The itinerant barber survives in proverb but not in person

Zhang Ciyun
Carrying a torch or unrequited love can be ill-fated wishful thinking.
Zhang Ciyun

In human history, it seems that people have never stopped trying to extend their life spans or build something that will last forever.

In ancient China, many emperors employed alchemists to formulate elixirs of life; in Egypt, people built colossal pyramids to memorialize themselves. Even today, scientists around the world are arduously concocting pills that will enable people to live to 120 years.

In fact, many of us may not realize that people and things do continue to exist long after their demise or disappearance — not in physical form, but in human language.

The same is true with defunct occupations.

For several hundred years, until the late middle of the last century, itinerant barbers were seen plying the streets and back alleys of China, especially in rural areas. They usually carried a small brass basin and a charcoal stove for heating water at one end of a bamboo pole; the other end was balanced with a wooden cabinet containing razors, brushes, combs and other tonsorial instruments. The wooden cabinet also served as a barber’s stool for customers.

Few people in China today, especially the young, remember or have ever seen an itinerant barber, but they frequently use the idiom titou tiaozi yitoure, or literally “only one end of an itinerant barber’s carrying pole is hot,” in a reference to the stove.

The proverb is cited to describe one-sided enthusiasm, unrequited love, carrying a torch for someone else or wishful thinking.


tì tóu tiāo zi yī tóu rè

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