The Shang Dynasty: Laying the Foundation
Although China's Prehistory ended with the beginning of the Xia dynasty, very little information has survived about this period. By the time of the Shang dynasty, nearly a thousand years later, however, China had built a highly developed society. Many of the practices that would become the basis for Chinese culture and economy were developed during this period, including the farming of rice, wheat and livestock and the growth of the textile industry. The Shang dynasty also laid the foundation for a centuries-long tradition of Chinese skin care. While the exact origins of their methods still remain unknown, their techniques were so ingrained in daily life that there was already a word used to describe the practice. Even so, the Shang dynasty saw only the beginning of Chinese cosmetics. Over the centuries, however, it would grow into one of the most admired cosmetic and dermatological traditions in the world.
Ping Tou Pin Zou: Critiquing the Face and the Feet
It is impossible to overestimate the extent that the growth of the textile industry had on skin care in the Shang dynasty. During this time, clothesmakers and seamstresses perfected their techniques for weaving silk and embroidering elaborate brocades. As in most cultures, cosmetics went hand-in-hand with fashion, and both skin care techniques and make up design advanced as fashionable clothing became more and more elaborate. While the first facial powders and lip rouges may have been worn during this period, beauty of the skin was still seen as being predominantly connected to health, nutrition and good circulation.
Clothing had another effect on skin care, however, that was unrelated to the softness of the fabric or the design of the garments. Although silks became finer and embroidery became more elaborate during this period, most women continued to wear the same shapeless robes that had been worn for centuries. Because these robes de-emphasized the shape of the body, a much greater importance was put on the face and the feet. In fact, the Chinese saying, "ping tou pin zu," refers to commenting only on the face and feet when assessing a woman's beauty. The body, buried under a shapeless sheath of embroidered silk, was considered unimportant in comparison to the pale, healthy skin of the face or the delicate softness of the feet. (You can read more about the connection between fashion and skin care here: http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/English/e2004/e200411/p60.htm )
The Roots of Chinese Herbal Medicine
While fashion may have moved the emphasis to the face, it was traditional Chinese medicine that informed attitudes toward skin care itself. The Shang dynasty, and the Zhou dynasties that proceeded it, saw the beginning of the Chinese medicinal tradition. It was during this time, for example, that Bian Que first introduced his theory of the Four Diagnostic Methods: look, hear, ask and feel. These methods were used to diagnose everything from illness to allergies to skin conditions and are still the basis of many diagnostic techniques used today. (You can read more about Bian Que and Zhou dynasty China here: http://www.chinatour360.com/history/zhou-dynasty/ )
Like the Egyptians, the Chinese took a holistic approach to health and beauty, believing that the two were inextricably linked. Beauty was connected to vitality and was seen as the result of a perfect balance between nutrition, herbal medication and good circulation. Ailments of the skin were diagnosed by doctors and were treated through diet and herbal application. Although the great courts of Imperial China, with their extravagant face paints and elaborate eyebrows, were still centuries in the future, noble women valued the glow of a healthy face.
As agriculture became more developed and tanned skin was associated with working-class farmers, pale skin became increasingly desirable and an increasing number of women began to search for skin paling herbs and remedies. The quest for pale skin would become an popular theme in Chinese skin care over the next few centuries. Although the women of the Shang and Zhou dynasties usually opted for a healthy, natural look, it would not be long before this natural look would give way to face powders, skin lighteners and the bold make up pallets of the Imperial courts.