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Imperial China: The Qin Dynasty, 361 BC-206 BC

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The Empress's Methods
By the beginning of the fourth century BC, China was transitioning from the Zhan dynasty into the Qin dynasty. This period, known as the Warring States period, was largely a time of political unrest. It also saw the first of the Emperors and the beginning of Imperial China. The Imperial court, populated by noble men, court ladies and concubines, provided the ideal atmosphere for the development of precise cleaning regimens and elaborate make up pallets. The courtesans of Imperial China built on the skin care and cosmetic traditions that had been practiced for years, taking the holistic approach and combining it with an increasingly adventurous sense of style.

It is said that the first skin care system was invented during this time by an Empress bent on keeping her youthful appearance and competing with the court's many beautiful women. As she developed her methods, she recorded them so that she could share them with other women in the court. These books are thought to be the first written records of a skin care system ever recorded in China and although the books themselves remain a mystery, the information in them has been passed down through generations. The Empress based her system on the same holistic approach that had been popular for years, but refined the exact methods and treatments. Like the Shang dynasty women before her, she believed that healthy skin was the result of cleanliness, herbal medicine, nutrition and good circulation. She would clean her face with natural cleansers made from seaweed and jelly fish. She believed that eating black beans, sesame seeds and Chinese yam would improve the skin. She also used special massage techniques and facial exercises to improve the circulation in her cheeks and forehead. (You can read about one doctor's modern take on the Empress's methods here: http://health.yahoo.net/experts/drmao/wrinkles-and-age-spots-secrets-empress )

The Power of the Eyebrows
During the Warring States period and the Qin dynasty, "ping tou pin zu" continued to be the predominant way of judging a woman's beauty. Even as clothing slowly became more fitted, shifting some focus to the shape of the body, true beauty was still thought to be contained to the face and the feet. As the focal point of the face, the eyes took on an even greater importance. While many cultures draw attention to the eyes by painting, lining or shadowing them, the women of Imperial China chose to focus on their eyebrows instead.

Eyebrow penciling was first practiced during the early days of the Warring States period. By the end of the Qin dynasty, it had developed into an art of its own. It was common practice for women to shave off their natural eyebrows and draw on new ones with pigment made from ore, ink or charcoal. The earliest penciled eyebrows were drawn in flattering shapes that still appeared natural. By the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220), however, eyebrow tracing had expanded to include a much wider array of shapes. Sweeping "distant hill" eyebrows were particularly popular during the Han dynasty. (You can read more about eyebrows in Imperial China here: http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/English/e2004/e200411/p60.htm )

A Dot on the Cheek
With so much focus put on the face, it is not surprising that make up became much more important during this time. The Imperial Court idealized pale skin, and it was during the Qin and Han dynasties that women began to apply thick layers of white powder to their faces and rouge to their cheeks and lips. This period also saw court women affixing a small, soybean-sized dot to their cheeks. While this would later become a fashion statement, its original purpose was practical. The dot was worn by court women and concubines as a way to let the Emperor know that they were menstruating.

The Qin dynasty also saw the beginning of the increasingly elaborate hair styles that would become a staple of the Han dynasty court. Women believed that the larger their hair, the more beautiful they were, and would construct complex styles of tiers and buns atop their heads. While these hairstyles may not have directly changed skin care in Imperial China, they set the stage for centuries of increasingly bold styles, cosmetics and facial applications.


© 2013 J.K. Knowles

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