Cosmetics of the East

Recreating cosmetics from the sixth-century Chinese farm manual Qimin Yaoshu (齊民要術)

I have started with a partial translation of Qimin Yaoshu when I was preparing  my first Chinese cosmetics back in 2016. Since then, I discovered (thanks to Alec Story) the online repository of original Chinese texts ( 

I decided at some point to redo most of the cosmetics since the first versions were marred by poorly translated sources.

Display of  color cosmetics from early medieval China

Purple powder 紫粉 (zi fen)

Zi fen contained three parts of starch  and one part of lead white (essential element), dyed with extract from red malabar spinach seeds (Basella rubra). Because of presence of the white pigment,  the color will be always on the pastel side. 

This version is made using titanium dioxide as lead white replacement. Since I have discovered a better substitute, five parts of bismuth oxychloride and 2 parts of titanium dioxide, I may redo the purple powder again to see if the color will be more intense. The dyes in seeds of malabar spinach are betalains, similar to red beets. They are sensitive to pH and heat. I did three color extractions from the seeds, controlling temperature to avoid dye degradation (two extraction did not give the expected color intensity so I re-dyed once more). Then I separate the colored liquid and added it to the titanium dioxide/starch mix. The emulsion was spread in a large tray, let to dry, and then powdered and sieved. I keep my powder with a few whole cloves as it was popular method for scenting cosmetics.

The final color is more on pinkish lavender side. I can apply several layers to achieve a more deep color.  If this face powder is used on the semi-transparent lead white base used on darker skin, it would make the skin appear lighter. And this was the ideal look  of elites of medieval China. We can say it was the first known corrector powder. 

Making zi fen: color extraction from red malabar spinach seeds, mixing with starch and titanium dioxide, drying to powder.

Powdered and sieved zi fen finally was moved to a prettier container (replica of sancai or tri-colored glazed pottery from Tang Dynasty)

Application of zi fen  over skin prepared with  lead white replacement base and on bare skin.

Face cream 面脂 mian zhi (with vermillion)

For this recipe, I first prepared beef suet. First, I soaked cloves and Korean mint in warmed yellow wine (it was the the cheapest cooking wine with around 10% alcohol which was available in local Asian grocery store) for around five hours. Then I added the wine with aromatics, crushed Eupatorium fortunei and sweet wormwood to the melted beef suet. Doing it in a double boiler was the best option. I cooked  until wine evaporated, and then removed the aromatics. The suet base is slightly green, pleasantly scented and keeps well in a fridge (at least for a year). It did not go rancid when kept outside for three months. 

Then I took a small aliquot, melted it on low heat, and mixed with powdered vermillion into smooth paste. To avoid cleaning tools contaminated with toxic ingredients, I use only single-use ones (craft sticks  served as mixing tools and tin foil muffin forms, precut into individual pieces, serve as mixing containers resistant to heat).  The color is amazing though it is too toxic to be used  on skin. This is one of the cosmetics created as reference sample and for display-only purpose.

Scenting the beef suet: soaking cloves and crushed Korean mint in yellow wine, and solidify suet after cooking with aromatics and filtering. The brown dots are most likely oils from plants.

Preparing the lip stain: melting an aliquot of prepared  fat over low fire, mixing in the vermillion powder, and solidify lip stain ready for its trip to Singapore as reference sample. 

Lip rouge from Arcane Medical Essentials from the Imperial Library (外台秘要方四十卷) by Wang Tao 

The original recipe calls for mutton fat which I substituted with  lamb tallow. The fat was prepared by cooking with Eupatorium fortunei and yellow wine.

I did not have on hand enough opercula from Pacific Murex spp.  (jia jian xiang) so I used the prepared Turbo  cornutus opercula instead. The powdered opercula were mixed with  ground agarwood and ambrette seeds (as deer musk substitute).  I steamed the mixed powder with rosewater mixed with magnolia flowers. The original ratio of equal amounts of fat and beeswax resulted in a very hard mass so I adjusted recipe to 3 parts of fat and 1 part of beeswax. The resulting paste was softer and easier to apply.

Regardless of colorant used (toxic vermillion for reference sample or cosmetic pigments safe version), the protocol remained the same. Because of the  cooking process, it required constant mixing once placed over heat.

1. Heat lamb tallow over low heat.

2. Heat added beeswax.

3. Heat the 'fragrant shells' or the prepared opercula.

4. Heat with added powdered gromwell root.

5. Heat with added colorant  (vermillion, or Red No. 40 FD&C Lake aka safe vermillion or Mayan Red,  a mixture of red ocher and a vegetable dye)

6. Transfer to  the storage container when still liquid and mix well until  starts to solidify.

Making the lip rouge: melting the lamb fat, melting added beeswax, cooking with  ground gromwell roots 

Making the lip rouge in the vermillion version: cooking with gromwell, mixing in the vermillion powder, ready lip stain.

Making the safe version of  lip rouge: cooking with DC40 lake powder, solidify lip stain, and effect when applied to skin.

Making the safe version of  lip rouge: Mayan red pigment, cooking with added colorant, and effect when applied to skin.

Display of beauty care products from China