The pursuit of beauty

Updated: 2012-11-16 11:25

By Zhang Lei (China Daily)

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 The pursuit of beauty

A woman in the Tang Dynasty is seen in a silk painting. Some ancient makeup techniques and accessories are still used by today's fashion icons. Provided to China Daily

Ancient Chinese makeup was elaborate, daring and by today's standards sometimes alarming

Bushy sprawling eyebrows, long slanted eyes, thick pouting lips, an expansive coating of rouge covering both cheeks, a dainty flower affixed to the center of the forehead and an ostentatious looking bouffant hair style held in place by various brooches and clips. Does this conjure up an image of beauty or beast?

Last month a girl in Taiwan nicknamed Gatita became an overnight Internet sensation for her highly skilled imitation of such a look from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). She spent more than a month learning how to apply makeup to create the look that today can only normally be seen in ancient murals.

It took her three hours to complete the procedure. She said the shape of the eyebrows and the symmetry of the lip gloss were the most difficult parts, made even more so by taking snapshots as the look took shape. Although majoring in fine arts at university, she had little experience of applying makeup, normally just spending five minutes to put on a light foundation each day before going out.

The popularity of Gatita's Tang Dynasty makeup routine soon triggered others to revisit history, and to the surprise of many it became apparent that ancient makeup techniques and fashion accessories are still used by today's fashion icons.

One picture of a Tang aristocrat with her highly fashionable bag hanging from a tree next to her prompted Chinese netizens to call her the founder of Louis Vuitton, because of the item's similarity to that company's products.

"Although standards of beauty change all the time, the Han people have always held onto a basic aesthetic that centers on looking pale," says Liu Zhenze, a researcher at Beijing Traditional Folklore Society.

In ancient China, a white and delicate skin tone was to die for, and flower decorations on a white face were particularly chic for many centuries.

Gold, silver, jewel and jade flakes were often glued to the face, normally on the forehead, around the eyes, or on the cheeks. The materials used in makeup were extensive, including dragonfly wings, bird feathers and fish scales.

The origin of glued-on facial decoration in China can be traced back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-581). Legend has it that Princess Shouyang was taking a nap when mystic plum flowers fell on her forehead and cheek. The imprints stayed for three days. Her maids copied the fashion and it soon swept across the country.

The popularity of this facial adornment hit a peak in the Tang Dynasty, when there were more than 10 variations of plum flower decoration in use. One Tang poem describes the flower decoration as being "as light as power and as tender as mica". Bird, snake and leaf-shaped decorations were also favorites.

"Typical makeup during that time went as follows: white foundation over the entire face first, rouge on the cheeks next, then bright orange powder on the forehead, then eyebrow highlights, lip gloss, red lines along the sideburns and finally flower flakes on the forehead and cheeks," Liu says.

Faking a dimple was one of many uses for the flakes. This was originally used by concubines to send a signal to the emperor that they were menstruating, but developed over time into a makeup trend.

During the late Tang Dynasty, the "it girls" wore bird-shaped dimple flakes made of green jade plate that stood out in ostentatious contrast to their pink rouge.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), instead of wearing a single dimple flake on each side, groups of flakes made of black shiny paper became the trend. Gold flake also became popular. Even if a woman did not smile, her dimple makeup exuded a hint of a smile and added tenderness to her complexion.

Many Song Dynasty poems compare the full bloom of the chrysanthemum to the gold plate on a woman's cheeks, "its radiance elapses into glistening gold smiles".

Flakes were pasted onto the cheeks using special glue made from fish guts. Sometimes the flakes would fall off. In many Chinese novels authors portray love scenes in which the heroine leaves a piece of flake wavering in the air. "She is nowhere to be found, only her smile flakes left behind, like the trace of cicada's slough," reads Chang'an, an Old Time Poem, by Tang poet Lu Zhaolin.

The fashion for flakes died out after the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when tiny round flakes were the norm.

The pursuit of looking beautiful was perhaps at its most extravagant in the materials used to make lip gloss. It was made of vermilion minerals and animal grease and painted in a heart or M shape in the center of the lips to highlight their fullness.

"In traditional aesthetics, women should have cherry-like small lips with the upper lip convex in the center, and a round lower lip that foretold wealth and luck," Liu says.

The most popular lip makeup styles included pomegranate bridge, morning dew and pink heart.

Eyebrow highlighting in the Tang Dynasty also came in various forms. Women scraped off their natural eyebrows and penciled them in using dai, a black pigment.

Emperor Xuanzong at one time promoted 10 eyebrow styles for the public to follow, including mandarin duck, five mountains, willow, cloud, hanging leaf and butterfly.

Oscar Wilde once said: "What is fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

The rapid evolution of eyebrow fashion in the Tang Dynasty alone is evidence of this.

During the early days of the Tang Dynasty, thick and wide black eyebrows were prevalent.

Later, women began to favor lighter highlighting for a while until late in the dynasty when black eerie makeup became the new standard, with morbid beauty everyone's new darling. Black lip gloss combined with enormous bouffant hairstyles and walrus eyebrows became common.

"The invention of varied forms of makeup was the result of the openness policy of the Tang Dynasty, during which individual choice and preference were kept at a maximum throughout feudal times. Women even wore men's clothes at that time," Liu says.

"The concept of Chinese makeup continues to fluctuate, especially nowadays with the West having such a huge influence on us. But I believe some of our fundamentals, or should I say the core of our cultural genes, never change, and continue to contribute to the dynamism of multiculturalism."

(China Daily 11/16/2012 page26)