Prove your humanity

Chinese period drama series “Story of Yanxi Palace” (2018) may have ended. Yet viewer fascination with the catty concubines’ claws lives on. The fragile, brittle keratin commands attention with nail guards – made of gold, silver, jade, hawksbill sea turtle shells, and more. Vicky Huang pokes around the delicate matter of “nails” in Chinese history.


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Every so often, an icon unwittingly flipped the fashion landscape upside down and forever changed the way people treat their bodies.

A waif-like concubine Yao Niang in Southern Tang dynasty (907-960) inspired foot binding, which plagued China for centuries. Coco Chanel sabotaged her high-society fair skin upon returning from a yacht party in the 1920s. Yet when tabloid papers ridiculed her scandalous working-class tan, the public earnestly flocked under the sun and have continued to do so for the next century.

In contrast with the lotus foot and the tan, the long nail aesthetics, of similarly questionable health benefits, emerged much more gradually and universally. Let’s focus on the Chinese nails: start mild with their colors, then dig into their length.

Gold nail guards with precious stones. Source: China New Service

Gold nail guards with precious stones. Source: China New Service


Out of the blue, around the same period, people from different corners of the world unanimously came up with the idea of painting their nails with flying colors: a move that would sure make an au naturel finger either pale in comparison or green with envy.

On An Unsolicited Educational Note
The evolution of nail coloring is multiregional. In Ancient Egypt (5000-3000 BC), Nefertiti and Cleopatra rubbed their hands in oils and stained their nails with henna. Nefertiti favored ruby. Cleopatra liked blood red. Common ladies joined the trend, with those in upper class wearing deep shades, and those in lower class wearing pastel. In Babylonia (3200 BC), men painted their nails with kohl. Black for noblemen, and green for commoners. Before going on a battlefield, warriors prepped their nails and hair for hours. Regardless of cultures and genders, people were tickled pink by the universal appeal of nail coloring.

You Ain’t Posh Without Nail Polish

The nail polish wasn’t among the ranks of the great inventions of Ancient China. Perhaps it’s because it’s not as shattering as gunpowder or as illuminating as the compass. One thing is for sure though: the first nail polish was born in Ancient China circa 3000 BC.

The ingredients? Beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes, and gum Arabic. An all-natural vegan blend that surely won’t cause chipping like modern-day chemical nail polish does. The most popular colors were on the red spectrum, created from orchid and rose balsam petals.

On Another Unsolicited Educational Note
Unlike the Chinese gold and silver wearers, people from the Inca Empire (1438-1533) had a much more spiritual relationship with nail art. They painted eagles on their nails before performing rituals. The devil is in the details. Well, the nails are quite peripheral and detailed. The fact that so many have constructed social cues on these detailed digits speaks volume to the complexity and ingenuity of the human mind.

Next Level, Nail Art

Everything was polished but plain until Zhou dynasty (600 BC), when Chinese people sprinkled gold and silver sparkles on their nail polish to signal how bougie they were. Nail art thus began.


Colors were spilled. Sparkles were deployed. But the matter was far from done. The confines of a nail couldn’t deter the Chinese people’s raging creativity and desire for social display. The natural outcome was to stretch the canvas. And so nails grew.

You’re Not Rich Until You Have Long Nails

They say you’re not rich until you have something money can’t buy. Upper class ladies in Ancient China would concur. One cannot buy long nails.

Chinese people started growing long nails in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) to show that they weren’t manual labors. But it wasn’t until Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that long nails and nail guards became a prominent wealth symbol. Because long nails could easily cause harm and get harmed, the wearers needed to be bathed, dressed, and fed by others. The longer the nails, the more handicapped the wearer, the more servants required, and the more fortune drained.

Oh, the cost it takes to flaunt wealth!

Charmaine Sheh’s character Hoifa-Nara Sushen sporting nail guards in the Story of Yanxi Palace (2018)

Charmaine Sheh’s character Hoifa-Nara Sushen sporting nail guards in “Story of Yanxi Palace”(2018)

Cixi Totally Nailed It

The long nail trend reached its peak in Qing dynasty (1644-1912), with Empress Dowager Cixi as its poster child. As the Marie Antoinette of the East, her beauty hacks and fashion choices were to be revered and replicated where possible. Cixi nurtured a nail length of eight inches on her ring and pinky fingers and cocooned them in gem-laden, colorful nail guards.

Nail trimming, soaking, and appreciation became an integral part of royal life for all concubines then. The remnants of this trend could still be observed in Asia today, where women keep their pinky nails long to signal their chore-free status.

Women might follow and copy Cixi’s fashion in its form. But they might never embody the essence behind it as well as the OG mastermind. Thus their emulation was doomed to fall short. Case in point: Cixi had a squad of maids and eunuchs designated to tend to her nails.

On Yet Another Unsolicited Educational Note
In case you’re wondering, Cixi did have beauty regimens that went beyond the reach of upper-class ladies. She famously drank and bathed in human milk, believing it to be rejuvenating. Her wet nurses had to meet a strict set of criteria including: being attractive, healthy, and under age 28; having given birth to three children who were well and alive; being married to a husband who was well and alive; having a gentle temperament; and being fed on a royal chef designed diet free of salt or sauces.

