Ancient Chinese Bath Culture

Chinese Royal Bathrooms 2,300 Years Ago

Chinese archaeologists have recently excavated 3 royal bathrooms dating back to the Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC) in outskirts of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, where terracotta warriors were unearthed.

The walls and floors of the bathrooms were decorated with ceramic tiles, and the wet areas were equipped with drainage holes and sewage pipe.

Classic Chinese Bath Culture

Bathrooms and urban water supply system appeared in China as early as the Shang Dynasty, based on the evidence discovered on the Dongzhouyang archaeological site in Henan Province.

The earliest written reference to Chinese bath culture was recorded with Oracle Turtle Script 3,000 years ago, also during the Shang Dynasty (1700 to 1027 BC). By then bathroom was called 湢 (pronounced bi or bee), and the bathtubs were usually made with bronze or timber.

An ancient Chinese princess taking a bath

According to the Rites of Zhou, a work on idealistic Zhou Dynasty’s politics and culture mainly compiled during the Spring and Autumn Period around the 6th century BC, it was a requirement for the government officials of the Zhou era to wash their hair every three days and take a bath every five days.

Appropriate bath practice also included using two towels, one for upper body and one for the lower part of the body, showering with clean warm water after stepping out of the bathtub before drying oneself and putting on clothing. The entire bath ritual was concluded with a drink and a light meal (禮記·玉藻: 浴用二巾 上締下綌 出杅 履蒯席 連用湯 履蒲蓆 衣巾晞身 乃屨 進飲).

Entering the Han Dynasty (206BC–220AD), the government offered the officials to take a day off every five working days for having a bath (休沐). Later in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the bath day (休浣日) was between every ten working days.

Bath tools and accessories used by the Han Dynasty Chinese 2,000 years ago.

In the fifth century, an emperor of the Liang Kingdom, a culturally and technologically quite advanced Southern Dynasty, personally penned a book titled On Bath (沐浴經).

To ancient Chinese, taking a bath is not just to keep personal hygiene but to observe civil conduct.

Huaqing Pond, a bathroom in Tang Dynasty royal palace, allegedly used by Lady Yang, the favourite wife of Emperor Xianzong.

Ancient Chinese Bath Gel

2,000 years ago, warm rice water was the most popular body wash gel among Chinese ladies.

Came to the 3rd century, “bath bean (澡豆)”, specially made with mixed navy bean powder, five scented dried plants and flowers, medicinal herbs, egg white, pig pancreas and flour, emerged, which not only clean the body but nourish the skin.

The ingredients and formula to make the bath bean are explained in details in Sun Simiao’s Treasured Prescriptions (千金方), a book published in the mid-7th century about the traditional Chinese medicine clinical diagnosis and prescriptions.

During the Song, the rise in popularity of commercialised public bathroom saw the mass production of Fat Bean (肥珠子), a soap made with oily fruits and bath bean, which could be easily purchased from most grocery stores.

The Emerge of Public Bathhouse

An ancient Chinese female bathhouse

Public bathhouse did not appear in China until a thousand years ago. Yet during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the commercial male and female bathhouses became so popular that they could be found everywhere in China.

Apart from bath and shower, the Song bathhouses also offered back massage and nail cut services and provided tea, liquor, fruits and cakes as refreshment after a bath.

Su Shi, one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, was a patron of the public bathroom and composed a poem reflecting his naked experience:

Water and dirt were on a war
Soon they both rendered nought

A message to the back massager
Take it easy, take it easy

My body is an illusion
The dirt is your imagination

水垢何曾相受
细看两俱无有

寄语揩背人
尽日劳君挥肘

轻手, 轻手
居士本来无垢

Most Song bathhouses had the water in the pool heated by coal, but the people of the Song Dynasty also exploited natural hot water resources. In the prosperous mid-11th century, just city Fuzhou alone there were over 40 hot spring bathhouses.

When Marco Polo visited China during the short-lived Yuan Dynasty under the Mongols’ rule, he could still witness the Song-style bath culture in China and described how the locals got up early and took a bath before having breakfast.

Public bathhouses during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were probably the most elaborate. In an encyclopaedia compiled by Ming scholar Lang Ying, under the word “混堂”, the author mentioned public bathhouses in Suzhou. He depicted Suzhou bathhouses as having slabbed floors below and brick dome ceilings above. A huge boiler would be installed in the back of the house providing the bathing pool with hot water through a tunnel, which was powered by a turning wheel motioned by a staff (大石为池,穹幕以砖,后为巨釜,令与池通,辘轳引水,一人专执爨).

Ancient Chinese women bathing their babies
Ancient Chinese women bathing their kids in a garden

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