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Gua sha Origin Story: From Ancient China to Modern Skincare Ritual

Saturday, March 02, 2024

The Gua sha Journal - A Blog About Everything Gua sha by Clive Witham/Gua sha Origin Story: From Ancient China to Modern Skincare Ritual

In this episode of the Gua sha Show, Clive takes you on a journey to look at the world in which Facial Gua sha comes from. He looks at different eras in Chinese history and at the beauty treatments available at the time to give the context in which Facial Gua sha was developed. He also looks at how Gua sha became an important treatment for serious febrile diseases like cholera and how, if we really want to do Gua sha right, we have to incorporate the knowledge of the ancient Chinese in any facial treatments we do.


Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Gua sha show! So today we’re exploring the subject of Facial Gua sha. And we’re going to take a peak inside the history of Chinese cosmetology and traditional Chinese medicine to see what we find and how we can use this information to improve what we do. This is, of course, important because unless you can trace where something comes from and how it developed, it’s difficult to really understand it. And as soon as you take it out of the context in which it was created, you’re changing it whether you’re aware of it or not. And that’s okay. The history of Gua sha is one of innovation in technique but you’ve got to stand on firm roots when you do it. Your foundation has to be solid. So that’s why we’re going back in time today, to show you what the foundation should look like.

So let’s take a little stroll together. We’re going to walk a little on the path of Chinese history and discover the fascinating world of Facial Gua sha comes from. So if you’re ready. Let’s go.

​Well our journey begins in a intriguing time.

Qin and Han Dynasties: Birthplace of Chinese Cosmetology & TCM

We’re in the Qin and Han dynasties in ancient China - 2 milenia ago (770 BC-220 CE) - known as the Spring-Autumn and Warring state periods. This was a time of great political, economic, ideological, scientific, and cultural change (actually not that different from right now) and it’s when the development of Chinese medicine really took root which lay the foundations of ancient Chinese cosmetology.

So what happened at this time in ancient China? It’s here where the first ideas of the relationship between the human body and for example the colours you find on the skin and how people’s temperament, age, health, and qi and blood affect your body. You might have come across maps with details about where you can see internal changes on the face (these are often not quite right) - like your lungs being in between your eyebrows. This is where they come from. You might have come across images of those lines meandering all over the body which people call meridians. It’s from this time too. This was the time of the classic text on Chinese medicine called the Huangdi Neijing which compiled the ideas of the time and prior to it into a consolidated form.

If you take a look at these texts you see just how jaw-droppingly beautiful the ideas were. It wasn’t just the yin and yang and modern TCM of what we come across today. It wasn’t the subway map of points and push this point for this illness and stick this point for that illness. It was a vibrant guide to life and the universe using the patterns of nature as it’s guiding principles. It also gave an approach to beauty which is based more of a flowering of a plant than the details of your face which is how we want to approach Facial Gua if we are to stay true to its origins. Beauty is more about the potential that is within you. It’s the seed which if nurtured can bloom into a bright flower in everyone. It’s not about wether you can change this feature or that feature, it’s about your inner self shining through. In fact, that’s the image of health as health and beauty are indistinguishable. More about that towards the end.

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t people obsessed with the face like all the generations to come. In different texts they also came up with the idea of the vertical thirds and horizontal fifths rule of facial beauty. In order to create a standard perfect face by which all others can be judged, the face was divided into 3 equal horizontal sections. From the hairline to the eyebrow, from from the eyebrow to the bottom of the nose and from the bottom of the nose to the chin. Then the width of the face was divided into 5 equal parts, each of these being the width of an eye. If your features match this facial organisation, then you were officially an image of beauty. Interestingly the "five eyes" facial positioning method is still part of aesthetics and a reference for the design of cosmetic surgery.

So apart from the conceptual ideas of beauty, the face and the body, there were some practical steps being used on a cosmetic basis at this time. The Shang Oracle bone inscriptions which were actually written on bone and turtle shells (1250 BC or 1200 BC) which describe applying sheep fat to prevent dry skin. Other classic texts describe beauty prescriptions for removing warts, acne and body odour and white silkworm which improves the complexion.

