China’s battle of the pigtail

By Audrey Ronning Topping

udrey Ronning Topping is a prize-winning photojournalist, author and documentary filmmaker. Her photographs and articles have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Life, Time and Reader’s Digest, among others. Her writings and photos bring a wealth of experience on Sino-American relations that’s in her bones: Her father was Canadian ambassador-at-large and her grandparents were missionaries in China. Her new book, “China Mission,” will debut Oct. 7.

For centuries hairstyles have been hallmarks of diverse cultures. They have signified social class, political beliefs, professional and marital status, racial identification and numerous attitudes. Hairstyles have also been issues in rebellions and wars. Perhaps the most striking was China’s “Battle of the Pigtail,” which my father, Chester, and his brother Nelius were directly involved in as youngsters.

When the Manchu warriors rode their steeds out of Manchuria and ruthlessly conquered all of China to assume the “Mandate of Heaven” from the Chinese Ming rulers in 1640, the central conflict concerned not politics or territory but hairstyles. As a sign of subjugation to their new rulers, the Manchus issued an edict called “The Order of the Queue” that ordered all Chinese males to shave their hair back from their foreheads every 10 days and braid the back into a long queue. Resistance was considered treason with a penalty of beheading.

This hairstyle, however, violated the Chinese sense of honor and decorum. The traditional Chinese hairdo for men had always been a topknot, as worn by the famous terra-cotta soldiers buried in 210 B.C. to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, which was discovered 2,200 years later in Xian.

The compulsory “Order of the Queue” by the Manchus caused widespread riots. Some areas, like the town of Chiating in the Southeast, refused it outright, offering armed resistance. The Chinese held out for eight days against the mounted Manchu Bannermen. When the town was finally subjugated, a three-day bloody massacre took place as a warning to anyone with similar ideas. Records show that 97,000 townspeople and 75,000 in the surrounding areas died in the “Battle of the Pigtail.”

Then in 1850, another rebel, Hung Hsui-ch’uan, let his hair grow wild and began the Taiping Rebellion. Foreign mercenaries helped crush the rebellion and Manchu troops slaughtered millions of Chinese. The first phase of the modern revolution was nipped in blossom.

Still, China seethed with hatred against the Manchus. The Chinese lost the battle, but fierce resistance to Manchu domination continued underground. This was still evident in 1891 when my American missionary grandparents, the Rev. Halvor and Hannah Ronning, went to China, where their two oldest sons, Nelius and Chester, were born. Their first language was Chinese, but they had learned English when the Ronning family was forced to return to America during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. On their return to China, the boys were in constant demand by the senior students of their father’s school, who were eager to practice English. They had studied written English by correspondence but never heard the spoken word. One day, Nelius and Chester, then 12 and 10, were invited to the room of the most senior student, Tung Tse-pei, an 18-year-old with intense eyes and an adventurous spirit. Like the other students, he wore the Manchu-enforced hairstyle with a long braided queue dangling down his back.

Brilliant and hardworking, Tse-pei was troubled by the state of affairs in China. He despised the fossilized ancient traditions and longed for new concepts and independent thinking. Chester and Nelius were flattered by the attentions of the senior boys. Tse-pei invited them to sit down while he stood with six fellow students dressed in the smart new school uniforms that my grandmother Hannah had designed. He revealed a hidden paper from under a floorboard, and the students began to read together from the document in singsong unison. When they were finished they stood smiling, waiting for the reaction of the American boys. But Nelius and Chester had not understood a word. It had sounded like a chant of Chinese nonsense syllables. Not wanting to disappoint their new friends, Nelius stole a look at the document and was surprised to discover it was the American Declaration of Independence.

With typical Chinese courtesy, the American boys congratulated the students on their splendid English and agreed to give them a few insignificant constructive criticisms in pronunciation. Nelius asked them to read the declaration aloud one at a time so he could hear it better. The students were delighted and read the document repeatedly, each time improving their enunciation. The Chinese boys had substituted the name of the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi for George III and had listed her corresponding crimes. Although the students laughed when they listed the faults of the old empress, inwardly they were deadly serious. The older generation would never dared defy the Manchus, but the students, reflecting their new knowledge and the Western unwillingness to kowtow, scoffed at their supreme ruler.

