Skincare Tips from Empresses and Concubines

May 5, 2009
Editor: zhuhong

Women everywhere give top priority to skincare in their daily beauty regime. And as the body's largest organ, the skin deserves special attention. Chinese beauties of yester-millenia practiced aromatherapy, applied organic facial masks and took herbal remedies in efforts to maintain their flawless complexions. Judging from historical descriptions of the legendary beauties Empress Wu Zetian and the Tang concubine Yang Guifei, their efforts paid off. 
Zhang Lihua, renowned beauty and concubine of Chen Shubao (553-604), last Southern Dynasties Emperor, compiled the earliest recorded imperial skincare recipe. Zhang preserved her striking good looks with the help of a facial cream made from egg-white and powdered vermilion. It was concocted by pricking a hole in an egg big enough to extract the yolk, pouring powdered vermilion into the egg white and sealing the hole with wax. The egg was then replaced inside the hen's womb and left to incubate with the coming clutch. The cream that congealed inside the sealed egg reportedly whitened and smoothed the complexion.

Empress Lü Zhi

Empress Lü Zhi (241BC-180BC), wife of Liu Bang, founding emperor of  the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), set great store by Tremella fuciformis. Both in civil life and as empress, she started each day with a bowl of soup made from this edible jelly fungus.

Tremella fuciformis is sweet to taste and rich in natural colloids. By nourishing the yin it stimulates the circulation which, in turn, revitalizes the complexion. Imbibing this fungus keeps facial pigmentation and freckles at bay, promotes gastrointestinal peristalsis and reduces fat absorption. Tremella fuciformis is cheap and easy to prepare. Simply soak it in water and braise with rock candy, lotus seed, and pawpaw to make a thick, nourishing soup.

That the Tang Dynasty was, in Chinese history, one of strong colors is reflected in the cosmetic fancies of Tang princesses, concubines and court ladies. 

Yang Yuhuan(Yang Guifei)

Yang Yuhan (719-756), better known as Yang Guifei, or the fragrant concubine, is probably the most famous of Tang beauties. 

Yang was the most favored concubine of Tang Emperor Xuanzong (685-762). Her power over him secured high government appointments for members of her family. Historical records of speak of Yang Guifei as having a "face that puts flowers to shame." Yang maintained her luminous complexion with her own almond cream recipe:

Soak a towel in a bowl of warm water mixed with one table spoon of almond oil and one of honey. Cover and uncover your face with the towel a few times. The combination of almond oil and honey softens and smoothes the skin. Yang's personally concocted almond preparation maintained her glowing, youthful complexion. Bathing in spring water toned her body, keeping it supple, and milk baths moisturized her skin, bringing out its healthy glow.

Empress Wu Tse-tien

Empress Wu Tse-tien (Wu Zetian, 625-705) was the only female emperor in Chinese history. Wu Zetian had been a de facto ruler of China through her husbands Emperor Taizong and his son and succeeding emperor Kaozong from 665 to 690. She broke all precedents in 690 when she founded her own Zhou dynasty.

Historical records speak of her youthful-looking complexion at the age of 80. Chinese motherwort (yi mu cao) was a main ingredient of Wu's facial beauty preparations.
Wu named one of her recipes "fairy powder."

1. Pick Chinese Motherwort (yi mu cao) on the 5th day of the fifth lunar month and let it dry in the sun.
2. Pound the herbs into powder, add flour and water and shape them into egg-shape pills;
3. Burn the pills and pound them into powder;
4. Add talcum powder and kermes (dried bodies of female scale insects).
To use:
Wash face and body with the powder, morning and evening.

Wu also nourished her complexion with a more complex herbal facial mask.
Mix with lard the powdered Chinese herbs Siebold wildginger (xi xin), Rhizoma polygonati odorati (wei rui), astragalus root (huang qi), Typhonium rhizome (bai fu zi), Chinese yam (shan yao), Magnolia liliflora (xin yi), Cnidium officinale (chuan qiong), Radix angelicae dahuricae (bai zhi), and Fructus trichosanthis (gua lou) and spread on the face.

To use:
Leave on for 10 minutes and rinse off with cold water.