​During this period, techniques were developed such as acupuncture and bleeding and you’ll find people saying that Gua sha comes from these ancient texts and especially the Huangdi Neijing text because of the mention of treatment with bian stone (砭石). But this is a case of lost in translation as they were referring to pointed stones which could be used to open big abscesses and let the pus flow out, not to scraping as in the modern version of Gua sha.

Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties: A Time of Turmoil and Rediscovery

So let’s come forward in time and let’s jump to the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589 AD). This was a troubled, chaotic time. Lots of books have been burnt and lots of knowledge has been destroyed. And lots of the old techniques either gone or reinterpreted. This period was trying to piece it all back together which it did with varying success. You can find references to face and treatments at this time - one text on emergency prescriptions describes the treatment of acne, baldness, bad smells, and ugliness with facial cream, skin powder, and a fresh egg white mask. And facial scars were treated with a mask of boiled pig's feet and boiled deer horn glue.

Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties: A Golden Age - Beauty Flourishes, But Not Yet Gua sha

But let’s skip on. Let’s pass all the chaos and come to peace and tranquility. The good times rolled in with the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties (581-979 AD) - it was politically stable, economically developed, culturally prosperous, they made paper and printed books, women's status improved, and the need for beauty was valued by society. A perfect time for Facial Gua sha!

Well no actually. We’re still a long way off. In the Tang dynasty Gua sha was alive and well but it was documented as a treatment for diarrhoea.

The focus on treating the face was on treating internally to make changes on the outside which is the approach of Chinese medicine. There was a great deal of interest in cosmetology. One pharmacology text by Sun Simiao, for example, had 32 volumes, including 97 facial beautifying formulas, 88 facial beauty formulas, and 9 bath bean formulas, 3 mouth fat formulas, 3 beautiful hand formulas, 10 deodorant formulas, and 11 other cosmetic preparation methods, 9 prescriptions for hairdressing, 4 prescriptions for fragrant body and 11 prescriptions for removing facial spots.

There was also a focus on diet therapy with, for example, soybeans and soybean sprouts thought to be good at removing moles, dryness, and moisturizing the skin.

​Theories were developed that facial skin pigmentation is mainly caused by phlegm in internal organs or skin exposure to wind and environmental changes which cause the blood to be unbalanced, causing dark freckles.

Song and Yuan Dynasties: The Dawn of Sha Theory & Early Facial Tools

Let’s come forward again. This time the Song and Yuan period (960-1368 AD) which brought the age of diversity with book publishing, schools and the introduction of foreign medicines and spices.

And here we find a reference to something like Gua sha on the face! In the Northern Song Dynasty (960- 1127 AD) records show the use of jade rubbing to treat facial scars. So that’s a thousand years ago. Although it isn’t technically facial Gua sha - it is a friction treatment on the face with a tool.

Definitely at this time, a form of Gua sha was in use and theories of something called ‘Sha Syndrome’ were starting to take hold. Wēi yì lín published ‘World Medicine Effective Prescription’ and in it he discussed something called ‘sha syndrome’ An example of this is ‘stirring intestinal sha’ - abdominal cramps, cold sweats, swelling and fullness.

You may not have thought about this but the name itself tells you a great deal of information about Gua sha. ‘Gua’ has a scraping meaning and ‘Sha’ has its roots in sha syndrome. At that time it had a character which meant ‘sand lice invading the human body’ although the Chinese character used was changed later on. One text tells us to scrape it with bamboo leaves to make blood flow. And theories of 'sha' disease gradually developed based on the premise that a pathogen was to be cleared and dispersed from the body and this was combined with a scraping technique, although initially this involved a hemp rope rubbing method using water or sesame oil in the Yuan dynasty.

​As far as beauty treatment goes, the focus of the Song and Yuan period was like before on taking beauty prescriptions internally and externally. One Song Dynasty text contained more than 980 beauty prescriptions including 10 prescriptions for acne treatment, 20 prescriptions for eliminating scars, and the use of cow milk pills to nourish the internal organs and moisturize the body. The Yuan Dynasty court physicians focused on hair conditioning, hair growth, facial beauty, and tooth cleaning with chrysanthemum powder and charcoal ash. This was a long way from the world of Gua sha.

