Pop Cantonese: 戴綠帽 – Wearing A Green Hat

Picture this: you’re walking around town in your favourite hat when you notice passersby smirking and staring at you. Could it be that you have something in your teeth? Or did a bird drop something lucky on you? Well, if your hat happens to be green, you likely have your answer.

In Chinese culture, wearing a green hat is cause for mockery because of its hidden meaning. When a man “wears a green hat” (daai3 luk6 mou6 戴綠帽), it signifies that his partner is cheating on him – in other words, that he’s a cuckold. These days, the saying applies to all genders, but how exactly did this come to be and where did the symbolism come from? 

According to local legend, there once was a scholar named Li Yuanming who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Li was married to a beautiful woman named Cifu, but often had to travel for work, leaving her home alone for weeks on end. Feeling lonely and abandoned, Cifu started seeing their next-door neighbour, who was a widowed cloth merchant.

During a time when Li was home for three months straight, with no business trip in sight, the cloth merchant grew impatient for his next tryst. So Cifu decided to have a green hat made for her husband in order to let her secret lover know when her husband was leaving town. 

“Whenever you see my husband wearing the green hat, it’s safe to come over,” she said. This worked for a while, until one day, Li stepped out and forgot a volume of poetry at home. Rushing back, he discovered his wife with the cloth merchant and threw the two of them out in a fit of blinding rage. Of course, the entire village heard about Li’s shame, including the embarrassing green hat, and that is how the saying “wearing a green hat” is said to have first come about.

Another reason why wearing a green hat has negative connotations in China is because of what it represented in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). Back then, prostitution was on the rise, so in order to identify the different social classes on the street, prostitutes and their families were told to wear green headscarves and adhere to rules such as walking only on the sides of the street. That way, normal citizens could easily spot and avoid them. Over time, wearing a green hat symbolised a man’s wife or daughter working as a prostitute and ultimately, his perceived loss of dignity. 

That said, the colour green in Chinese culture isn’t all bad. In fact, green is perceived to be a rather lucky colour that represents health, patience, harmony, and growth. Green also represents wealth, fertility, purity and cleanliness, which is why it’s often seen on buildings, banks and restaurants, as well as on packaging for dairy and produce to show that it’s contamination-free.

But, before you start wearing green from head to toe in an effort to remain free of contamination, be warned that if you wear a green hat, the extra attention you’re getting isn’t from people turning green with envy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!

Photo by Jack T via Unsplash. Astute readers will notice the photo was taken in Japan as it is exceedingly difficult to find someone wearing a green hat in Hong Kong.

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