Tang court ladies in a fresco painting at Lady Li Xianhui’s tomb. Although ceruse usage fell out of favor during the Sui Dynasty, it came back into fashion amongst court ladies during the Tang dynasty.
A bright complexion and light skin were also central to the Roman ideal of femininity in the ancient world, and as we’ve already seen when tracing the use of rouge, a considerable amount of textual evidence about cosmetics has survived, although once again, it is all written by men. Ovid’s Ars amatoria included instructions for skin treatments and cosmetics, such as this recipe for a nontoxic skin whitener:
Now, when you have had your full of sleep, and your delicate limbs are refreshed, come learn from me how to impart a dazzling whiteness to your skin. Strip of its straw and husk the barley which our vessels bring to our shores from the fields of Libya. Take two pounds of peeled barley and an equal quantity of vetches moistened with ten eggs. Dry the mixture in the air, and let the whole be ground beneath the mill-stone worked by the patient ass. Pound the first horns that drop from the head of a lusty stag. Of this take one-sixth of a pound. Crush and pound the whole to a fine powder, and pass through a deep sieve. Add twelve narcissus bulbs which have been skinned, and pound the whole together vigorously in a marble mortar. There should also be added two ounces of gum and Tuscan spelt, and nine times as much honey. Any woman who smears her face with this cosmetic will make it brighter than her mirror.3
While Ovid’s suggestions were generally sensible, other authors preferred to highlight the artifice of cosmetics. Roman satirists couldn’t resist the allure of absurd, exotic, or repellent ingredients, and one of the most notorious materials, cited by many authors, was a skin-lightening preparation called crocodilea crocodile dung. Typically, we know this fact because it was often mentioned by men arguing against the use of cosmetics, but it was also described by Pliny the Elder, who explained that the particular land-dwelling crocodile whose dung was used in skincare lived on a diet of herbs and flowers, so that its intestines smelled pleasantly fragrant. He recommended that crocodilea be mixed with starch, chalk, or dried starling droppings to lighten and tint the skin. Roman women may indeed have applied reptile feces to their faces, but some modern historians suspect that crocodilea was in fact the popular name of a white clay sourced in Ethiopia, the land believed by the Romans to be the source of the Nile, well known to be a river in which crocodiles thrived.
If you think of cultures historically associated with pale or white skin, East Asia certainly springs to mind particularly Japan, where the eggshell-white maquillage of the geishas is a cliche of national identity. The admiration of white or pale skin in the region is timeworn, with ancient China being one of the first civilizations to strive to enhance pallor: One of the first skin whiteners to be recorded was rice powder, a harmless substance made by finely grinding the grain into rice bran and used cosmetically by both the Chinese and Japanese.
Empress Wu Zetian ingested pearl powder, which was thought to stimulate skin healing, as well as applied it to her face to brighten her complexion.
White lead was also discovered to be an effective whitener, but it is difficult to pinpoint when lead-based pigments were first used for cosmetic purposes in ancient China. Some sources suggest ceruse may have been in use in very ancient times, as far back as the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BC), partly due to a literary allusion to powder made from roasted lead, and partly because it’s possible that the manufacturing of lead pigments in ancient China dates back as far as lead metallurgy the process of separating the metal from its ore itself.
“White may be said to represent light, without which no color can be seen.
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