social classes wear similar head-wears? In fact there is a difference between what type of headwear one can put on, only the governmental official were allowed to wear hats, civilians could only wear head cloth. Since we had this tradition for the past few thousand of years, there were quite some fun development around hats – let’s go find out!

a person holding hat

Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.

– Valentina Tereshkova

When you see the old oriental illustrations of people, it is quite clear who has the more important role and who is only supportive simply by comparing their physical sizes, and the same principle applies somewhat to their hats – the more important people also wears bigger head-wears. The emperors since Zhou Dynasty always wore very large crowns with a flat top and lots of dangling beads (A). Some officials at that time also wore hats similar to these crowns, but with fewer strings of beads or none at all. Throughout the Chinese history, there is a distinction between the civil servants and the military attache in terms of their clothing requirements. In the illustration below, which shows some of the distinctive styles of head-wears throughout history, B and F usually belong to the civil servants, whereas E with the feather on top is meant for military attache. The C can be seen more often over the head of judges, and the D is meant for regular scholars.

Selected head-wear styles from ancient Chinese history

Illustration by Fiona Sheng

In the later empirical time, especially represented by the Tang, Song and Ming Dynasties, the Han majority ethnic group was in power, and the clothing and capping style followed that of the ancient times, and the head-wear style is similar to the above described types with developments. More notably the hats of the governmental officials started to take on a rather “special” look, as shown in the illustration below. The top left one had “bunny ears”, which later in the Ming Dynasty was changed into these oval or long “ears”, and they would shake at the slightest head movements, thus allowing the emperor to spot immediately who is not paying attention during their morning gatherings. The bottom 2 on the left side are typical in the Qing Dynasty, there are summer and winter versions, with very distinctive long “tail” decorations made from feathers. The best performing officials can also receive additional feather (with circular patterns) to attach to this “tail”, ranging from 1-3 of such additions. The one marked with the red circle is from the Yuan Dynasty, and during this time, the head-wears clearly display a cross between the traditional Han and Mongolian cultures.

Selected head-wear styles for officials

Illustration by Fiona Sheng

In the civilian life, no exact hats are allowed, but head clothes shall be used instead. There are many styles of head cloth one can wear, and caps were developed from such head clothes. There are some simple ones including those on the head of the Terracotta worriers, and others that are more elaborate, such as the bottom few of the illustration below. According to historical records, caps were very useful in providing protection during war times, unfortunately though not enough record remained to show us how the early ones exactly looked like. Since Han Dynasty, the head cloth became a trend amongst social elites and scholars, so you may also see officials wearing head cloths instead of their proper hats in unofficial situations. The circled one from the illustration below is a great example of such head-wear.

Selected head-wear styles for civilians

Illustration by Fiona Sheng

Have you experienced the Coming of Age Ceremony of some kind? Do you feel attached to some hats or head-wears? Do share with us!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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2 thoughts on “Capping Ceremony: The Chinese Coming of Age”

  1. This was a fun read! All of these hats and head coverings look very familiar from the time period dramas that I watch! I recognized the kings hat right away from a few dramas that I watched during bridal ceremonies. I love all of the little illustrations that you did for the hats!

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