"My grandmother, now in her mid-fifties, kept more signs of her femininity than my mother. Although her jackets still in the traditional style all became the same color of pale gray, she took particular care of her long, thick black hair. According to Chinese tradition, which the Communists inherited, hair had to be well above the shoulder for women of middle age, meaning over thirty. My grandmother kept her hair tied up in a neat bun at the back of her head, but she always had flowers there, sometimes a pair of ivory-colored magnolias, and sometimes a white Cape jasmine cupped by two dark-green leaves, which set off her lustrous hair. She never used shampoo from the shops, which she thought would make her hair dull and dry, but would boil the fruit of the Chinese honey locust and use the liquid from that. She would rub the fruit to produce a perfumed lather, and slowly let her mass of black hair drop into the shiny, white, slithery liquid. She soaked her wooden combs in the juice of pomelo seeds, so that the comb ran smoothly through her hair, and gave it a faint aroma. She added a final touch by putting on a little water of osmanthus flowers which she made herself, as perfume had begun to disappear from the shops. I remember watching her combing her hair. It was the only thing over which she took her time. She did everything else very swiftly. She would also paint her eyebrows lightly with a black charcoal pencil and dab a little powder on her nose. Remembering her eyes smiling into the mirror with a particular kind of intense concentration, I think these must have been among her most pleasurable moments. Watching her doing her face was strange, even though I had been watching her do it since I was a baby. The women in books and films who made themselves up now were invariably wicked characters, like concubines. I vaguely knew something about my beloved grandmother having been a concubine, but I was learning to live with contradictory thoughts and realities, and getting used to compartmentalizing them. When I went out shopping with my grandmother, I began to realize that she was different from other people, with her makeup, no matter how discreet, and the flowers in her hair. People noticed her. She walked proudly, her figure erect, with a restrained self-consciousness."-- Wild Swans by Jung Chang.You can read it for free online here.
I have a fascination towards the beauty rituals of far-off lands and times. It´s similar to how most of us like to read about which products beautiful celebs are using (even if the information is useless for our skin and our wallets). Well, maybe it´s also got an element of romance and a fascination for the exotic...
This piece is a memory from a time when Communism empowered and emancipated women. It also bought a masculine and severe way of being for women: clothing changed from pretty and colourful to functional and severe "made of plain, quiet colours and looked like tubes", hair became short and straight. The author´s grandmother however, chose to make a quiet statement with her feminity. She did not relinquish her perfume and long hair, which were a part of who she was. Was she hanging on to the feudal Chinese past ? Or can feminity be an expression of... feminism ?
For those of you curious about Chinese honey locust fruit, it´s called Zao Jiao or Gleditsia, and looks like this. I wonder how it would compare with Washnuts ?
And the image on the top is Osmanthus flowers. There is also a white variety.
Do you have any favourite passages (whether fiction or non-fiction) or beauty rituals, that strongly appeal to you ?
Photo by takekazu