Master Kim Loses His Topknot

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“Have you heard? His majesty the king has declared himself emperor and taken to dressing like a Prussian. I never thought I’d live to see our rulers stoop so low as to copy the Japanese imitation of foreign devils. Spreading the hangul alphabet is a foolish policy, too. Everyone knows that’s just for women and the lower orders. You can’t call yourself educated unless you know your Chinese classics in their original form, that’s what I always say.” Old Dr. Yu fanned himself in a disapproving manner. Dr. Yu had retired from the civil service ten years ago, which had turned out to be prudent in retrospect. Queen Min had been assassinated just last year, and the Western powers were getting harder to ignore.

“Yes, I did. It is rumored that he has cut off his topknot as well. Shameful.” Master Kim poured his old teacher a drink. He had passed the civil service exam himself six years ago, in 1890. At the time he had assumed that his future was secure, but now he wasn’t so sure.

The courtesan playing the haegeum looked no older than fourteen. The stringed instrument was probably taller than her when it was propped upright. This was not a good trend, because it meant that lower-class families were so desperate that they were selling daughters into this flowery world at ever younger ages.

Master Kim adjusted the strap on his horsehair top hat. If his topknot were to be cut off, he would not have anything to secure his top hat with. It was shameful for a man to appear in public without some form of head covering.

Master Kim remembered well the day when he was officially made a man. He was about the same age as this courtesan is now when he started wearing his hair in the adult topknot style, with the forehead binding that went with it. His grandfather, rest his soul, had officiated at his coming-of-age ceremony.

Dr. Yu took a drag on his foot-long pipe and put his metal cup down on the table. This was Master Kim’s cue to pour some more makgeoli from the metal kettle into his teacher’s cup.

When the two men left the teahouse, Master Kim saw to it that his teacher got into a rickshaw. Master Kim, however, was happy to walk. The old city of Hanyang, increasingly called Seoul, had a quiet charm to it.

It was at the city gates on the way back out to his country villa that Master Kim was stopped by a guard. “You, sir. Please stop. Are you not aware of the new ordinance? You are requested to come with us to the nearest barbershop.”

Oh no. Master Kim had not been expecting this. Surely as a gentleman and a scholar official, he had some say in the matter. If he had been a lowly commoner, the guard would have simply chopped off his topknot right then and there.

“I’d rather not.”

“Resistance is futile. Given your status as a gentleman, you are being given the option to be shorn in the private comfort of a barbershop. If you put up too much of a fight, you will lose this privilege.”

Master Kim thought about his options. If he resisted and got the chop right here at the city gate, the result would be a messy hack job done for everyone to see. On the other hand, he could tell his parents and wife that he had resisted manfully. If he allowed his hair to be cut in a shop, the result might look more intentional and polished, like the cropped styles worn by Europeans and Japanese. Making a fuss was not a gentlemanly thing to do. What would Confucius have done?

“Aren’t you coming, sir?” The guard wasn’t giving up. Master Kim nodded. All things considered, putting up a fight was not going to save his hair, anyway, so he might as well minimize the unpleasantness.

Master Kim soon found himself being escorted into one of the new barbershops that catered primarily to foreigners. To his surprise, the barber himself was Korean. How did this man live with himself, seeing as he made his living by robbing men of their pride and glory?

“I’ll leave you to it. You know what to do. This one’s a scholar.”

“Have a seat, sir.” The barber was oddly simpering, given the sharp shears he was holding. He could easily slit someone’s throat with those, if he were so inclined. Master Kim did as he was told.

“What will I tell my wife?”

“What they all tell their wives. That you were attacked by a hair-snipping ghost. Women aren’t really stupid enough to buy that as a story, but it helps you save face in front of her, and she can feel better about having a husband who wasn’t brave enough to resist the chop. Nobody can, anyway.” The barber rubbed his own closely-shorn pate. He must have had his hair cut off early.

“How about your wife?”

“I was surprised at how accepting she was of it. Now she likes it. Says it makes me look foreign, and you know that foreigners are rich. Not too bad.” The barber laughed, revealing discolored teeth. He clearly had experience with malnutrition, although judging by his current figure, those days were behind him.

Master Kim carefully removed his top hat and untied the forehead band that went under it. He hesitated a moment before unwinding the cloth strip that was bound around his actual topknot. Only his wife saw his exposed hair with any regularity. Even she rarely saw it down.

The barber finished the job of taking off the bindings. Picking up the shears, he said “Here goes” and began slicing through the base of the topknot without further ado. The back hair, now the longest, cascaded down onto Master Kim’s collar.

“Oops, let’s cover up your nice clothes.” The barber spread out a white cloth and wrapped it around Master Kim, like a corpse being prepared for cremation. Master Kim already felt like he was at his own funeral.

The barber picked up the shears again and placed them against the scalp at the nape of Master Kim’s neck. This was going to be short. He could feel the metal working its way up the back of his head before stopping at the crown. The next thing he knew, the barber had moved to his right side and began cutting off the hair above his ear. Master Kim was used to having his ears exposed, but that was with long hair worn up in a topknot. It felt strange to have scissors snipping the hairs around his ears.

All too soon it was time to cut the hair at his crown. Master Kim wasn’t sure what the barber was going to do with this part. Some of the foreigners he had seen wore their top hair long enough to part, while others cropped their front hair so short that it stood straight up. Master Kim had thick, coarse hair that would not need much encouragement to stand straight up.

To his dismay he noticed that the barber had opted for the shorter style, cutting the very front of his hair to about an inch. This was going to be the longest part. That meant the crown was going to be even shorter.

At last the barber put down the shears. Master Kim’s relief was short-lived, however. The barber next picked up a razor and began shaving Master Kim’s nape. This was really going too far.

“All done. You’ll have to keep coming back to the barbershop to maintain this cut. Have a nice day.” As the barber removed the white cloth and began folding it up to put away, Master Kim reached for the top of his head to feel his new crewcut. This was shorter than His Majesty’s new haircut, if the prints he had seen in the newspaper were any indication.

When Master Kim got home, he didn’t want to see his wife, so he stayed in his study for the rest of the day. What would she think? Wouldn’t she be disappointed in him? At the very least she would be repulsed at the short hair that was so reminiscent of an old monk who was going bald.

Even then, his wife came into the study with a teapot. She could see immediately what had happened to him, and from the way he was hunched over his desk, it was not hard to guess that he was not happy about having been shorn.

“Here you are, darling, have some tea. You’ll feel better.”

She knelt down on the floor next to him, propping up one knee in the genteel formal fashion of well-brought-up Korean ladies. Normally she would never dream of touching her husband’s head, at least not in broad daylight, but he was so forlorn-looking that she couldn’t help but stroke his short hair in a maternal fashion.

Feeling her touch, Master Kim turned around to face her. He had knitted his brow, and he was biting his lip. It was obvious that he was feeling vulnerable.

“There, there, darling. You’re still my lord. I don’t think any less of you for following a royal decree. We’ll get used to it. I almost like it already.”

Master Kim fought back tears as he took his wife’s hand in his. “What will we tell my parents?”

“That a ghost made off with your topknot. They’ll have to get used to it. Maybe this is the price of becoming a modern country that won’t be laughed at by foreigners. I hear his Majesty didn’t enjoy his first haircut, but has already had his third one. If he can bear it, so can you.”

In this moment Master Kim smiled just a little bit. He was lucky to have a understanding wife. Maybe she was right. He would survive this.

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