Barber of Beijing cuts through a century of change

The barber of Houhai plies his trade the old way: a silver razor moves deliberately over the head, across the face, along the bridge of the nose, down the neck. He moves in unruffled concentration, as if time suspends for his work.

In some ways, it does. Jing Qui is his name. He has cut hair in Beijing for 77 years, or "four dynasties," as he says, winking. Today, at 91, Mr. Jing can still pedal to clients, mostly elderly friends, some of whom can't get out of bed.

In his day, Jing cut quite the figure here. He trimmed the locks of former Qing Dynasty officials, warlords from Gansu Province, Japanese diplomats, and a famous Kuomintang general named Fu Zuo Yi. His shop near Houhai Lake in central Beijing was famous - too famous, in fact, to survive the zealotry of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Undaunted, Jing took to his bike, building a route of 240 customers that he called on every 20 days for decades.

Yet of late, Jing enjoys a richer kind of fame. Around Houhai he is known as a kind of everyday saint, a bicyling memory chest, a morale builder and community binder among the elderly - at a time when many of them feel bypassed by the booming new China of glittery skyscrapers, busy traffic, and bulldozers.

Jing promotes an ethos of work, energy, and newness: "Steady work is what I believe in; if you are working and thinking, you don't get stuck."

In a small one-room hutong where he lives with his third wife, Jing says that he is less impressed with age as he gets older. He embraces visitors, pours tea, and insists that others, but not himself, sit.

"I've spent my life standing, I prefer it," he says. Jing confides that his real work is serving the souls of his clients, if he can. He doesn't let them grumble too much. He especially fights their tendency to doze off whenever they feel like it.

"You have to keep moving, don't lie in bed, don't wake up and go back to sleep," he says to Zhao Ming, an 85-year-old who worked in a pastry factory and now lives by himself in the alleys of one-room "hutongs" that make up old Beijing.

Mr. Zhao complains it is hard to move and make decisions. "If the food is tasty eat more, if it is not tasty, eat less," retorts Jing, quoting a Chinese saying. "But don't give up and stay in bed."

In one sense, Jing's feats echo a pushing back of the concept of age felt around the globe. Middle age is sometimes described as lasting nearly to retirement. At age 62, wild horses still can't drag Rolling Stone Mick Jagger off the stage. Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens, at 43, is one of the best pitchers in baseball, having "the second age-defying renaissance" of his career, as a Times writer puts it. The poet Stanley Kunitz, more than 100 years old, has a book out this year.

Jing came to the attention of Bai Feng and Shi Runjiu, a cafe owner and an independent producer, in 2001. They were filming the fight to preserve Houhai, an ancient lake area abutting both the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai, where China's leaders live. Unlike much of Beijing, Houhai is officially protected. But its very ancientness is being commercially exploited, Mr. Feng and Mr. Shi feel.

The two men approached Jing for his stories. But as they followed him on his barber route for 50 hours of tape, even in deep winter, "we stopped thinking of him as a barber," says Feng. "He is like a traveling Buddhist, a psychologist for older Chinese. He is amazing."

Short or shaved?

His white mane flowing out from under a blue worker's cap, Jing serenely pedals a three-wheeler past bell towers built centuries before Columbus discovered America. Four years ago, he had two-dozen regulars. Now the list includes about nine regulars.

He gives two main cuts, it seems: short and shaved. He remembers as a boy watching master barbers at the New China shop. In those days, there were no barber or beauty colleges. "You watched and practiced on family members," he says. He remembers his first shop, just inside the ancient city wall, and the sign out front: "Smooth Business at the City Wall, Jing Qui."

Later, the 900-year-old wall was demolished by Mao Zedong, part of an effort to force China into the 20th century. Some wall stones were used to form the hutongs where Jing now lives, and which may also get knocked down. "It took a long time to tear the wall down," Jing remembers, "but no one talked about it. Who would dare to say anything?"

The men Jing cuts are not elites or so-called princelings. They are working men, factory guards, rickshaw pullers. Often, they live alone in one-room dwellings with no toilet. Typically only two things are displayed on the main wall - a clock and a proudly displayed certificate of honorable retirement.

For these men, Jing's visits are something special - a communion with friends he's known for decades. He gives undivided attention to the work. About a dozen differently shaped scissors and razors are carried in a roll-up cloth pouch.

Many clients have physical infirmities or special needs. Some are sprightly, some are in bed. He soaps up their heads over a warm-water basin, dries them off, and gives them a combing. They clearly enjoy the attention and are usually smiling by that point.

Jing looks around for little things to do. If they can't walk he puts on a pot of water, tends to coals, meets needs. Usually, he sits and talks for 20 or 30 minutes in what are pep talks about forgetting time and being as self-sufficient as possible.

"Don't think about just feeling good and comfortable, but think about happy things, things that are lively," he says to an 80-year-old regular who has told him of some depression. "I know you. Your children visit you. Your daughter is very busy, but still comes to see you. That's good."

No snap judgments

Jing says one of his most important experiences came at the height of his success in Beijing, in the late 1940s. His clientele were usually rich and famous. One day, a man with dirty clothes and hair came in. Jing didn't give him a second look, and when he asked that Jing, not an assistant, cut his hair, Jing tried to brush the man off. It turned out he was a revolutionary war hero, a commander, from the People's Liberation Army. The lesson has never left Jing.

For the most part, Jing doesn't take himself too seriously, and likes humor. He has one client who for nearly 30 years has never remembered to take his glasses off before the cutting. This is always a special subject of joking.

"I like to be alive," Jing says. "I like to work. I've never had great wealth, and now I don't want to ask for anything, or compete for anything. Satisfaction isn't in the getting, but in the doing."

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