The first episodic article I’ve written in months is on… hair braids, of all things.
Whether you’re high fashion expert or a scraggly, mop-headed hippy, you’ve probably given a fair amount of attention to styling your hair. From our “edgy” high school haircuts (we’ve all had them, believe me) to our totally 80’s glam-rock Kenny G do’s, we’ve all tried to make a fashion statement with our hair in some way. There’s just something raw, natural, and appealing when it comes to hair, that we spend far more money on it than we should. Although studies show that the average person focuses on the eyes and teeth of a person’s face first, hair just has a sort of je ne sais quoi which compels us to spend far more attention on it. It’s easy to change, grows automatically, and it’s fiercely expressive of what we want to be, much unlike the eyes, which constantly whisper unspoken truths. Simply put, hair is an incredible source of identity and controlled expression.
In Magi, the Kouga clan’s hair is braided individually to mark members of the tribe. Each and every clan member uses a braid to identify their status and membership in the tribe. The braid is a source of identity to the members of the Kouga, and each stakes pride in their knotted hair. It’s the mark of family and membership within their pastoral culture, an external mark of membership and cultural identity within the clan, and also, source of empowerment. In the context of the show’s Kouga family, the braid lends mental strength and confidence to the characters who wear it on their heads.
Although the earliest episodes of Magi took place in a heavily Arabian setting, Aladdin has now found himself moving eastwards into pastoral area of Asia. Or well, more specifically, towards China. See, contrary to what most people think, Aladdin’s section of the One Thousand and One Nights is actually set in China, despite the story’s origins in the Middle-East. In fact, Aladdin is explicitly stated to be Chinese, despite the majority of the cast being stated as Muslims or Jewish instead of belonging to more local religions, such as Confucianism or Buddhism. What we are now seeing is the story shift in setting as it shifts focus on the story’s two male leads in order to accompany their literary origins. While the first few episodes focused on Alibaba and brought a sandy, earthy vibe to the setting, the beginning of Aladdin’s arc takes place in a symbolic China (I know that sounds odd, but bear with me), signified by the change in attire, naming, and even tent designs.
But what does this have to do with anything? Well, first we have to take a bit of a history lesson. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Qing (or Manchu, pick your poison) Empire put into place a series of harsh laws called to the Queue Order. Making their way across the China, the Manchu’s ordered those they overtook to cut their hair and form into a single long braid pulled to the back, a hairstyle know as the queue. However, since Confucian doctrine states that it is important to not cut or damage the hair, skin, and bodies given to us in the name of filial piety, conflicts arose with the Queue Order, as the hairstyle required men to shave the front part of forehead. In reaction to this, the Manchus adopted the slogan of “Keep your hair and lose your head, or keep your head and cut your hair,” in order to force the law on the public. Aptly fitting their slogan, those who rebelled against their strict regime by refusing to cut their hair were massacred.
As a country designed with the Imperial era of China in mind, the Kou Empire takes into account the practices of the Manchus and then splits them between two bodies, the Kou Empire itself and its former subsidiary, the Kouga Clan. While the Kou Empire inherited the bloody history of the Qing Empire’s desire for rapid expansion and conquest, the Kouga Clan received a revised, highly modern take on the queue and the cultural identity which comes with it. The Kouga’s version of the queue actually isn’t entirely queue; it lacks the shaving of the forehead and the braid can be located anywhere on the clan member’s head, rather than in the back. While there exists a slight cosmetic change in order to make the physical appearances of the characters more appealing to a twenty-first century audience, the core design and symbolic blueprint of the hair still applies, so long as the braid endures.
Aladdin is quickly accepted into the Kouga as a family member, partially because he retains the clan’s trademark, the braid. Meanwhile, Baba, whose small frame puts emphasis on her extremely large hair braid, acts as both the leader and mother figure of the Kouga clan. As the mother figure, she explicitly states to Aladdin, who seeks his past and an identity, that he is one is now considered one of her family members. Aladdin quickly assimilates into the Kouga’s way of life and is easily accepted by the people not only because of pious nature, but also due to his modern take on the Manchu queue. Through his braided hair, Aladdin is not only attached to the Baba in a parent-child sense, but he is also physically entwined to the Kouga’s traditions and family. For someone like Aladdin who craves identity and a past (much unlike Alibaba, who runs from it), this physical connection through the use braids, functioning as a symbolic umbilical cord of sorts, is an important way for us viewers to see his welcoming among the Kouga Clan. Ultimately, a journey for one’s identity results in a search for the loving embrace of family and peers, and Aladdin finds this in the “womb” of Baba and the Kouga clan.
Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to every symbol and the braid in Magi is no exception. In several cultures in ancient Asia, primarily in China, Japan, and Korea, the cutting of the hair represents a severance or rejection of home, for better or for worse. The cutting of the braid also becomes a motif in the Kouga Clan, and we can see characters in the past two episodes strongly react to this. In the grim, first raid from the Kou Empire, Ryosai plans to steal the women of the Kouga clan so that he may use them as concubines and as a bargaining chip. Although he is stopped from taking Toya’s life, in a very symbolic gesture, he cuts the braid clean off of her head, severing her from the womb of the Kouga and stealing away her identity. With Goltas, a Kouga man later made a slave, this is much the same. Missing his hair completely and sporting an entirely bald look, Goltas has abandoned his identity unwillingly and has been made a tool, bereft of identity and severed entirely from his tribe. What can be tied together, can also become undone.