Gems of History

Pigtail and Christian faith

In Domingo De Salazar, OP (UST, 2001), author Lucio Gutierrez devotes a section to “The Cutting of Pigtail or the Danger of Apostasy of the Sangleys” in Chapter IV, “Missionary and Evangelical Labors of Domingo de Salazar in the Philippines, 1581-1591.”
People might wonder what the “pigtail” had to do with the Catholic faith among the Chinese during early Spanish period. Gutierrez tells us how Bishop Domingo de Salazar made an issue of the pigtail worn by the sangleys:
“What can we say is this: The number of conversions was never great. The Audiencia of Manila accused the bishop of being responsible for the lack of conversions among the Chinese due to an unfortunate decision of his.  He put some conditions on those who wanted to embrace Christianity, conditions which the Audiencia considered heavy and intolerable for the Chinese. For some time now, the bishop demanded that those who wanted to embrace Christianity had to have their pigtails cut. This was a terrible affront and the Chinese, even those ready to become Christians, preferred to remain in their paganism rather than became Christians and be forced to have the pigtail cut. In China, the pigtail was cut from bandits and criminals.”
Gutierrez writes further, “The governor, Don Santiago de Vera, tried to convince the bishop that the fact of having long or short hair was a custom and not a ceremony. As we carried it short, they preferred to have it long. In a letter written to the king in 1587, the governor told him that a general conversion might have ensued had the bishop allowed the Chinese to go on with their pigtail. (But) All was in vain, nobody could turn back Salazar from his decision. He accepts that the command was hard and even the Chinese came to him to complain, begging him to withdraw it.”
Gutierrez then asks, “Why did Salazar order that the Chinese sangleys who wanted to be baptized had to have the pigtail cut? What reasons impelled him to do something that in the view of most people, seemed very offensive to the Chinese and retarded the process of conversion? Did Salazar believe that to use long hair, as the Chinese did, was a religious ceremony or superstition?”
He explains: “Salazar never thought that to wear long hair, the fashion of the Chinese, was something superstitious which they had to renounce before becoming Christians. He knew as well as the governor did, that it was a pure custom.”
The real reason: “To Salazar’s ear had come the news of grave apostasies of Chinese Christians in mainland China. The sangleys who had been baptized in Manila, once they returned China, far from the Christian atmosphere of Manila, with their own pagan people, where there was no possibility of practicing the Christian religion, despised by their own compatriots, could not remain faithful to the vows of baptism promised in Manila.
“Once in China, who would distinguish them from the rest of the people? Salazar’s decision was not a conviction of idolatry but rather a practical proof to examine the sincerity of their faith. It was known that some Chinese tried to lead double lives. They behaved as Christians in Manila. Once in China, they lived as pagans.”
Nevertheless, Salazar’s order was criticized in Spain. Eventually, Gutierrez writes, “King Philip II felt displeased by the attitude of the bishop. Salazar received a letter from the king prohibiting him in the strongest terms to cut the pigtail of those Chinese who wanted to embrace Christianity.”
In fairness to the bishop, “the best defense Salazar could present to the king was his real conduct. He had worked for the conversion and defense of the Chinese sangleys more than anybody else, but he was terrified by the thought that these Chinese, once they were back in China, would return to their idolatrous ways,” according to Gutierrez.
In his letter to Philip II, Salazar said: “I understand everything and have more at heart the conversion of the Chinese than the one who informed Your Majesty. I would not cut their hair if it were not necessary, for otherwise, the faith will be placed at a great danger.”
To resolve the issue, Gutierrez recounts, “The Chinese Christians suggested to Salazar that idea of sending to China some religious, knowledgeable in Chinese language, to accompany those Christian sangleys who decided to go back to China. At the same time, they would try, once in China, to bring the Good News to the Chinese of the continent. The process of evangelization in China would be started in earnest. If the plan would be carried out, there would be no need to order them to have their pigtail cut…”
Finally, he writes, “After many meetings and discussions, it was decided that two Dominicans should go to China: Juan de Castro and Miguel de Benavidez. Since their arrival in the Philippines, in 1587, both of them had been engaged in the ministry of the Chinese sangleys of Manila. Both had a good knowledge of the Chinese language, especially Miguel de Benavidez. Since Chinese Christians from Manila were to accompany them, protect them in China, help them in their needs, and if need be, die with them in their own land. The joy of Salazar was enormous. They departed in May of 1590.”
Gutierrez excludes the story of that mission to China from his book, saying it goes “beyond the nature” of his study. But the book apparently made a mistake in its translation or interpretation of the “pigtail.”
Chinese males in China only began wearing pigtails when the Manchurians conquered China in 1644 and imposed this custom. (The Qing Dynasty of the Manchus lasted 268 years, from 1644 to 1912; hence, the images of the Chinese in modern times are those with pigtails.)
Salazar’s order to the Chinese who wanted to embrace Christianity to cut their pigtail was issued long before 1644. So, there was no pigtail among the Chinese in the Philippines at the time for Bishop Salazar to cut, although the Chinese in Salazar’s time did wear long hair. In fact, some of the sources Gutierrez cited in this section, including original archive documents translated from Spanish to English, referred to “long hair,” not “pigtail.” (We apologize for not being able to verify this from the original Spanish text).
For example, in “Letter of Governor Don Santiago de Vera to Philip II,” Manila, June 26, 1587 (Filipinas 18, AGI) the governor remarked, “Once they are Christians, [they have] to have their hair cut in a certain shape.”
In his letter to Salazar on June 23, 1587 (Archivo Historico Nacional, Seccion de Diversos, Documentos de Indias, N. 267), King Philip II only mentioned, “…and you ask them to have their hair cut.”
In “Letter of Domingo de Salazar to Philip II,” June 24, 1590 (Filipinas 74, AGI), Salazar only said, “I would not try to cut their hair if ‘it were not necessary.’”
So, the problem had to do with the long hair, not the pigtail.