Body Decorations of Early Asian Cultures

While both Chinese and Japanese cultures have some interesting and even spectacular traditions of body decoration, what is perhaps most striking is how little these early Asian cultures depended upon ornament. Both cultures valued simplicity. They did not wear large amounts of jewelry, nor did they have complicated ways of painting their faces with makeup. They did, however, have particular items of their overall costume that allowed for more display. Most of their body decoration customs are difficult to date and are assumed to have begun in ancient times. Many still exist to this day, showing the stability of Asian decorative traditions.

Chinese and Japanese women both used their long, black hair as a primary means of expressing their sense of style. For example, they might wear any number of hair accessories, including stickpins, bars, combs, and bands. These items might be made of ivory, wood, tortoiseshell, silver, or other materials. Flowers were also commonly worn in the hair, with bright colors chosen to contrast with the wearer's black hair.

Both Chinese and Japanese men and women valued clean, pale faces and a carefully groomed appearance. White pancake makeup was spread all over the face, sometimes quite thickly. For many years this white makeup contained lead, a chemical that caused real damage to the complexion over time. Women plucked and shaped their eyebrows and used red makeup on their lips. Lip painting was aimed at making the mouth look very small, the preferred style. In Japan, female entertainers known as geishas were especially concerned with their makeup.

Dramatic makeup was an important component of the national theater traditions of both China and Japan. In China members of the Peking Opera painted their faces in distinct patterns according to historical custom. These patterns, along with elaborate costumes, informed the audience about the actors' characters. In Japan similar makeup and costumed traditions were used in the traditional Kabuki theater. Many of these traditions continue in the present day.

Though there is no evidence that the ancient Chinese practiced tattooing, members of the Japanese lower classes have long practiced a dramatic and colorful form of tattooing. At its most extensive, these tattoos may cover almost the entire body.


Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Mackerras, Colin. Peking Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sichel, Marion. Japan. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Kabuki Makeup
Face Painting at the Peking Opera

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