Why were the common people called “black heads”?

In 221 BC the First Emperor renamed the Chinese common people to 黔首 “black-headed ones”. Why was this?

Chinese, Japanese, English, and French language sources were surveyed.

  • Baidu Baike: The First Emperor declared an “age of water”. Water is associated with the color black, so the common people were wearing black headscarves.
  • René Guénon: Black is associated with “anonymity”, but also with the Center and stillness, i.e. the “Middle Country”, and therefore with the purity of the “non-manifested”. (Note: Guénon was laboring under the false impression that it was the entire people, not the common folk, who were called “black heads”. Black is associated with north in China.) [source: Symbols of Sa. Sc.]
  • Wu Kun (吳崐, 1552-1620): The hair of the common people was black.[source: 黄帝内经素问吴注]
  • E.S.B.: Perhaps the hair of the nobility was not black.
  • Daijisen: Because they didn’t have any hats.

Posted: September 10th, 2013 | History 8 Comments »

8 Comments on “Why were the common people called “black heads”?”

  1. 1 asdf said at 5:08 pm on September 10th, 2013:

    See also 大學:

    In his speech from the Throne, the Duke of T’sin said:
    “Let me have as my Minister a plain and simple man who has absolutely no other qualification except a free and open mind and a broad and tolerant spirit; who regards the possession of abilities by others as if he possessed them himself; who shows his broad and tolerant spirit by taking the same delight in the superior intelligence of others as he would were it his own. Such a man will be able to protect our children and grandchildren, the black-haired people. (‘Higher Education’, Ku Hung-ming trans.)

  2. 2 Avery said at 3:06 pm on September 11th, 2013:

    This is an interesting chronological disparity, since the Great Learning was written far before the First Emperor.

  3. 3 asdf said at 4:32 pm on September 11th, 2013:

    The term in question is 黎民, a cognate of


  4. 4 Avery said at 8:09 pm on September 12th, 2013:

    I found a thread here where people are debating this.


    Unfortunately the people blabbering in the thread don’t know the changes in color names in ancient China. The complexity of these changes can be easily understood from reading a good textbook, like Archie Barnes etc.

  5. 5 John said at 11:03 pm on September 13th, 2013:

    Are you referring to Archie Barnes’s “Chinese Through Poetry”? Did he write any other textbooks?

    If so, how is “Chinese Through Poetry”? I’ve been thinking about getting it to study Classical Chinese. I have some books that teach Classical Chinese via prose texts like the Xiao Jing but I wonder if learning via poetry would be better.

  6. 6 Avery said at 7:31 pm on September 14th, 2013:

    Yes, he only wrote the one book — others were compiled by his students. My grad school has been through many Classical Chinese textbooks and this is the first year with Barnes. As I understand it’s good for starting from scratch with no prior hanzi knowledge. For me class has been a little boring so far.

  7. 7 John said at 3:21 am on September 15th, 2013:

    Yeah I imagine it must be easy and boring for you since you already know kanji.

    Have you studied Classical Chinese or kanbun and Classical Japanese before?

    Is your class also studying a grammar text like Pulleyblank’s “Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar” or just making do with the Barnes text? Also does your class teach writing or composing in Classical Chinese? Most formal instruction in Classical Chinese or kanbun focuses solely on reading, right?

  8. 8 Avery said at 3:25 am on September 15th, 2013:

    Barnes includes a sort of personal view on Classical Chinese grammar, and additional notes by his students will be added later. It’s all reading, and the professor is relaxed and has let me off on learning the accompanying Mandarin, so instead I am learning on’yomi for the Chinese words and will be allowed to use the spectacular, unspeakably fun 漢辞海 instead of the merely acceptable Mathews. I did study kanbun before so a huge wall of kanji is not inherently intimidating.