What Was Hygiene Like in Ancient China?

Last updated on January 27th, 2023 at 08:38 pm

If you’re interested in history, hygiene, or both, then Ancient China is fascinating. This blog post will explore what hygiene was like in Ancient China, and some of the practices used to stay clean.

Ancient China had some exciting ideas about hygiene! This article will explore some of the most popular methods used in ancient China to keep clean.

Bathing Culture in Ancient China

While it may be difficult to imagine, citizens of ancient China did not have the luxury of bathing every day or every other day. Likewise, most citizens did not have the luxury of walking into a washroom and preparing a bath.

Sources trace bathing back 3,000 years ago to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).

Ancient Chinese royalty kept up with their hygiene even before the Shang Dynasty; between 475-221 BCE, Chinese archaeologists uncovered three royal bathrooms from the Warring States Period.

These baths were decorated with ceramic tiles, and the wet areas had drainage holes and sewage pipes. 

Bathrooms and the urban water supply existed in China as early as the Shang Dynasty. Ancient Chinese wrote the earliest recorded evidence of bathroom culture with the Oracle Turtle Script 3,000 years ago.

Bathtubs were made with bronze or timber. During the Zhou Dynasty, bathing was a social ritual not just for personal hygiene. Perhaps the importance of bathing as a social ritual was why the first public bathhouse came about during the Zhou Dynasty.

Bathing As a Social Ritual

Personal hygiene is essential that much is clear, but the Chinese people, especially those in politics. For example, during the Zhou Dynasty, society expected that Chinese citizens should boil water for their parents to bathe every five days; they should also help their parents wash their hair every third day.

Moreover, bathing extended beyond the household; when visiting another family, it was customary to take a bath provided by the host before enjoying any other festivities.

The bathing social ritual only grew in importance during the Han Dynasty (206-220 CE); this is clear by the actions of the Chinese government, which scheduled holidays so officials could wash.

In a historical text known as The Rites of the Han Court, the government provided a “bathing holiday” every five days; these holidays remained later into other dynasties, such as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which only adjusted it to a “bathing holiday” every ten working days.

As bath beans became more popular, the high-status citizens during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) used them for cleaning and moisturizing their skin.

It came to a point where expensive toiletry items like this were only for the nobility. The emperor would even gift his officials bath beans and other expensive hygiene products.

The commoner would use a simplified version of bath bean made from pea powder without adding spices or anything at all.

During this time, the wealthy built private bathhouses like “Burning Dragon Warm Pool,” where the Hebei province resides today.

Like the Song Dynasty, public bathhouses became essential for social life and recreation in later eras. These areas became spas, offering spa services such as nail clipping, massages, shaving, and ear cleaning.

Hygiene Accessories Emerge

Modern society is fond of shower gels, soaps, and other bathing accessories that make the experience more luxurious.

In the Han Dynasty, an outdated version of shower gel, also known as “bath bean,” was a delicate type of soap that came from ground beans or peas mixed with spices.

These recipes would use herbs such as cloves, eaglewood, various flowers, and even powdered jade.

While this article focuses a lot on bathing, other forms of hygiene were also necessary. For instance, people assume that ancient civilizations just let their teeth rot out of their heads—however, the Chinese had simpler forms of toothpaste that were just as effective as current methods.

In addition, the Chinese people realized that salt was a great way to whiten and protect their teeth.

So, during the Tang, Wei, Jin, and Sui Dynasties, it was commonplace to see people dip their fingers in salt, wine, tea, and vinegar to wipe their teeth and clean their mouths.

As their methods evolved, they replaced salt with a concoction called Tooth powder. Ultimately, people combined this powder with pork teeth, saponin, ginger, cimicifuga, cooked Rehmannia glutinosa, lotus leaf, green salt, etc. They used this combination to maintain their teeth and even found ways to use it to remove moisture and heat from the body.

In their search for more practical tools for cleanliness, the ancient Chinese realized that their fingers didn’t serve them well as toothbrushes. So, they first created primitive toothbrushes out of willow branches.

After cleaning a small branch, they would chew on the end until the fibers exposed themselves at the end, becoming hairy. This was a low-cost method, but soon people upgraded to more effective means.

The Chinese used animal bristles next, whereas the higher classes used horse bristles which were softer and more comfortable, and the poorer folk used pig bristles which were coarse and more rigid.

Eventually, shops opened that sold toothbrushes made from wood and bamboo; craftsmen poked rows of holes at the ends of the bamboo and inserted horse bristles into them.

Other Methods of Hygiene

The ancient Chinese discovered new ways to take care of themselves. They used plant ash from burning straw to bathe and wash clothes and utilized rice water as a detergent for cleaning.

They figured out that rice contains starches and proteins for the body.  

Like modern society, maintaining facial hair is necessary for some individuals; However, they didn’t have the custom of shaving their body hair, but they did practice removing delicate facial hair.

Men and women had this treatment before their wedding day to look presentable for the ceremonies.

How did the ancient Chinese handle the bathroom situation? Before modern amenities, ordinary people used branches and leaves as toilet paper: also, stones, earth blocks, and other items.

After the Han Dynasty, people invented bamboo slices cut into thin strips as toilet paper.

The upper class also washed afterward and applied aromatherapy for better fragrance. They used this method for quite a while until traditional paper became available due to its higher cost.

Then, the Yuan Dynasty brought about the usage of straw paper; during the Qing and Ming Dynasties, straw paper became a common toiletry for ordinary people, while the upper classes and royalty used silk. 

We have come a long way since the days of using plant ash and chewing on willow branches. We have better methods, materials, and technology to help our hygiene.

It’s incredible to think about how much has changed in just a few thousand years; despite our advancements, the ancients were still able to maintain a certain level of cleanliness.

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