The Imperial Nail Squad: What’s in the Bag?

Each person on the imperial nail squad was equipped with a kit containing all sorts of clippers, nippers, tweezers, buffers, brushes made of fox fur, and French imported nail polish. There wasn’t a clear consensus on what Cixi’s favorite color was. Some said she was adamant to only use silver, while some claimed she was experimental with her choices and found her favorite to be purple. Either case would suit her meticulous yet bold character.

Being on the imperial nail squad was high-risk, high-reward employment. From dusk to dawn, the squad members were to ensure the utmost integrity of the Empress Dowager’s nails.


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The High-Risk, High-Reward Calling of the Imperial Nail Squad

Their duties started before Cixi rose. They had to boil a bucket of herbal juice and cool it down to an optimal temperature. Then, they would bring it to Cixi’s bedside for her to soak her precious nails vulnerable from a night’s dehydration. Once the nails were soaked and softened, the nail squad would deploy their versatile manicure kit and trim, brush, and file both the exterior and interior (yes, interior, where dust and germs abounded) of her nails.

Empress Dowager Cixi and her 8-inch nails (covered with nail guards).

Empress Dowager Cixi and her 8-inch nails (covered with nail guards).

It was pivotal that the nail job be done perfectly. If any nails were broken or nicked, beheading wouldn’t be a farfetched fate. After all, you couldn’t buy long nails with money. You could only grow them by living through life. They really were a part of Cixi’s body and life.

Once, all hell broke loose when Cixi noticed a spot on one of her nails. Luckily, she consulted a physician first and learned it was a sign of aging rather than human mishap. Since then, the nail squad had to apply a fresh layer of nail polish to cover up any discoloration as part of Cixi’s daily manicure routine.


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Cixi’s well-nurtured nails were so dear to her that she would collect her trimmed off nails in a jade box. Her nails were coveted by many.  Rumor has it that the eunuch in charge of keeping her nails secretly pocketed some to sell. He was able to buy a siheyuan (四合院|”courtyard house” in Chinese) in a prime location with the money he made from Cixi’s remnant nails, which were ground up into the “phoenix’s toe,” a Chinese medicine targeting tetanus and otitis media.

During the day, Cixi usually wore nail guards made of gold or silver. Before bed, she would switch them into nail pockets made of yellow (the color reserved for Chinese emperors) satin, presumably in a motherly manner akin to tucking her nail babies into their sleeping bags.

A portrait of Cixi by American painter Katherine Augusta Carl in 1903.

A portrait of Cixi by American painter Katherine Augusta Carl in 1903.


If long nails were swords, then nail guards would be scabbards. Although analogy fails to capture the functionality of nail guards in its full, it nonetheless paints a satisfactory picture of the physical parallel.

Arguably one of the most iconic accessories of the Qing royals, the nail guard had purposes beyond accessorizing. It also served as an effective tool for concubines to subtly punish their maids and eunuchs. After all, flesh digging preserved feminine poise in a way that punching and slapping couldn’t.

The Duckling Became a Swan After 1,000 Years

The humble origins of nail guards began in Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), more than a millennium prior to their mainstream glory. At that time, they weren’t particularly decorative. It wasn’t until Qing dynasty (1644-1912) that they became as delicate and flamboyant as people today have known them to be.

Zhou Xun as an Empress of Qing in “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace” (2018)

Since nail guards were a social signal, the more complex their design, the higher up the concubine wearing them was on the royal ladder. Common design patterns included plants, flowers, and calligraphy art. Cixi, on the other hand, had exclusive rights to dragon and phoenix carvings on her nail guards. Needless to say, she didn’t skimp on exercising these rights.

The Many Faces of Nail Guards

Nail guards had very diverse looks. They could be made of gold, silver, bronze, jade, gilded metal, vitreous enamel, hawksbill sea turtle shells, or cloisonné and usually inlayed with gemstones, glass, and kingfisher feather. Sometimes, they sported a hollow out design. The hollow out nail guards were for summer as they gave the royal fingers a chance to breath.

Their ends could be rounded or sharp. The curvature of each nail guard could also vary. It was speculated that noblewomen used nails guards for picking their nose. A rounded, slightly curved one would suit this purpose well.

Just don’t picture it.

Nail art inspired by “Story of the Yanxi Palace” (2018). Source: Goody25


Story of Yanxi Palace (2018) ushered in the dominance of the Morandi color palette in China’s nail art circle. Inspired by Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, the Morandi palette is a departure from the traditionally loud colors of Chinese culture. It adopts a more subdued color scheme that gives off a feeling of balance and elegance.

Long nails may no longer be front and center on the vogue stage. Yet with the recent popularity of period drama series like “Empresses in the Palace” (2011), “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace” (2018), and “Story of Yanxi Palace”(2018),…

Nobody is putting the nail in the coffin anytime soon.

We. Heart. Cheesy.


















FEATURED IMAGE: Nail guards with hollow out design. Source: Sohu


Vicky Huang