Dental Hygiene of Ancient Chinese
The people of the modern world emphasize the health and aesthetic beauty of one’s teeth. But how did the people of ancient times view dental hygiene, and how did they go about cleaning their teeth? This article offers a history of teeth cleaning in China.
As we know from historical records, the physicians of ancient China were conscious of ailments caused by poor dental hygiene, and advocated clean teeth. In the distant past, the common folk had to strive every day merely to maintain their existence, and had never so much as heard of cleaning one’s teeth, thus many people went their entire lives without brushing their teeth (or even most of their lives without bathing for that matter). So in ancient China brushing one’s teeth was a habit practiced only by the “decent people” of the upper classes.
Decent People Rinse Their Mouths
In ancient China, although most people didn’t clean their teeth at all, a select number of people did regularly. Anyone whose lifestyle involved more than mere survival would try to avoid letting their teeth turn yellow due to neglect. But since the toothbrush and toothpaste were by no means commonplace at that time, how did these “decent people” go about cleaning their teeth?
Actually, ever since the human race began to conglomerate into societies, they have been using the resources available to them to keep their teeth clean. Eons before we were brushing our teeth, we were rinsing our mouths. In ancient China, mouth rinsing took place after meals, to remove any stray remnants of food, leaving the mouth more comfortable than otherwise. This habit became an integral part of life, and eventually evolved into an elegant ritual.
The Bookofrites , compiled before the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC–8 AD), explicitly stated that one should rinse one’s mouth after eating, using fresh water, to remove the bits of food from between one’s teeth, and thus preserve the comfort of the mouth and teeth. This not only made one feel more comfortable, but did the same for others as well, thus it adhered to the principles of etiquette, and for this very logical reason the habit was included in this classic
tome of Confucian thought.
There were several methods of mouth rinsing described in historical Chinese texts. Northern Song (960–1127) eminent poet Su Shi taught us that to achieve clean teeth one need not pick at them with toothpicks, as rinsing the mouth with strong tea was the best method. Strong tea could clear the mouth of oiliness, but drinking too much of it wasn’t good for the body either. He was surprised to discover that simply rinsing the mouth with tea and then spitting it out could achieve the same effect of ridding the oily feeling from the mouth, without having to drink all that tea.
According to modern medical theory, tea leaves contain a large amount of tannins, and a small amount of fluoride, the former of which fights and kills bacteria, while the latter is essential for dental care. The experience which Su Shi summarized was thus actually very scientific. Aside from strong tea, the ancient Chinese also used things like salt water and alcohol as mouthwash. Tang Dynasty (618–907) “Medical Sage” Sun Simiao advocated that every morning one should rinse their mouth with a pinch of salt and a mouthful of warm water, and they would have nice, clean teeth.
Salt as Toothpaste
Simply rinsing the mouth lacked sufficient strength to clean the teeth. So what was the next step?
Tao Hongjing, polymath Chinese author, scholar, calligrapher, alchemist, pharmacologist and astronomer of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589 AD ), in his book Extract son nourishing
Spiritual nature and prolonging bodily life, recorded in detail one of his daily hygiene habits :“I rinse my mouth with water, then rub my teeth with salt. Next I thoroughly rinse my mouth with light soup made from a small amount of crushed oxalis flowers.” Here Tao Hongjing mentions a more advanced method for cleaning the teeth: rubbing them.
Here “rubbing” refers to rubbing the teeth with salt after rinsing the mouth. After this Tao Hongjing would take a small mouthful of oxalis flower soup, rinse his mouth more thoroughly, then spit the soup out. This is the same principle as Su Shi’s strong tea mouthwash method, and acts on the same logic as the abrasive in modern toothpaste.
The people of ancient China used salt to rub the teeth because salt possesses qualities similar to an abrasive, but what they believed was that salt was able to sterilize in the mouth while cleaning it. So most historical Chinese medical texts describe salt as being used to rub the teeth. For example, the medical book Shizhai Yifang ( Prescriptionsof Thisclinic ) lists a method using nut grass and halite (rock salt), while the Boji Fang( Prescriptions for multiple treatment) describes a complicated concoction containing salt, flour, Chinese honey locust, and medicine terminalia fruit.
The nut grass mentioned above is a type of Chinese medicine, which in the aforementioned teeth rubbing method is used for its fragrance property. This, combined with halite produced by drying lake water, creates an effect very similar to that of what we consider to be toothpaste.
What’s important to note is that in each of these concoctions there are at least three ingredients. The first acts as an abrasive (usually halite, amber or talc), the second is a medicinal ingredient which makes the mouth feel more refreshed (wild ginger root, wrinkled giant hyssop, etc.), and the third is a mineral or herb with some sort of pleasant aroma to freshen one’s breath (most commonly clove, but also sandalwood, among others).
Both the cleansing and aromatic effects of a paste made from ingredients like camphol, halite and lilacs to clean the teeth were likely quite significant. There were also numerous types of these toothpastes mentioned in ancient historical records, such as ones that reduced “internal heat” as described in traditional Chinese medicine, ones that focused on long-term dental health, and so on. But that’s only the beginning. Now that toothpaste existed, without a toothbrush how were you supposed to actually brush your teeth?
