The Cadre Cap

The word for a Chinese government official — a bureaucrat — is  ganbu (干部). For some reason it gets translated into English as “cadre,” (usually pronounce kad-er). You can spot a ganbu a mile away in China; there is a certain stance (hands behind the back or pointing, or listening to an underling explain something); and there is a certain style of clothing, often fairly casual (think collared t-shirts and zip-up jackets).

Back in the 80’s when I first went to China, the “ganbu look” included a cap — what we might call a “Mao Cap.” I preferred to call them “cadre caps.” Military ganbu wore green ones with red stars, but civilian cadre caps were usually blue — cotton in the summer, and wool in the winter. To be sure, almost everyone wore Mao caps back then, but it seems that these wool ones were the favorites of cadres, hence getting my designation “cadre cap.”

cadre cap

Last weekend my sister, brother-in-law, mom, and I decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather in Minnesota and go for a drive. When we got to my sister’s house, Jeff came bounding out of the house wearing a dark blue cadre cap.

When I saw that cap perched on top of his head, I burst out laughing; not because it looked funny, but because I hadn’t seen one in more than twenty years, and probably hadn’t seen this particular hat in more than thirty years!

I immediately remembered that I had bought it as a gift and brought it home to him at the end of my first year of teaching in 1985. There wasn’t much in the way of gifts to purchase back then, so I thought a cadre cap for Jeff would be perfect.

What is so unique about this particular cadre cap is the “sticky-uppy” piece of cloth at the top. If you look at the photo you might be thinking that it is a small loop; something to use when hanging the cap. You would be wrong, because it is just a single piece of material sticking straight up. For what purpose, I suppose, will remain a mystery, although Jeff wondered if it was some sort of secret transmitter that he was now activating by wearing it again!

But the inside of the hat was even more interesting, and once again provided an instant journey back into China of the 1980’s.


It says “San Xia Hat Factory,” followed by a 6-digit phone number!

I thought that san xia (三侠) meant “Three Gorges,” but a friend wrote me and said it could also be translated “Three Musketeers.” Google Translate says it means “romance.” Go figure!

If you ask me, this cadre cap belongs in a museum, not on Jeff’s head!

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