Today sees the new moon closest to the beginning of Spring and therefore marks the first day of the Chinese Lunar Year – and the most ceremonious holiday in China. Although China operates on the international Gregorian calendar, the traditional lunisolar calendar has kept its ceremonial significance. Every lunar year and zodiac sign is represented by one of twelve different animals. Today, the year of the Tiger begins.
A Chinese baby, his head covered with a hat taking the shape of an animal, benefits not only from its protection but is also endowed with its qualities (strength, courage, wealth, longevity). The tiger gets all the favours. With its prominent muzzle, pricked-up ears and fierce fangs, the frightening creature is ready to attack any malevolent spirit or devil that would dare to approach the baby.
The dragon figure belongs to the culture of the majority ethnic group in China, the Han. Since it is fitted with countless intricate qualities, including the supernatural power of becoming invisible, wearing a cap embodying a dragon would ensure that the baby escapes evil’s eye.
The rabbit is also a hugely significant animal in this culture, and is the unlikely hero of an old Chinese legend. Thought to live on the moon, the rabbit is famous in folk legends for preparing a special life elixir. So, long life is assured to any child wearing a rabbit cap.
Image: Embroidered Han Chinese tiger hat. Orange silk with appliquéd facial features and “king” character on a black silk base with trims of couched metal threads, braids, and old commercial ribbon. Early 20th c. , Pingyao, Shanxi Province.
In Chinese language, the character ‘yu’ – meaning fish – is pronounced almost like the ‘yú’ (with an accent), referring to the notion of abundance. With this translation in mind, any hat that is sewn in the shape of a fish is said to bring fortune and fecundity to girls, and virility to boys.
Quilted muzzles, sharp fangs, perked-up ears, applied feathers, hanging moustaches, embroidered scales, protruding eyes and pink pointed tongues make these hats a thrill to look at. Loving mothers put all their heart into sewing these hats. Creativity and imagination make up for the lack of money.
Image: Example of a 'shoutou mao' sewn in the shape of a tiger
It is true that Chinese babies don’t wear a ‘shoutou mao’ every day, as these animal hats are called. Nevertheless, their heads (above) should be covered. Another kind of protection would be the little silver amulets sewn onto their colourful textile bonnets. It is customary that Shou Lao, the god of longevity, reigns in the centre surrounded by the eight immortals, ‘Ba Xian’, assuring protection, wealth, happiness, health and, at the end, a peaceful and natural death – likely intended to prevent the baby from being robbed or killed.
The little figures traditionally stamped in silver or made of jade stone have been passed on through families, over several generations. Even today, cheap metal decorations can be bought in market places. In any case, wearing such a hat makes any baby look like little royalty, which is the way a child is viewed in traditional Chinese society.
Image: Antique, hand-embroidered, silk Chinese baby hat. The hats are worn by babies to disguise them as animals and protect them from evil spirits wanting to snatch them.
An edited extract from De La Tête Aux Pieds by Catherine Legrand, which appeared in Issue 91 Luxe.