Winnie Chui is one of Hong Kong’s few remaining practitioners of an age-old craft: making calligraphy brushes with baby hair.
These tokens of nativity, known in Chinese as taimaobi (胎毛笔), or “fetal brushes,” represent parents’ hopes that their children might become wise and filial. The locks are taken from an infant’s first haircut, usually before the baby turns 3.
“Only the first growth of hair is used,” Chui says, “because that’s the only time when human hair tapers naturally at the tip.”
The tradition originated in northern China and dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), according to Chui. New parents would order the custom-made brushes for their children and engrave them with words of wisdom and encouragement to commemorate their birth.
Because the brushes were so expensive, the practice was largely confined to wealthy families whose children might become scholars or poets in China’s hierarchical society.
Today, the brushes are more accessible and have become popular gifts in China, Japan and Korea. Still, it remains a relatively pricey endeavor. Brushes at Chui’s shop start from $90. A store in Taiwan sells a set of brushes and seals for $100 to $1,800, depending on how ornate they are.
By comparison, a basic calligraphy set in Taiwan costs about $2, according to an AFP report.
For parents willing to go the extra mile, they can also purchase a seal with a piece of the umbilical cord preserved inside.
Called qidai yinzhang (脐带印章)—literally “umbilical cord seal”—the chop is engraved with the baby’s name on the bottom and contains a piece of the umbilical cord, along with some locks of hair, sealed inside. Because the cord represents the bond between mother and child, it is believed to bring good luck and wealth.
This niche market for birth heirlooms brings in a modest profit, but Chui says she’s not doing it for the money. Her shop offers free maintenance of the brushes and other associated rituals, such as teaching children how to hold the brush when they turn 3.
“In our business, we don’t make big bucks,” she says. “We just want the best for our future generations.”
Adapted from an original article first published in HK Magazine.