Updated: Feb 16, 2021
©2021 Kenneth S. Cohen
Many years ago, I took classes with an outstanding Daoist and doctor of Chinese medicine, Dr. Stephen Chang, whose ancestors were physicians to Qing Dynasty Emperors. One of the treasures I learned about was Jade Cream, a healing and cosmetic cream that includes Jade, Myrrh, Pearls, Zicao (lithospermum), Sesame Oil, and other ingredients. Dr. Chang explained that the ingredients only combine harmoniously and produce the best qi (healing energy) during particular phases of the moon. I love these kind of creams, and have made my own using a base of beeswax and olive oil.
Daoists also use hot springs and naturally occurring healing mud to improve skin health. I once met a Daoist martial arts master who recounted an interesting part of his training that occurred in the late 1930s. His master brought him to an almost scalding hot hot springs. After bathing, the master covered the young boy’s body with a healing and strengthening mud 藥泥. The “new skin” resulting from that treatment conditioned him against injury and bruising.
Healing muds or clays (both called yao ni 藥泥) are so filled with qi that Daoist alchemists often used them to coat the inside and outside of alchemical containers, pots, or cauldrons. Probably the most famous of these is the Six and One Clay六一泥 mentioned in “A Great Anthology of the Golden Elixir” 金丹大成集 written by Xiao Tingzhi 蕭廷芝 around 1260. The mixture included alum, Turkestan rock salt, lake salt, arsenolite, oyster shells, red clay, and talc. Not something, by the way, that I would recommend, as the arsenic in arsenolite is highly toxic and would bring one to the heavenly realm within a very short period of time!
Colorism and Clays
Salves, ointments, lotions, creams, masks, and liniments are common in Chinese medicine, and their history keeps getting pushed back in time. In early February 2021, the distinguished science journal Nature reported the discovery of a 2,700 years old bronze jar that contained China’s earliest known cosmetic cream, made from beef fat and ground stalactite from caves (also known as calcite or calcium carbonate). The combination probably removed excess fat and oil, smoothed the skin, and reduced wrinkles and blemishes-- calcite is used in some modern acne creams.
However, scholars also noted that calcite was a whitening agent, and it is likely that the Chinese aristocracy reinforced their status and their difference from the common, well-tanned farmers, by whitening their skin. Skin lightening creams, sold as “beauty” products, are still immensely popular in Asian countries. The World Health Organization reports that at least 50% of the populations of Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and India use skin bleaching or lightening products.
I find skin whitening agents bizarre and disturbing. Yes, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the emphasis on whiteness—then as now—reinforces racist attitudes and biased policies, further demeaning people of color and reducing opportunities for equal education, employment, income, housing, and quality of life.