Chinese Bigwigs Are Quick to Reach For the Hair Color
By: Wall Street Journal
Politicians and Executives Look for Youth in a Bottle
By JASON LEOW
BEIJING — Very few of China’s political and business leaders these days seem to go gray.
It is possible that could have something to do with genes, but something else is involved, too. For aging men of influence here, the dye job appears to have become as commonplace as the Mao suit once was.
Though they range in age from 52 to 67, the most senior leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee include nine men with nary a white strand of hair.
President and party chief Hu Jintao, 64, still has black hair. Even his retired predecessor, 81-year-old Jiang Zemin, still turns up at major political events with a shiny black top.
“Political leaders need to go on television and are seen by the public. They need to show that they are in good health,” says Wang Zhengrun, deputy chief executive of a state-owned insecticide-manufacturing plant, who colors his hair with an herbal preparation.
Some men in Japan and India dye their hair, too. But few countries are as averse to gray as China is. Japan’s former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, was famous for his salt-and-pepper locks. Current Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sports a gray beard and bushy white eyebrows below his trademark blue turban.
In America, dye jobs suggest vanity. George W. Bush has let his hair gray in the White House, as Bill Clinton had done.
The penchant for black hair also extends beyond politics to China’s business world. There is barely a gray hair among the ranks of the richest. He Xiangjian, the owner of home-appliance maker Midea Group, appeared on the cover of July’s China Entrepreneur, a local business magazine. Worth $1.7 billion by one estimate, he was photographed in a dark suit and smiling. His dark locks belie his age: He is 65 years old. But he won’t comment. Only his hairdresser knows for sure.
Experts say that obsessing about hair color here may be rooted in modern-day social conditions. Nearly three in five Chinese citizens are under 39, making aging workers easy to replace. “In China, age is a very big factor for promotions,” says Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Desire for Youthfulness
Driven by the desire for youthfulness, the Chinese are powering hair-dye sales. About $148 million in hair colorants were sold in China in 2006, up 75% since 2001, according to Euromonitor International. L’OrÃ©al Paris and Hong Kong’s Youngrace Cosmetic Group International Ltd. were among the leading providers. Still, barbers of influential politicians and businessmen say that, for discretion’s sake, most men dye their hair at home.
Some in ancient China might have found the practice taboo — there is a Chinese proverb that exhorts people to leave things alone. Confucius once compared hair and skin to inheritances “from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them.”
The Chinese rarely used to mess with their hair, and when they did, it was in exceptional circumstances, says Zhao Feng, an economic historian. When the Manchus conquered the Hans and established the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, the emperor ordered the front of Han men’s heads shaved as a reminder of their subjugation. Earlier in Chinese history, Cao Cao, a poet and emperor, wanted to commit suicide to show accountability for breaking a rule he set for his soldiers. He was persuaded instead to settle for hair-cutting as a lesser, but symbolically potent, act of penance. Buddhist converts shave their heads as an act of renouncing worldly affairs.
Today’s growing consumer culture — one that tells people they can have what they want — ignores much of the wisdom of the ages. Instead, men are taking control, turning to pills and special shampoos on top of dyes. Pharmacists tout shou wu, an herbal formula said to cleanse the liver and kidneys and thereby keep hair healthy. Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong movie star, is seen on television peddling Bawang Shampoo, produced by Guangdong B&W International Group. It claims to keep hair black and intact.
Wang Mingzhang, 65, has been dyeing his hair monthly since he discovered the first wisps of white when he was 40. “I don’t want to be an old man in others’ eyes,” he says. Mr. Wang is close to a good source: He supervises more than 100 workers in a factory that makes hair dyes.
There are a few exceptions to the sea of black. One is Larry Yung, 65, chairman of CITIC Pacific, a Hong Kong conglomerate. In photographs, he is seen with a full head of white hair — but he is based in Hong Kong, where perhaps there isn’t the same pressure in corporate circles to go jet black.
Zhang Deming, a 53-year-old professor of Chinese studies at Zhejiang University in southeastern China, can’t recall a day when his hair wasn’t black. For the right look, he uses Osmun hair dye, a domestic brand, which he puts on at home once every two months. “I’m not shy being seen buying hair dye or telling relatives that I use it,” he says.
The antigray orthodoxy in China mirrors a growing anxiety about other features that accompany aging. Chen Huanran, a cosmetic surgeon, has seen the numbers of male patients pick up considerably in the past two years. Many of them had accompanied their wives for their facelifts and liposuctions, and they were taken with the results. Normally, men prefer tweaks so subtle — a snip of the droopy eyelids or a mild face-tightening — that no one would ever find out that they had been operated on.
But there is one thing that men will proudly keep: their beer bellies. “They see them as status symbols,” Mr. Chen says.
–Bai Lin in Shanghai and Zhou Yang in Beijing contributed to this article.
Write to Jason Leow at firstname.lastname@example.org
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