I just came across this fascinating lecture by John Lawson Stoddard who was an American writer and lecturer who traveled the world in the mid to late 1800’s and gained popularity through his travel writings. In series 13 of his lectures upon visiting Canton, he describes the role of a Chinese barber and includes a picture in which can be seen a similar wooden barbers stool.
Occasionally we discovered in these streets an itinerant barber. These Chinese Figaros carry their outfits with them. First in importance comes a bamboo pole, which is the immemorial badge of their profession. To this is usually attached one solitary towel, – free to every customer. From one extremity of this pole hangs a small brass basin, together with a charcoal stove for heating water; the other end is balanced by a wooden cabinet, which serves the patient as a seat during the operation, and contains razors, lancets, tweezers, files, and other surgical instruments.
It matters not where one of these tonsorial artists practises his surgery.
A temple court, a flight of steps, a street, or a back-yard, are quite the same to him. He takes his queue where he can find it. One of his commonest duties is to braid that customary appendage to a Chinaman’s head, without which he would be despised. It is comical to estimate the thousands of miles of Chinese queues which even one barber twists in the course of his career – enough, if tied together, end to end, to form a cable between Europe and America. Yet this singular style of hair-dressing (now so universal) was introduced into China only two hundred and fifty years ago. Before that time the Chinese wore full heads of hair, and the present fashion of shaved crowns and twisted queues is of Tartar origin, and was imposed by a conquering dynasty as a badge of servitude.
The wearing of a mustache in China is an indication that he whose face it adorns is a grandfather. In fact, until he is forty-five years old, a Chinaman usually shaves his face completely; but this fact does not prove that after that time he can dispense with the services of a barber. For the tonsorial art in China is exceedingly varied; and Chinese barbers not only braid the queue; they also shave the eyebrows, clean the ears, pull teeth, and massage. Moreover, they scrape the inside of their victim’s eyelids – a custom which is believed by foreigners to be the cause of much of the ophthalmia in China.
Note that the stool pictured above is a reproduction from ebay, as I was too lazy to dig out one of our photos of a real ones. 😛