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.

China Scenic - - CULTURE - By Douzi

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

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