Chinese cultures have held cleanliness in high regard since ancient times, and some of the methods they devised to wash their garments and bodies in a world before running water or fossil fuels are more sophisticated than one might expect.
Over the centuries, ever-improving forms of plant-based solutions were used in the absence of modern soap to keep clothes clean and white.
In the Zhou Dynasty about 3,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered that using the ashes of certain plants could be used to remove grease. This method is recorded in “The Rites of Zhou,” a sacred document detailing the religious ceremonies of this early Chinese dynasty.
“The Record of Trades,” a document from the Warring States Period toward the end of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 700–221 B.C.), records how the Zhou cleaning methods were improved upon. Plant ash was mixed with crushed seashells, producing an alkaline chemical that could remove the stains of light-colored silk fabrics.
Later, the Chinese discovered a naturally occurring form of saponin that could be extracted from the ashes of knotweed and wormwood. This method became widespread beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). About a thousand years later, in the Jin Dynasty, saponin was made into ingots for sale. Shops in Beijing specializing in fruit-shaped fragrant ingots were shut down under the communist regime in the 1950s.
Another primitive form of laundry soap appeared in eastern China during the Song Dynasty (1127–1279), when people kneaded honey locust powder into orange-sized balls. These balls produced bubbles and were effective in removing dirt and stains. The Chinese word for these balls, “feizao,” is still used in modern times to mean soap.
People in ancient China, like any other region, did not have large amounts of hot water to use for bathing themselves. In the Qin empire (221–206 B.C.), people reused water from washing rice to wash their faces and hair. Sima Qian, a renowned historian in the Han Dynasty, wrote about how one empress’s family was so poor that her younger brother had to be sold off when they were young. Before he left, she had begged for leftover water from rice-washing to clean her brother’s hair.
The Chinese could and would do better than that. A kind of body wash called “bathing beans” was in use by the time of the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589). Oddly, these “beans” were made from the processed pancreas of pigs, as recorded in a medical book authored by the famous Sui and Tang Dynasty-era Chinese doctor Sun Simiao (pronounced “swun ss-meow”).
Sun’s account describes how the pancreata are drained of blood, then rubbed into a plaster. The plaster is then mixed with bean powder and fragrant substances. When in use, the solution would secrete digestive enzymes and create a foaming effect together with the saponins and lecithin in the beans. The product could not only cleanse the skin but also nourish it.
Later, different versions of the bathing bean were developed for use in washing the body, face, or garments. Sun Simiao recommended the product as affordable for people of both high and low economic means.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, bathing beans were upgraded with granulated sugar and melted pig fat. The bean powder itself was replaced with sodium carbonate, that is, washing soda. The final forms of ancient Chinese cleansing solutions came to closely resemble soap made by industrialized means.