If eyes are the window to the soul, lips are the liner of one’s temper—a rather smudgy play on some adage. But lip makeup in China does enjoy a long history sporting various patterns in different periods, from ca. 3000 B.C. – 2022 A.D. Temper is smacking the lips as we prepare to dab on the facts.
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After going offline for three months, China’s wildly popular live-stream host Austin Li returned to social media screens on September 20. Dubbed the “Lipstick King,” after he previously broke live-stream records by selling 15,000 lipsticks in five minutes, Li’s comeback live sales sesh gathered 3 million views in 10 minutes–and 60+ million in total.
A lil’ hiccup on June 3 saw Li’s live-stream interrupted following the appearance of a, eeehm, tank-shaped cake on camera. And everything went dark—like Mac matte black dark. Li and his followers didn’t know at the time that the sweet, creamy, tank-like ice cream (‘twas Viennetta, we believe) cake had triggered Beijing’s special censorship system tailored for the 1989 Tiananmen Square anniversary on June 4.
Anyhoo, things seem to be hunky-dory again, so “Long Live the King.”
But the question on Temper’s Maybelline Superstay lips soon became… What are the “undertones” of lipstick in China—past, present and future?
If you’ve ever watched any of the many Chinese costume dramas out there, it’s difficult not to notice the way the women do their makeup. They often put a small piece of red paper between their lips, an ancient version of lipstick.
As China’s contemporary New Youth has a stronger attachment to traditional culture, many women have once more returned to this trusty piece of paper. Compared to common lipsticks, which are often chemically mass-produced, the ancient-style lipstick paper is all organic: made from flowers.
In that field — i.e., the usage of Mother Nature’s finest florae in cosmetics — Nanjing Agriculture University in October 2020 launched a new creation: chrysanthemum lipstick. Given that dried flowers often pop up in Chinese people’s F&B delights, the product soon became a trending search topic on social media.
But, again, the method goes way back. Way. Back.
The Petal Pout
Before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), the beauty of women’s lips had already received special attention. This was further proven in 1983 when a life-size head statue of a goddess was excavated from the Niuheliang Hongshan Culture Site in northeast China’s Liaoning Province. The bust boasted a history of over 5,000 years, as well as red lips.
Experts believe that from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- 220 A.D.) onwards, lip beauty products, usually lip balm or mouth balm, in ancient China were originally applied to please the gods during religious activities. And a paste-like sticky mixture was used to relieve chapped or dry lips.
The pigments for these lip products were generally obtained from plant juices, animal blood, or minerals. A red material called vermilion, which contains mercuric sulfide, was produced in Hunan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces and was the perfect color for getting that perfect pout.
However, lacking strong adhesion, vermilion easily dissolves on warm lips so its shiny red didn’t have that Superstay effect. So people started adding mineral wax and animal fat, making the vermilion waterproof and “adhesive.” As time went by, lip makeup became an indicator of social status, mainly used by the upper classes. Men and women alike were dabbing it on, mind you.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) had a seven-step makeup routine—we’re starting to sound like a Harper’s Bazaar “Beauty Routine” video—for the belles: powder base, applying color to the face, eye-brow darkening, applying “forehead gold” or “floral twinkle/gold,” painting the dimples, decorating the cheeks and applying lip color.
With “petal” and “cherry” being the two most-used metaphors to describe women’s lips, Chinese aesthetics tended to make the lips look smaller and redder. But the Tang, open-minded as these guys were, did throw the aesthetic establishment a little avant-garde curveball in the form of jet-black lip makeup–for women only.
This type of makeup was connected with grief and sorrow, considered a unique beauty in those days—how very… Victorian. Undoubtedly, the experimental fad was just that, a fad, because it betrayed the mainstream traditional aestheticism.
Later plays on the “petal” look did have a longer shelf life, e.g. the “bitten lips,” which were in vogue during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912). And it seems this look still hasn’t gone past its expiration date.
The insanely popular costume drama set in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Story of Yanxi Palace, may have ended, but viewer fascination with the catty concubines’ nail art and “bitten lips” lives on. The latter once again became a popular pout.
And Chinese tradition started licking its lips in anticipation of a major comeback…
Museum to Mouth
The rise of China’s cultural confidence over the past five years or so has seen cosmetics using traditional Chinese aesthetics rising in popularity.