Wu habitually ate food rich in protein and microelements, such as skin and tendons, aquatic foods and flower jam. She was also a devotee of aromatherapy, and would burn special herbs whose fragrance cleared her head and helped her stay alert.

Princess Taiping

Princess Taiping was the youngest daughter of Wu Zetian and Emperor Gaozong (628-683), and wielded much power during the reigns of her mother and two brothers (both of whom ruled twice), Emperor Zhongzong (655-710) and Emperor Ruizong (662-716). She was of particular influence during the latter's second reign. 

Empress Wu shared her royal skincare recipes with her favorite daughter.

Princess Taiping's exclusive facial mask recipe:
Grind peach blossoms that have dried in the shade into powder and mix into a paste with the blood of a black chicken. The mask nourishes and whitens the skin and stimulates the metabolism.

Soup made from this breed of "black-bone" chicken was, and still is, considered a tonic of immense medical properties. Tang dynasty women dosed themselves with black-bone concoctions to replenish their qi (vital energy) and blood, regulate menstruation and inhibit leucorrhea (period pains).

Princess Yonghe

Princess Yonghe was the daughter of Tang Emperor Suzong (711-762). She left to posterity recipes for her preferred facial cleanser and bath salts according to Taiping Shenghuifang (Taiping Sacred Remedies), the first national Song Dynasty (960-1297) medical book.

Princess Yonghe's Herbal Bean Cleanser for expelling wind, stimulating the circulation, nourishing the skin and moisturizing the complexion.

90g Radix et Sophorae Tonkinensis (ji gu xiang), 150g Radix angelicae dahuricae (bai zhi), 150g Rhizoma chuanxiong (chuan xiong), 150g Semen trichosanthis (gua lou ren), 300g Fructus gleditsiae (zao jia), 250g soybean, and 250g Semen phaseoli (chi xiao dou).

To use:
Wash your face with the powder, morning and evening.

Princess Yonghe's bath salts recipe for moisturizing the skin, removing spots and emitting fragrance

150g sheng glutinous rice, 30g oxhide gelatin, 30g Rhizoma et Radix ligustici (gao ben), 30g Rhizoma chuanxiong (chuan xiong), 30g Herba asari (xi xin), 30g Radix et Rhizoma nardostachyos (gan song), 240g Fructus gleditsiae (zao jia), 60g Radix angelicae dahuricae (bai zhi), 60g Lignum santali albi (tan xiang), 45g Rhizoma atractylodis macrocephalae (bai zhu), 45g Poria (fu ling), 15g Lignum aquilariae resinatrm (chen xiang) and 90g Fructus broussonetiae (chu shi zi)

To use: 
Wash the face and hands with the powder
This herbal mixture cleanses, moisturizes and smoothes the skin and promotes a glowing complexion.
Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), popularly known as the West Dowager Empress, was of the Manchu Yehe Nara Clan. This powerful and charismatic figure was the behind-the-scenes ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty for the 48 years between the death of her husband in 1861 and her own demise in 1908.

Cixi set up a medical organ specifically to carry out research on the medical and skin-care properties of powdered pearl. Having maintained for decades the strict regimen of a daily draught of one spoonful of pearl powder and several tonic herbs, the Empress Dowager Cixi was a vital woman whose face was said to have a jade-like sheen. 

Pearl Powder is a natural source of calcium made from the choicest freshwater pearls. It nourishes the bones, skin, and nervous system.

Regular exercise and a healthy diet that includes plenty of calcium are recommended for teens and young adults, particularly women. Adequate calcium intake nourishes the bones and reduces the risk of osteoporosis later in life, but a daily dosage in excess of 2,000 mg is surplus to most people's needs.

The Classical Chinese Materia Medica compiled by the famous Ming dynasty doctor Li Shizhen prescribes powdered pearl for facial skin health: "Spread on the face to lubricate the skin and nourish the complexion. Spread on the hands and feet to soften rough patches and smooth the skin."

But skin-care recipes only work on women who maintain an essentially healthy, confident and positive approach to life. No amount of preparations or herbal remedies can mask the stress and strain mirrored in the face. Good spirits and a balanced mentality foster an inner beauty manifest in a balanced temperament and attractive personality. Do you pursue beauty of mind as hotly as you do a pretty face?

(Source: Translated by

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