Why Wearing a Green Hat Symbolizes Infidelity in China (戴绿帽子)

Ah, St. Patrick’s Day. I have quite a few memories of getting pinched as a kid for forgetting to wear green on March 17th. Do kids still do this these days or were my classmates just mean?

As the foreign teacher, part of my role is to expose my Chinese students to all things Western culture in preparation to function healthily abroad someday. This includes touching on topics of popular Western holidays and traditions.

From my experience, St. Patrick’s Day is not commonly known in China outside of rowdy expat groups or Chinese Catholics, but it does seem to be a growing consumer trend (like Christmas and Halloween). You can get all sorts of discounts for St. Paddy’s on shopping apps like Taobao or Alipay. Want some chocolate coins or a box of Lucky Charms cereal? No problem. Someone’s got you. For a festive atmosphere, foreign-catering pubs in larger cities in China (like Paddy O’Shea’s in Beijing’s Chaoyang District or Logan’s Punch in Shanghai’s Jing’an District) offer fun games like a scavenger hunt around town to go with deals on their St. Paddy’s Day signature libations.

PC. China Daily

In recent years, China has participated in Ireland’s PR campaign of “Global Greening,” the illumination of well-known monuments and buildings green to spark interest in tourism to Ireland. Ireland’s ambassador to China, Paul Kavanagh, with Irish Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, oversaw the first time the Badaling section of the Great Wall glowed green in 2014. He has said of his work, “My visit this St Patrick’s Day aims to reinforce these connections and to open new opportunities for mutually beneficial co-operation.” Since then, the Great Wall has turned green at least six times with Canton Tower in Guangzhou joining in on the fun.

Bringing St. Paddy into the Classroom

Early on, when I was still wet behind the ears and trying to get my teaching groove down, my students would often be the ones to share with me what is acceptable or not in Chinese culture. Kids pick up more than we realize, even the littlest ones, and it always amazes me at how in-depth and knowledgeable they are. It is from the mouths of snickering children that I first learned of the stigma surrounding green hats: they are a sign to signal someone’s romantic partner is cheating!!

Let me tell you, hearing this was simultaneously amusing and confusing. I really had to make it a prerogative to explain to my classes, before I show anyone wearing green hats, that other cultures do not hold the same belief about them and infidelity. Yet, despite my warnings before every St. Paddy’s Day lecture, my slides of people in festive clothing never fail to garner little gasps of surprise, laughter, and a few screams of mortification. Even my Chinese colleagues’ are taken aback when I would tell of the holiday where people wear green hats as part of the celebration. As follows, I felt I needed to find out more about their strong taboo. Where and when did this aversion to green hats start?

Guanyu PC: GameAtlas.com

I’ll preface this by mentioning that green in modern China is not a bad color, overall. Sure, people in a bad mood are sometimes referred to having a “green head,” and withdrawals or deficits of money show up in bank statements in green (rather than red as in the West). Yet, the color green has many positive aspects. For instance, Chinese green jade is widely believed to have healing and wellness properties. Famous heroes throughout Chinese history have worn green on their head. Just look at Guan Yu (關羽), a highly lauded military officer and symbol loyalty during China’s Three Kingdoms era (220 to 280 ACE). He was reported to have worn a green turban, and is today worshipped as a deity by many.

So, why this avoidance of green hats, specifically? From what I have gathered, though accounts differ, there are two main origin stories.

The Cheating Wife and the Cuckold Husband

During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 ACE), there was a dedicated scholar named Li Yuanming (李缘铭) who married a beautiful woman named Cifu (辞赋). Being the intense literati that he was, Li Yuanming would often meet with friends to compose, analyze, and debate poetry late into the night. Often, he would travel away on long business trips, leaving his wife alone for days on end. Cifu began to feel sad and neglected. During one of her husband’s trips, she fell in love with their next-door neighbor, a widowed cloth merchant.

At this time, it was common for scholars to wear special green hats to mark their profession. To signal to her secret lover that her husband was away and it was safe to be together, Cifu would put on the green hat and walk along on the street outside. This went on for quite some time until one day Li Yuanming forgot a volume of poetry. He rushed back home only to discover the affair. In a fit of blinding rage, Li Yuanming threw the two out of the house, making quite the scene for passersby. Word of Li Yuanming’s shame spread throughout the village, especially Cifu’s usage of her husband’s green hat.

Clueless man PC: Pearvideo.com

Hence, any man wearing a green hat (Dàilǜmào zi 戴绿帽子) is thought to be a fool with an unfaithful wife, although nowadays this encompasses both genders. In addition, if you’re given a green hat by your significant other, then the news is probably not good. It’s best to stay away from green hats or even green hoodies.

The Bad Luck of Being Related to a Prostitute

Another story about green hats goes back to China’s Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). History buffs might recall this era as China’s first foreign-ruled dynasty under the Mongols (read my post here for a little of when Tibet was incorporated into the Mongol’s rule).  During the Yuan Dynasty, prostitution was a thriving business, but with any class-based society, there had to be strict rules to identify one’s status. Both male and female prostitutes were required to wear green hats when moving about the town. Not only that, their extended family had to wear these hats as well. A similar theory cites instead the Ming Dynasty’s Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (1368 to 1398), as the one to enact the decree of green-hatted prostitutes and their family.

Poor Unfortunate Soul PC: Baidu

Under the Hongwu Emperor, “men of prostitutes must wear a green scarf, a red jacket at the waist, and pigskin shoes with fur. They are not allowed to walk in the middle of the street, and are only allowed to ‘walk aside’ on the left and right sides.” Such a strong visual allowed upstanding citizens to avoid socializing with them about town.

Wearing a green hat eventually became synonymous with a man’s wife or daughter working as a prostitute, and then later by extension a wife’s “stealing” of a man’s dignity. Losing one’s wife is said to be the worst case scenario for a man, second only to losing one’s father.

Green Hats and the Catholic Church

As you can imagine, this belief about green hats has caused significant unease for Chinese Catholic bishops, who in their ecclesiastical heraldry would typically have a green hat above their arms. Chinese bishops have had to work out a compromise by switching out the green hat for a violet on in their coat of arms.

No Green Hats – Soldiers Exempt

“So Angry! ” PC: Weibo

There you have it! Please, for the sake of saving face, do not wear a green hat in China, and NEVER give one as a gift to a Chinese friend. Moreover, never say to a Chinese man that he is wearing a green hat, unless you are looking for a fight. It’s also best to stay away from putting green on your head in general, as even wearing a green hoodie up can elicit jokes and laughter.

The only exemption to the green hat rule would be for those in the military who are actually required to wear green hats as part of their PLA uniform.

  • Cover photo credit to bilibili.com

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

圣帕特里克节快乐!( shèng pà tè lǐ kè jié kuài lè)

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