On December 9, 2018, the announcement “Palace Museum Lipsticks are finally here!” went viral on Chinese super app WeChat, attracting more than 100,000 pageviews. Priced at RMB 199 (roughly USD28 bucks a pop) the lipsticks, available in six colors, received more than 1,000 orders in a single night, according to Jing Daily.
Key to the overnight success was the “minor detail” they had been produced by a local company, Beijing-based Bloomage Biotechnology Co., Ltd., rather than imported like most cosmetics in China at the time. Further boosting the national connection, the announcement noted that each of the six colors was inspired by an object in the Palace Museum [probably better known to most of y’all as “the Forbidden City”] collection; for example, the most popular lipstick, “Lang Yao Red” was inspired by an ancient ceramic bottle, Jing Daily explained.
Temper does still hold some reservations about the “Tourmaline” and “Mermaid Ji” options, though. Anyway… Whatever makes your mouth water, we suppose.
On Taobao.com, Alibaba’s online shopping Walhalla, the Palace Museum Taobao store then released its own line of cosmetics, including eye shadow and rouge, on December 12 that same year. The packaging was all 3D-printed to lend a sense of “palpability” to favorable patterns and colors from embroidery once owned by queens and concubines, taken from the museum’s collections.
According to research firm Baogao, lipsticks accounted for 28% of the Chinese cosmetics market in 2019, with a year-on-year growth rate as high as 36.6%. The lipstick market in China is set to reach RMB 30 billion (USD 4.15 billion) by 2025.
The post-85s and post-90s have become the main consumer groups in China’s lipstick market. They account for about 62% of the total population, of which females are the main consumers, according to a November 2021 report by almighty China market research and management consulting firm Daxue Consulting. On average, a middle-class female consumer in China buys four lipsticks every year. Quality over quantity, mind you.
However! Women are no longer the only important consumer group for the lippy niche. Just like they did some two millennia ago, the men are getting a renewed taste for high-quality lip products. According to the “Economic Report on Face Value in 2020,” the growth rate of lipstick consumption in male cosmetics in 2019 reached 278 %. They’re gunning for that K-Poppy pucker, we think.
Close-Up: China’s Ageless Male Beauty, the Regeneration of Tradition – The China Temper
That Domestic Dab
Chinese pharmaceutical companies, too, are making their foray into the lipstick jungle one after the other. Drug makers suffering from deteriorating earnings have designated this specific market as a new growth driver.
For example, Ma Yinglong, originally a home for hemorrhoid ointment, in late 2021 launched its own lipstick products offering shades of magenta matte velvet cream, Champs Elysées matte velvet cream and first love color blemish water lip balm.
And more and more domestic cosmetic brands are popping up, often with fancier looks and traditional backgrounds. The nation’s ethnic minorities, too, are adding some creative tszuj to existing styles.
Take Florasis (花西子| huā xī zǐ in Chinese), a Hangzhou-based brand born by the city’s West Lake in 2017. The label explores wisdom in traditional beauty rituals, inherits the philosophy of Chinese aesthetics and adopts modern technologies in creating its cosmetic products. One trademark product is the loose powder containing floral infusions and Chinese herbs.
But… We’re talking “lips” here. The brand has released a series of lipsticks inspired by the cultural heritage of the Miao people, who live primarily in southern China’s mountains, in the provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Hainan provinces. Both products and packaging are designed with exquisite patterns.
In January 2022, Florasis released part of a makeup series that features the 24 solar terms on the traditional Chinese calendar. The series highlights Chinese makeup characteristics such as thin and long eyebrows, under-eye makeup and cherry lips, integrating the different solar terms and floral characteristics into the makeup by combining the shape and color of flowers.
In March, Florasis launched China’s first CMF (color, material and finish) laboratory in the cosmetics industry to focus on researching the use of sustainable materials, the relationship between female skin characteristics and makeup color, as well as color trends in Chinese fashion.
When the brushes are all cleaned and done, China’s New consumer Youth wants items that reflect their culture, rather than the foreign heritage and exclusivity that have been so popular in the past.
Either way, when it comes to the lipstick game: when in doubt, just go red. ‘Cause it always leaves an impression. #TemperTeachings
“Red is the great clarifier – bright, cleansing and revealing, it makes all colors beautiful. I can’t imagine becoming bored with red – it would be like becoming bored with the person you love.”
– Diana Vreeland
Now that’s what we call the Lipstick Effect.
FEATURED IMAGE: M.A.C. LUNAR NEW YEAR 2019 EDITION, A COLLECTION OF ITS BEST REDS… Image via M.A.C.
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