The following week, Tse-pei received another document from Hankow. It was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He told the American boys that a man called Sun Yat-sen had promised to bring “government of the people, by the people and for the people” to China. They had translated the line as “people-owning, people-ruling and people-enjoying.”

One evening at dusk, Tse-pei invited Nelius and Chester to his room, where the other six were sitting in a circle on the floor. Tse-pei confided that he had organized a local cell of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s famous United League (T’ung Meng Hui). From a secret box he carefully extricated some articles published by the revolutionary Shanghai newspaper Subao concerning reform and modernization. The articles pointed out the importance of protecting the young reform-minded Emperor Guangxu from the evil Empress Dowager Cixi. It urged the establishment of a Chinese constitution and even went so far as to recommend the killing of certain Manchus.

The most dangerous document, however, was part of a manifesto titled “The Revolutionary Army,” written by Zou Rong, a courageous young activist-journalist from Shanghai. In his book-length manifesto, secretly copied and distributed by Sun Yat-sen’s followers, Zou Rong pleaded with his countrymen to “seize back their land and dare to be free.” He invoked the spirits of George Washington and the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and recalled the achievements of the British, French and American revolutions. He mocked the Chinese for accepting Manchu domination like servile cattle and described the Chinese officials who served the Manchus as “butchers.” He advocated forcing out the Manchus and called for equal rights between men and women, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and a constitution based on the American model.

Tse-pei stood up and read from Zou Rong’s article, flinging his arms out: “How sublime is revolution! How majestic!” The American boys were riveted. When he finished, all the boys stood up and cheered. Then in a gesture Chester would never forget, Tse-pei suddenly bent forward and whipped his long queue over his head from behind.

“Look at this disgrace to all patriotic Chinese,” he cried, “You call it a pig’s tail, and that’s exactly what it is. For over 300 years, we have been forced to wear these miserable things, because we have become pigs to show our inferiority to the Manchus.”

He looked up and, using his fingers like a pair of shears, added: “We are going to cut them off like this. We want short hair like you Americans. We are joining students throughout China to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty.”

Tung Tse-pei’s eyes shone with a fierceness Chester had never seen before.

“When Dr. Sun cut off his queue,” Tse-pei said, “he did more than disguise his appearance, he changed from inside out and resolved nevermore to be subject to the Manchus. There are students like us in all the schools in China.We shall overthrow the Manchu Dynasty.”

All the boys knew that even talking about cutting their hair was dangerous. Manchu soldiers and spies were on constant lookout for short-haired rebels. Any Chinese caught without a queue was beaten to death or decapitated. What the boys didn’t anticipate at the time was that within the year their hero Zou Rong and the entire Subao newspaper staff would be jailed by the Manchus for treason. In the spring of 1905, the young revolutionary whose rhetoric had inspired students all across China died mysteriously in jail. There was widespread talk that he had been tortured to death. He was 19 years old.

Chester and Nelius were sworn to secrecy. Tse-pai asked them not to tell their father Lao Hutzu – Old Whiskers. He thought that Rev. Ronning would not like to hear that they were plotting revolution in his school, but he certainly would be pleased to hear that China wanted to become a republic like the United States of America. It was not until 1911, after 371 years of Manchu rule, that the Qing Dynasty lost the mantle of the “Mandate of Heaven” and the first republic was formed. The first thing the Chinese did was to cut off their pigtails.

Out of Christian missionary schools in China came most of the early and many of the later revolutionary leaders in China, including Prime Minister Zhou Enlai of the People’s Republic, who wore his short hair in Western style. I was privileged to be the first Western photographer to take his portrait. It appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Audrey Ronning Topping’s new book “China Mission: A Personal History From Imperial China to the People’s Republic” will be published by the Louisiana State University Press Oct. 7. Discount preorders are now available on

Written By
More from Staff
Botanical celebrates Monet’s floral works By Georgette Gouveia He was, of course,...
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *