A distant mirror on ancient beauty secrets

Zhu Ying Tang Dafei Dai Qian
The modern-day obsession with looking attractive is nothing new. Ancient Chinese equally cared about appearance and developed natural-based cosmetics to enhance their looks.
Zhu Ying Tang Dafei Dai Qian
Shot by Tang Dafei and Dai Qian. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou and Andy Boreham. Edtied by Tang Dafei.
A distant mirror on ancient beauty secrets
Dai Qian / SHINE

Wang Yifan, 28, a restorer of ancient Chinese cosmetics

Most everyone wants to look attractive, and that’s not a vanity confined to modern-day society.

Ancient Chinese women also cared about their appearance. It could be said that organic cosmetics existed long before natural beauty products became a contemporary trend.

Following the philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine of treating the human body as an organic whole, ancient cosmetics were made from natural ingredients and used for both beauty enhancement and skin care.

“Make-up and the skin care are separated nowadays, but they were combined in ancient Chinese cosmetics,” said Wang Yifan, 28, a restorer of ancient cosmetics. “Our ancestors pursued lasting beauty rather than transient beauty.”

According to Wang, women wore delicate make-up as early as the Pre-Qin Period (2100-221 BC). In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), women added exquisite make-up tools to their cosmetic kits. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), cosmetics expanded into a vibrant, extensive market.

Wang showed me the replica of a lacquer make-up box excavated from the Mawangdui tomb of the Han Dynasty. The box contains seven small compartments in different shapes. They were used to store a comb, powder, an eyebrow drawing kit and lip balm.

Wang displayed several pairs of antique powder puffs. The elaborate puffs feature auspicious patterns, like pomegranates and peony petals. They were embroidered by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) women before getting married.

“The puffs were sent by a bride-to-be as a gift to the female members of her future husband’s family,” she said. “Our ancestors enjoyed the process of making up very much.”

A distant mirror on ancient beauty secrets
Dai Qian / SHINE

Exquisite powder puffs made in the Qing Dynasty

According to Wang, there were five major steps for making up in ancient times. First, the face was cleansed using zaodou, an amalgam of 14 natural ingredients. The next two steps involved applying grease made from animal fat and powder made from fermented common millet. Then the cheeks and lips are rouged. After that, ancient women used dai made from graphite to shape their eyebrows.

Wang showed me the process of making zaodou, which look like small beans. The body-cleansing product was made by grinding ingredients such as sandalwood, Chinese honey locust, borneol and clove into a powder. Wang added refined honey to the mix and stirred it in thoroughly. She then kneaded the mixture into small balls.

“The balls need to be further ‘nurtured’ in sandalwood powder for two to three months to enrich the fragrance,” said Wang. “Use hot water to melt zaodou, and scatter rose petals on the water.”

Restoring the original recipes of ancient cosmetics is not easy. Wang spends a lot of time reading historical documents, searching for natural ingredients and doing experiments.

Take ancient rouge made from crocus saffron as an example. It took her two years to recreate the cosmetic. Instead of the dried yellow saffron commonly seen in markets, ancient cosmetics were made from fresh petals.

Wang said crocus blossoms once a year and only for about 10 days. She needed to keep picking flowers and trying different recipes during that short time span. Otherwise, she would have to wait for another year.

“For us restorers, we really don’t know whether the products we make are exactly the same as the ancients used,” said Wang.

A distant mirror on ancient beauty secrets
Dai Qian / SHINE

Step 1: Grinding 14 natural ingredients

A distant mirror on ancient beauty secrets
Dai Qian / SHINE

Step 2: Forming the mixture into small balls after mixing it with honey

A distant mirror on ancient beauty secrets
Dai Qian / SHINE

Step 3: Adding fragrance with sandalwood powder

A native of Liaoning Province, Wang followed her husband to Shanghai several years ago.

Her enthusiasm toward traditional Chinese cosmetics was first stirred by her grandfather when she was very young.

He encouraged her to read and had a number of books about ancient traditional Chinese medicine. She found herself most fascinated in the texts relating to ancient Chinese cosmetics.

“Since then, my interest has never wavered,” said Wang.

Following her mother’s wishes, she studied law in the university, but she felt lost upon graduation. She was reluctant to take up a career as a lawyer and work in an office, despite her family’s wishes.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know what I liked,” said Wang. “Most young people like me, born after 1990, are seeking a sense of self-fulfillment.”

To do that, she dedicated herself to the study of ancient Chinese cosmetics. Through her reading, she found an expert on the subject who was a professor at the Shanghai Theater Academy. Once settled in Shanghai, Wang went to visit professor Li Ya. By sheer persistence, she convinced him to accept her as an apprentice.

They eventually establish a cosmetic brand called Qingpingdiao, named after a work by the famous ancient Chinese poet Li Bai. By combining modern techniques and ancient recipes, the pair are seeking to promote traditional Chinese cosmetics to the public.

“The circle of cosmetic restorers is very small,” said Wang. “We often feel isolated because so few people understand what we are doing. By applying our research to create products that cater to contemporary aesthetics, we can acquaint more people with ancient cosmetics.”

A distant mirror on ancient beauty secrets
Dai Qian / SHINE

Delicate cakes of face powder engraved with beautiful designs

Special Reports
Top