Perhaps you have noticed that I have an unusual hair style. Many Daoists have long hair worn up in a topknot. Learning about the Daoist topknot can teach you about Daoism and Chinese culture.
Daoists believe that people should live in harmony with the natural flow of energy that runs through all things. Not cutting our hair shows respect for the body’s natural process. Although Daoists typically have long hair (or a long beard) most Daoists do not let their hair go completely wild. Instead, it is gathered up into a topknot. Because the hair is an extension of the energy of the body, gathering up the hair in this special way focuses the heart and mind on one’s spiritual practice (收心). The Daoist topknot also serves like a brand, something that differentiates Daoists from lay people or from Buddhists, so that others can recognize us.
The location of the topknot is also strategic. The topknot is placed over an acupuncture point called Bai Hui or “Hundred Meetings” (GV20). Five of the body’s meridians pass through this point, so it is most important points onthe body. Acupuncturists use this point to promote clarity of thought, calm the mind, expand awareness and promote inner balance.
In modern times, many people wear the Daoist topknot. This is a new development that started within the last 15 years or so as part of the recovery, dissemination, and internationalization of Wudang arts. Traditionally, the topknot was reserved for those who had been accepted as a disciple in a Daoist lineage. Typically when a person first entered a temple, they had to complete a probation period of about three-years. During this period, they would be given odd jobs while the members of the temple got to know them. They would stop cutting their hair. After three years, they could be accepted as a disciple. If accepted, there would be a discipleship ritual. During the ritual, their master would put up the disciple’s hair in a topknot for the first time, and the disciple would be given a set of the master’s old robes to wear.
The most common type of topknot is made by wrapping two sections of hair around a hair-stick. It is said to resemble the nose of a cow. It is jokingly called the “cow-nose style” (牛鼻头). I have heard Buddhist monks playfully tease Daoists by calling them “cow-noses”. In fact, the cow is an important symbol in Daoism. It is said that Laozi, author of the Dao De Jing, traveled West on the back of a cow. Because of this legend, Daoists consider cows fellow followers of the Dao. Just like a bull may have a ring through its nose that is used to lead it from place to place, Daoists wear a hair-stick 簪子 (zan zi) through the middle of the top knot. This hair-stick symbolizes the way in which our connection to the Dao leads us through life.
More than a fashion statement, the Daoist topknot is an important part of Daoist practice. It makes us recognizable to others, focuses the energy of the body, marks a new Daoist’s acceptance into the community, and promotes mental and spiritual well-being.