(Natural) Historical Haircuts

Research often takes historians into unexpected tangents. This week, I started off continuing to read the Burmese anti-colonial journalist, writer and activist Thakhin Kodaw Hmaing’s Myauk Tika [Monkey Commentary] (1923)—which I have written about a bit here and also here before—and I ended up trying to find out more about Burmese haircuts in the 1920s.

Towards the back of the Myauk Tika, Hmaing provides paragraphs providing natural historical details of particular species of primate. Number ten on his list is the “Pluto” or “Diadem(ed)” monkey—at least, so far as I can tell by mapping my phonetic transliteration of the Burmese onto the changing English names given to shifting categorizations of species.

Pluto Monkey
Thakhin Kodaw Hmaing, Myauk Tika (1923), p. 258

Identifying the monkey being described was tricky because today the species are usually called “Blue Monkeys” rather than “Diademed”, and “Pluto” is now thought to be a subspecies (Cercopithecus mitis mitis). Eventually, I managed to find a text from the 1890s that conflated the name “Pluto” and “Diadem”, which is how Hmaing labels them, but alongside the name “the Black-Bellied Monkey”.

pluto monkey image
Drawing of “Black-Bellied” or “Pluto” Monkey taken from Richard Lydekker (ed), Royal Natural History, Vol. 1 (1893), p. 103.

Hmaing writes about how they can be found in West Africa, and describes the red colouring on their back and limbs, their dark black chests, and the distinctive white band across their foreheads, from which the name “Diadem”, a type of crown, presumably derives. But he then notes (if I’ve read it correctly) that when glimpsed, it looks as though they are sporting the contemporary “bo hsan tauk” [ဗိုလ်ဆံတောက်] haircut, favoured by young men, along with sideburns. So, what did the “bo hsan tauk” look like?

Burmese-English dictionaries today translate “hsan tauk” as a hairstyle distinguished by a short fringe. Visual sources suggest that short-fringed haircuts were popular around the time when Hmaing was writing. Here’s a cartoon from the interwar years of a child with short fringe and top-knot dishing out condensed milk to his peers.

Detail from a 1920s “Lactogen” advert taken from Thuriya newspaper

And here’s another, of a women with short-fringed hair for a Bile Beans advert:

DBYbRCzXoAEEMUg.jpg large
Detail from a 1930s “Bile Beans” advert taken from Thuriya newspaper.

I like this bit of esoteric detail that Hmaing has introduced into his synopsis of natural historical knowledge of primates. It reveals the cultural specifics to how scientific ideas were re-framed as they were appropriated into new contexts.

Having written that, based on the images that I’ve found, I’m not sure that I can see the resemblance between the haircut and the fur. Those sideburns though…


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