History of Skincare Part 5: Imperial China: From the Tang Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, 618-1644
Desiring the Pale
By the time the Tang dynasty rolled around, the women of the Imperial Court had turned skin care and cosmetic application into a fine art form. Borrowing artistic techniques from the Buddhism that had spread throughout the country, women turned themselves into gilded statues, complete with smooth, porcelain skin and facial appliques. Having a pale complexion continued to rise in importance as court women went to new and greater heights to whiten their skin, both temporarily and permanently.
From Pre-Imperial times, Chinese women had desired pale skin. As agriculture became increasingly important to the culture and the economy, tanned skin grew to be associated with a working class made up of farmers and fishermen. While noble women at first desired a whiter complexion to show that they did not have to work, however, a powdered face and smooth skin soon became a fashion statement. During the Tang dynasty, courtesans began taking more extreme measures to lighten the skin on their faces. While they continued to press on white powders made from lead, they also used special gels and lotions derived from natural ingredients to remove pigment and permanently bleach their skin. One of the most popular gels was made from songyi mushrooms, an ingredient that is still used in many skin lighteners today.
The Seven Steps to Beauty
Even in this time of lead powders and pigment-altering creams, the Chinese approach to skin care was still a holistic one. Nutrition, health and circulation were still considered to be necessary to maintaining a beautiful complexion and many lotions were developed using medicinal herbs popular in traditional medicine. In fact, while skin care had been previously confined to the bed chamber, many Tang dynasty women carried small containers of lotions and other cosmetics so that they could touch up their faces at will.
This is not to say, however, that Tang dynasty courtesans applied their make up in public. Their make up was, in fact, applied in seven separate steps each morning. The first step was to powder the face with a thick white foundation. The second step was the apply rouge to the cheeks. The third step was to gild the forehead with golden ocher. The ocher was painted on in complex patterns based on the gold gilding of Buddhist statues. The fourth step was to trace the eyebrows. The fifth step was to paint the lips a brilliant red. The sixth step was to dot the cheeks. The seventh and final step was to paste a floral applique between the eyes. (You can read more about the seven steps to beauty here: )
The Art of Applique
Although facial appliques first gained major popularity during the Tang dynasty, they remained popular throughout the many centuries of Imperial China. As outlined by the seven steps of cosmetic application, there were actually several different types of appliques. While the dotted cheek had been around since the early days of the Imperial Court, it had, by this time, lost any remnants of a practical use and was used strictly for fashion. In fact, it was very rare for the dots to even be round anymore. While one of the most popular designs was a crescent moon across the cheek, these so-called dots could take the form of any number of shapes from flowers to insects. The floral applique placed between the eyes had a similar number of variations. It could be made from paper, gold foil or shell and the patterns ranged from flowers to fans, from dragon flies to oxhorns.
While not precisely an applique, traced eyebrows continued to be an important part of facial adornment. By this time, designs had become far more elaborate than they had been during the Qin or Han dynasties. While the different shapes were generally patterned after objects found in nature, the shapes themselves were a far cry from the natural shape of an eyebrow. Willow leaf eyebrows were one of the most popular designs, with round, olive-shaped eyebrows not far behind. The Emperor Xuanzong even commissioned a book called Shi Mei Tu, which outlined ten different eyebrow patterns. (You can read more about facial appliques and eyebrow patterns here: )
From lead powders to skin bleaches to eyebrows shaped like olives, many of the skin care techniques and cosmetic approaches of Imperial China seem foreign in today’s world. Their holistic approach to skin care, however, and their whimsical make up show that Imperial China still has a lot to offer the modern world.