Secrets of ancient Chinese beauties

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :March 22, 2021


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Residues of skin-whitening cosmetic products have recently been found inside a 2,700-year-old bronze box excavated from an ancient cemetery in Yuanqu county, north China's Shanxi province, according to Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.
Miniature bronze boxes excavated from an ancient cemetery located in Yuanqu, north China's Shanxi province

Archaeologists confirmed that these miniature boxes were used to contain cosmetics of female aristocrats in the early Spring and Autumn period more than 2,700 years ago, following the discovery of residues of mixed red substances within one box. The red concoction was made from animal fat, vegetable essential oil and cinnabar. Meanwhile, calcite and aragonite, the raw materials of skin-whitening cosmetics, were also found in the residues in another bronze box.
Historical remains found in the bronze box

Cosmetics are not only popular in modern society, but also in Chinese women's daily life in ancient times. It's recorded in Hanfeizi, a book named after Han Fei, a Chinese philosopher and statesman of the Legalist school during the Warring States period, Chinese ladies began to put on makeup using a variety of cosmetics. 
The Admonitions Scroll, a Chinese narrative painting portraying court ladies applying makeup, painted by Gu Kaizhi, Eastern Jin Dynasty

What kinds of cosmetics did Chinese women use and how cosmetics evolved in ancient China? Let's find out today.

Facial powder

Believed to have originated from the Spring and Autumn Period, facial powder—also known as foundation in modern society—was one of the most rudimentary forms of makeup at that time made with ground fine rice.
Colored lacquer case excavated from the No. 2 Baoshan Tomb in Jingmen, Hubei Province. The case contained pepper (used as fragrant incense), bronze mirrors and facial powder. So it is believed to be a make-up case.

The method of making rice powder was depicted in detail in the Qimin Yaoshu(《齐民要术》), the most completely preserved ancient Chinese agricultural texts written by the Northern Wei Dynasty official Jia Sixie. The selection of rice was exquisite. Rice ground into fine powder was not ready for use, until processed, soaked in cold water, fermented, cleaned, drained, then exposed to the sun.
Two-tiered cosmetic case containing nine small boxes, found in the Han Tombs at Mawangdui, Changsha

Another form of powder was made from lead, which despite its toxicity, was favored for its skin-whitening properties. To reduce its toxicity, people in the Song Dynasty would heat and steam it before using it as cosmetics.
A painting depicting the noblewomen of the Tang Dynasty playing chess, by Zhou Fang, Tang Dynasty. Two ladies sitting in the middle have good shapes and wear delicate make-up.

Brow powder

Chinese women have always paid great attention to their eyebrows as they believe this facial feature is linked to their fate. During the Warring States Period, women used the soot from burned willow branches to paint their eyebrows. Another type of eyebrow makeup was made using dai, a blue mineral that was ground into powder and mixed with water.
Zhang Chang, an official in the Han Dynasty, were penciling his wife's eyebrows, which was later used to indicate the good relationship between a couple.

In the Southern and Northern Dynasties, qingquetou dai, a kind of dark grey pigment, was brought to Central Plains (comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River) from the Western Regions (a Han Dynasty term for the area west of Yumenguan, including what is now Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia). Shaped like ink stick, the eyebrow makeup was mostly used by court ladies at that time.
A painting showing ancient Chinese ladies applying makeup, by Qiu Ying, Ming Dynasty

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, luozi dai, a kind of black synthetic eyebrow makeup made of indigo and lime water, was introduced to China and welcomed by Chinese ladies, for it didn't need to be ground and was easy to use.
Luozi dai was spotted in the Legend of Zhen Huan, a 2011 Chinese drama telling the story of one of Emperor Yongzheng's concubines, Zhen Huan, who was the mother of Prince Hongli (the famous Emperor Qianlong).

However, this imported cosmetic, with a low yield and tedious manufacturing procedures, was very expensive and unaffordable for the ordinary family. Therefore, people used tong dai, a verdigris compound more often.
A beautiful lady applying makeup under a willow was pictured by Chen Chongguang, Qing Dynasty


Blusher in ancient times had a beautiful name called yanzhi, or rouge, a kind of cosmetics made from the extracted juice of a flower named honglan (safflower).

Rouge originated in the Yanzhi Mountains of Northwest China, which were controlled by the Huns, or Xiongnu, an ancient nationality in China in the Han Dynasty. In 139 BC., Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty sent Zhang Qian on a diplomatic mission there in order to strengthen the relation between the Han Dynasty and the Western Regions. After Zhang Qian returned to China, he brought back a large number of exotic goods made by all ethnic groups in the Western Regions, including the rouge.
Bronze cups decorated with a bird with a ring in its beak, Western Han Dynasty, unearthed from the tomb of Dou Wan, wife of Liu Sheng, Prince Jing of Zhongshan. Red residues, which were believed to be cosmetics, were found within the cups.