Ming and Qing Dynasties: Innovation and Fighting Disease - Gua sha Emerges for Practical Uses

Now we move on to the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1840 AD) and much closer to modern times. There was a great deal of innovation in this time.

There were many external cosmetic treatment methods for the treatment of hair, facial cleansing, expelling wind, moisturizing and smoothing the face. One prescription was a facial cleanser and prevented facial frostbite and chapped skin. The "Compendium of Materia Medica" in Ming Dynasty was published with 1095 kinds of Chinese medicines, 270 of which detailed cosmetic effects such as whitening, wrinkle removal, spot reduction and deodorizing.

​But even at this pre-modern time if you go searching for facial Gua sha you’re going to be disappointed. In fact if you go searching for Gua sha in any sense, it will take some time!

So Why Wasn’t Facial Gua sha Part Of The Dynastic Court? - From Battlefield to Beauty Ritual

At this time, the court physicians wouldn’t dream of scraping their rulers. Gua sha wasn’t something that was done. At least not in the civilized upper sections of Chinese society.

Gua sha was busy fighting the plague. It was busy fighting cholera. It wasn’t a nice clean prescription which you can crush and mix and then place it on your face. It wasn’t a refined herbal pill which fit perfectly with the lifestyle of the court. It was battling serious febrile diseases. And in 1675 an important text called ‘Jade standard for Sand-rashes and swellings’ featured scraping in detail including using an arched hemp tool and willow branches on the back to treat typhoid fever, and scraping areas on the back and neck bones and the chest, ribs, shoulder and arm with copper coins dipped in sesame oil.

And together with another text called ‘Seventy-two kinds of Sha disease treatment methods’ which provides a comprehensive and systematic description of the theory and operation of scraping therapy. These had a strong influence in the development of Gua sha.

​Although there have been sporadic publications, it really wasn’t until the 1980s, when Taiwanese Professor Lu Jiru created a scraping board suitable for various parts of the human body using water buffalo horn and promoted an adapted kind of Gua Sha therapy within Chinese medicine, heavily influencing all subsequent Gua Sha techniques, appliances and methods. And in China, Zhang Xiuqin was at the forefront of a revival of Gua sha with a movement towards Gua sha and Facial Gua sha. And the rest of the changes have been since then.

So What Can You Take Away From This? - A Holistic Approach to Facial Beauty

Well, we have the context of where Facial Gua sha comes from. It comes out of the ancient theories of natural science as developed within the Huangdi Neijing, internal changes are needed to make external changes and it comes from an adapted technique to treat serious disease.

​So when you use the tool you’re applying these ideas of treating the body and the face as one. If you sweep your face and you’re not aware of how you are in fact treating the body too, then you’re missing a piece of the world where Gua sha comes from. The ancient Chinese didn’t see the face as separate from the body, for them your looks will be preserved via the body circulation system which is a great deal more complicated than just blood in blood vessels or the skin on your face.

Questions & Answers

Q: When did Gua sha originate?

A: While the roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that inform gua sha date back to the Qin and Han Dynasties (220 BC - 220 CE), the specific practice of gua sha, particularly facial gua sha, is a more recent development. Texts mentioning a scraping technique for serious illnesses appear around the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

Q: What is the historical context of Gua sha?

A: Gua sha emerged from a holistic approach to health in TCM. Early texts like the Huangdi Neijing described the connection between internal health and external appearance. Initially, gua sha focused on treating serious illnesses like typhoid fever, not facial aesthetics.

Q: What is the historical context of Gua sha?

A: Facial Gua sha treatments likely evolved from broader gua sha practices. A reference to jade rubbing on the face for scars appears in the Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD). The modern use of gua sha for facial beauty gained traction in the 20th century, with significant contributions from figures like Professor Lu Jiru and Zhang Xiuqin.

Q: Where can I learn more about the history of Gua sha?

A: This blog provides a glimpse into the historical journey of gua sha. However, for a deeper dive, consider exploring resources on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) history and its practices throughout Chinese dynasties.

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Hi, It's Clive

Director of Komorebi Institute

Hi, It's Clive

From researching underfunded healthcare in Uganda, to running a thriving chronic illness clinic in North Africa, to collaborating with hospitals in Sri Lanka to train staff and empower communities - My journey has been dedicated to democratizing access to beauty and health.

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