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Of rice, flowers, and lead: What the ancient Chinese used for makeup

To many people, beauty has always been a universally desired trait. Women—and some men—nowadays use modern cosmetics to highlight and accentuate their natural features. Things were the same way before, even in times as early as 2,000 years ago in ancient China. 

During that time, the beauty standards for Chinese women favored having pale white skin, bright eyes, dark brows, and rosy cheeks and lips. To achieve these desired features, makeup composed mostly of plants, natural oils, and minerals were used. 

Here are a few examples of cosmetics used by the Chinese in the past:


Rice Powder

Used as a form of base makeup, the powder was usually created by meticulously selecting high-quality rice, which was then subjected to processing methods such as soaking, fermenting, cleaning, and drying. The end product was often used to brighten skin, helping women achieve their preferred lighter shade of skin tone. 

(Source: Be Beautiful)

Lead Powder

Lead powder became a popular alternative to rice powder because the latter did not last for long periods of time. But while lead powder was helpful to the skin whitening process, it was also a highly toxic substance to those who used it. 

(Source: Baidu)


The Chinese prized the color red because it was associated with life, energy, and luck. As a result, the color was often applied to one’s lips and cheeks to bring about a more youthful and vibrant appearance. In order to do this, the ancient Chinese developed a type of rouge called yanzhi (胭脂), which was created with the pigments of safflowers. 

(Source: Baidu)

Eyebrow Powder

The earliest eyebrow pencils used then were burnt willow branches. Eventually, eyebrow powder or dai (黛) was produced by grinding a dark blue mineral on an inkstone into powder. 

(Source: Baidu)

Lipstick Paper

Though lip balms and rouge were commonly applied to the lips for coloration, one unique Chinese cosmetic item was lipstick paper. This was created by dyeing paper pulp with the pigments of flowers. To use, one would simply need to press one’s lips onto both sides of the paper. 

(Source: Baidu)


According to legends, a Shouyang princess in the South Dynasty once took a stroll in the palace when a light breeze suddenly pressed a plum blossom to her forehead. For some reason, the flower could not be removed or washed off. Because of its beauty, women then started to imitate the princess by pasting huadian (花鈿) forehead ornaments onto their foreheads. 

Huadian can come in several forms and images such as flowers and animals. They usually involve materials like rouge, paper, petals, gold, fish bones, and seashells among many others.  

(Source: Baidu)

In conclusion, ancient Chinese cosmetics are not all too different from modern-day makeup. Many of these, barring those with harmful elements, may even still be used today. So what can be said is this: It appears that no matter the race or the time, beauty is will always be an ideal that humans will strive for. 

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