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What cosmetics did ancient Cantonese prefer?

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :May 18, 2020


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Nowadays, many people, especially women, spend a lot of time making themselves up with cosmetics like perfume, lipsticks and facial cream. In fact, people in Guangzhou have been doing the same thing since over a thousand years ago, and they even developed their own set of cosmetics.

Historical materials show that ancient Cantonese paid a lot of attention to making themselves presentable. Officials, for example, would put clove in their mouths to keep breath fresh before talking to emperors, records Han Guan Yi, a book about laws and regulations in the Han Dynasty.

In 958, some exquisite bottles were brought by a group of envoys from ancient Champa( part of present-day Vietnam) to Guangzhou as gifts to the emperor of the Southern Han Dynasty. Liquid in those bottles, which is called perfume today, smelt so good that it became one of the favorites among the concubines not long before it gained fame among commoners.

But such perfume, after all, was imported, expensive, and difficult to access for common people. After realizing it was too luxurious for them to use as a daily necessity, Cantonese people decided to develop their own perfume.

They put local flowers like jasmines and plum blossoms into porcelain bottle with holes at the bottom and then placed the bottle on a steamer. As the steamer heated up, the flower would decompose and give off fluid of essence which would flow into a prepared bamboo tube, then the perfume was obtained. 

This way of perfume-making, also known as distilling, had been used to extract perfume by Cantonese people since the Song Dynasty when people around the capital were still arguing about whether this fragranant liquid was droplets of dew from flowers.

Ancient Cantonese also used flowers to make lip balms and face cream. The lip balms often were made from several kinds of flowers, such as jasmine and magnolia, together with complex ingredients such as sesame oil and animal fat. Cinnabar or lithospermum was also applied to add colors to the balms. The face cream was also made of a dozen kinds of flowers.
Jasimine, one of the flowers for ancient Cantonese to make lip balms. 

It is interesting that not only females but also males were fond of wearing lip balms and face cream. For example, Zhang Jiuling, a well-known “Zai Xiang”(title of a senior official, equal to prime minister today)  in the Tang Dynasty, a native of Shaozhou City (Present-day Shaoguan city in Guangdong province) , also preferred to use cosmetics. He even wrote a piece of prose to eulogize the face cream gifted by the emperor.

Rich people always pay particular attention to their appearances, and the rich in ancient Guangzhou was without exception. In order to meet their great need of face care, bath bean, a product consisting of soy bean powder, animal fat, medicinal herbs and fragrance was invented.

Often made of over 10 kinds of flowers and spices, the bath bean had a complicated making procedure and high cost. Therefore it was sold at such a high price that people had to go easy with them.

During the Song Dynasty, various kinds of spices were widely imported to Guangzhou via sea routes, making Guangzhou one of the distribution centers of spices in Southeast Asia at that time. These abundant spices provided ancient Cantonese important materials to develop and produce their own cosmetics.