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The ancient Chinese were accustomed to brushing their teeth with their finger, since they didn’t have a more appropriate tool. But this method was inherently flawed. The remains of food which were sought to be removed were hidden between the teeth, which the finger could not reach. So people increasingly needed a more effective method to clean their teeth.
Of course, this minor difficulty didn’t stop the ancient Chinese, and was what impelled them to create teeth cleaning devices out of various materials.
The very earliest of these was simply a stick. Specifically, they would take a newly sprouted small branch, chew on the end until it became split and frayed, or use a rock or hammer to achieve the same effect. Then they would take this small stick which now resembled a tiny broom, dip it in some of the paste or salt as described above, clean their teeth with it, then spit the paste out. Though primitive, this already closely resembled the toothbrush of today.
The first toothbrushes to use hairs and a handle like modern ones did not appear until the Tang Dynasty. The Chinese word for “toothbrush” itself followed a few hundred years later in the Song Dynasty (960– 1279). In Song times, China enjoyed great economic prosperity, and the cities were filled with shops of all kinds, which in turn were filled with customers of all kinds, and toothbrushes were a commonly sold item. Song toothbrushes were typically made of wood, with horsehair bristles. By the later Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), toothbrushes had already become a favored gift among friends and family.
However, the actual effects of the toothbrush were eventually subjected to suspicion, some believing it worked, while others did not. Experts of the time reminded consumers that toothbrushes were a double-edged sword; even ones of good quality were not made with the right materials, as the brush consisted of horse hair, which was coarse and actually harmed the teeth.
The fact that people at the time were already discussing the pros and cons of the toothbrush shows just how commonplace it was. Thus we can vividly imagine an ancient Chinese person, wooden toothbrush in hand, dipping it in toothpaste made from salt and ground flower petals, then brushing and rinsing his mouth.
Widespread Use of Toothbrush
After thorough exposure during the Song Dynasty, the toothbrush had become quite highly popularized among the “decent people”, and in the works of Yuan Dynasty (1271–1367) drama in later years, numerous scenes describing toothbrush vendors hawking their wares in the streets had appeared.
There was a Korean official Choi Bu, who was stationed on Jeju Island during the Ming Dynasty (Korean Joseon Dynasty). After his father passed away, he was on a ship on route to his hometown, when suddenly a harsh storm rose and left him cast away for two weeks. He drifted aimlessly until finally reaching the shores of today’s Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. After it was confirmed that Choi Bu was not a Japanese pirate, he completed his journey home, whereupon he recorded his experiences in a lengthy book called Drifting at sea. In one chapter of the book he mentions that the southern Chinese were more hygienically conscious than the northerners, the southerners bringing hair brushes and toothbrushes with them wherever they went, while the northerners, although they used these on a daily basis, did not take those with them when travelling.
Also, in the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the Chinese
reached some conclusions about the most ideal times for brushing one’s teeth. Yuan Dynasty physician Hu Sihui pointed out that the evening was the better time for cleaning one’s teeth than the morning, as in the evening one could better rid the teeth of residue, and thus more effectively prevent dental ailments.
Of course, brushing one’s teeth both in the morning and evening would be best of all, because it could help one preserve the freshness of one’s breath, while also preventing dental decay. In the Classifiedcollec
tionofqingnotes , a sort of unofficial history of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), author Xu Ke dedicated an entire chapter to dental hygiene, from which we may determine that in the late Qing Dynasty a significant portion of higher society brushed their teeth both in the morning and evening.
But even so, these members of high society only constituted a fraction of society as a whole. Many common folk still did not brush their teeth at all, and by the Republican era (1912–1949) this had become a problem which the educated considered to be of national degree, a problem which had to be solved. In 1924, Mr. Sun Yat- Sen gave a series of lectures regarding the “Three People’s Principles” (nationalism, democracy, and the People’s livelihood). In the sixth of these lectures, he addressed the matter of dental hygiene, saying that if one could not keep their teeth clean, they could not achieve self-cultivation; and if they could not achieve self-cultivation, how could they have any right to speak of changing the world? From this point on the Chinese made it a habit to brush their teeth regularly, a matter which was even subject to inspection by the national leader.
The Tooth Powder of Ancient People Before the invention of the toothbrush, the Chinese were already using tooth powder, and according to various ingredients, tooth powders had different effects.
In India, the willow twig was once called“tooth wood”and was a one-off tooth-cleaning object. However, derivative meaning emerged when it was introduced later to China. In this Waterandmoonguan
yinpainting from Dunhuang Sutra Cave, the Guanyin holds a vase in her left hand and a willow twig in her right hand. By this time, the twig had become a holy article that could ward off evil and cure illnesses. Photo/ Imagine China
An Array of Tooth Cleaning Tools These are toothbrushes from remote ancient times to the Qing Dynasty unearthed in China. From a twig to a toothbrush, the development of tooth cleaning tools draws an outline of the advances in human life. Photo/ Ji Kun
The popularization of tooth brushing was once a challenging task in the olden days in China. During the“new Life Movement”(1934–1949), a national education campaign launched by the Republican government, nurses taught children to brush their teeth and popularized the idea across the country. Photo/ FOTOE
People from all over the world have varying life habits, but on tooth cleaning they reach a consensus: it is of great importance. In these two Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings, a woman is cleaning her mouth with a tongue scrape (Top), while the other is brushing her teeth with a twig (Bottom). Photo/ FOTOE