In fact, in as early as the Shang and Zhou dynasties, women had already learned to color their cheeks with vermilion instead of yanzhi. But the practice was not common at that time. Only dancers and court ladies were doing that.

Since rouge got promoted in the Han Dynasty, the use of rouge has become more prevalent, which gave rise to a new popular makeup style known as hongzhuang. Images of women applying hongzhuang also were often spotted in poems and articles written in different historical periods.
A painting depicting a lady with hongzhuang playing chess in the Tang Dynasty.

Scene of a female character in the Longest Day in Chang'an, a popular television series broadcast over summer in 2019, reproduced the elegant make-up style of Tang ladies. The makeup usually started with face powder as foundation, followed by a dusting of rouge or light yellow powder.


Lipstick has been a popular aesthetic fashion product since the pre-Qin period. But in ancient times, it was called kouzhi or chunzhi, oil for lips. In ancient times, the color of lipstick was mostly red, which could lighten lips and make people look more youthful and energetic. Therefore, it was deeply loved by ancient women. Some ancient Chinese also used rouge to do lip makeup.
Painting depicting ladies putting on makeup, by Su Hanchen, Song Dynasty

In prehistoric times, the pigments for lip beauty products were generally obtained from plant juices, animal bloods, or minerals. A red material called vermilion, whose chemical composition includes mercuric sulfide, was often added to mineral wax and animal fat to make ancient lipsticks. Therefore, lips balms in ancient China often had wonderful fragrances as well as medical functions, compared with those nowadays.

During the Tang Dynasty, lipsticks were already in different colors, such as purple and fleshcolor, which can be proved in the book Arcane Medical Essentials from the Imperial Library (《外台秘要方》, Wai Tai Mi Yao ) written by Wang Tao, noted medical scientist in the Tang Dynasty.
Residues of lipsticks were found in one of the nine boxes of the two-tiered cosmetic case found in the Han Tombs at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province

The painting methods of lip make-up varied in different dynasties, but they couldn't escape the similar aesthetics, that is, the smaller the lips, the better.
A painting featuring a lady with small lips, painter unknown, Tang Dynasty

Dyeing fingernails

Women in ancient China paid a lot of attention to keep their hands soft and pale. They also put a lot of efforts to beautify their nails and keep them long. Long nails not only made the females' fingers look slender, but also was a symbol of wealth and nobleness.

Dyeing fingernail first emerged in some religious rituals in ancient China, where people painted their nails with a variety of patterns to pray for divine blessings. Around the Shang and Zhou dynasties, wealthy women started to soak their nails overnight in a mixture of beeswax, gelatin, and egg whites, to keep their nails shiny and clear.
Balsamine flower

By the Tang Dynasty, the fashion of dyeing nails prevailed in China. Balsamine flower was one of the main dye materials to paint nails back then. Mash the flower, add a little mineral alum, place the substance on the nails and wrap them with fabric overnight, then the fingernails were colored.
Two young girls dyeing nails with balsamine flower(Photo/atmuseum)

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the art of dyeing nails became more popular, which was illustrated in many poems and articles. Wearing fingernail protectors made of gold and silver was also popular with empresses and court ladies at that time, which could not only protect their nails, but also signify their social ranking and high status.
A pair of fingernail protectors, housed in the Palace Museum

Burning incense

Rather than using perfumes, ancient Chinese liked to burn incense or fragrant herbs. Burning incense can date back to prehistory. But back then, people did that to show their respect to God, not primarily for cosmetic purposes.

During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period, it was very common for people to use fragrant herbs for food, medicine, disinfection, purification and other purposes. They believed good aromas could expel diseases from the room. Besides burning herbs, the noblewomen also would wear sachets containing herbs, have their clothes smoked with incense, or bath in perfumed water so that they could enjoy the sweet smell all day long.
A colored hill censer with picture of hunting, Western Han Dynasty

After the Silk Route was opened up in the Han Dynasty, all kinds of spices originally from western countries were imported to China, which offered more options of materials for burning and made the practice more common in the daily life of aristocrats.
Scene of burning incense was spotted in the picture painted by Li Song in the Song Dynasty.

The Sui and Tang dynasties witnessed the rapid development of the use of incense. Back then, incense had become a somewhat “luxury good”, and was deeply favored by the upper class. The emperors gifted precious aromatics to nobles, favorite concubines, and loyal servants. It was also common for high-ranking families to invite friends over to appreciate some special kinds of incenses and competed for the best scent.

Incense use and trade reached a peak in the Song Dynasty. The practice spread from the upper class, middle class to the general public. Burning incense in the worship of Buddhism in temples had also become common during this period.
A lady smoking her clothes with incense, painted by Chen Hongshou, Ming Dynasty