Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Fingernail Flower: Henna in China

The question of henna use in China has come up many times in my research, and I finally decided to address it... My obvious hesitation is that I have no background in Sinology or Chinese Studies, no knowledge of any Chinese language, and no ability to do primary research in the field. 

However, I have always maintained that my goal is not to become the ultimate authority on the history of henna in every place and every time; rather, I want to demonstrate the richness, diversity, and depth of henna’s history in order to open the door to conversation and further research. With that goal in mind, therefore, I’ve put together a few sources that I’ve found, and I invite you to contribute your own! I hope that this becomes a starting point for someone else’s research. I should acknowledge here my fellow henna artist Connie and my fellow PhD student Eric for their assistance in navigating Chinese history.

A taste of the difficulties facing even scholars of Chinese culture can be seen in a conversation that happened in 1868 in the pages of the scholarly journal Notes and Queries on China and Japan. Theophilus Sampson, a British official and botanist in southern China (writing under the pseudonym Cantoniensis, “from Canton,” now Guangdong Province), published a brief note entitled “Henna in China” in which he explained that the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) was commonly grown in the Guangdong province and that it is called zhijiahua (as he writes, “chih-kiah-hwa”), “finger nail flower.” However, he added, it was used as a dye only by the Hakka people in Guangdong and not the Punti.

Over the course of that year, this note produced a number of responses in the volumes of Notes and Queries. William Frederick Mayers (the secretary of the the British legation in Beijing and a scholar of Chinese), weighed in, arguing that while popularly known as “finger nail flower,” henna should be identified with the plant called “fung sien” [or feng xian, 鳯仙], and suggested that it was introduced to China via Central Asia. While he was probably right about its introduction, he was confused about the difference between henna and another plant commonly used in East Asia to dye fingernails: Impatiens balsamina, or garden balsam, that also produces lawsone, the dye in henna, although in lower quantities. The Impatiens flower is still used to dye fingernails today in many parts of China and Korea!

Fingernails dyed with Impatiens balsamina, Seoul, 2011.
The sources that Mayers had quoted were all talking about the history of Impatiens, and didn't tell us anything about henna in China. Many readers of Notes and Queries wrote in to offer their own thoughts, and it took several contributions, including Henry Fletcher Hance, a renowned scholar of Chinese botany, and Edward C. Taintor, an American official in the Chinese Customs Service, before the confusing matter was clarified: feng xian was the Impatiens flower, but zhijiahua could be used to refer to either the balsam or henna, since they were both used to dye fingernails. In fact, Taintor shows, in the north of China (where henna was unknown) zhijiahua referred exclusively to balsam; but in the south, balsam was known as feng xian while zhijiahua referred to henna.

Taintor also quotes the 台湾縣志 Taiwan Xianzhi (Gazetteer of Taiwan County), a government text which appeared in a number of editions between 1696 and 1827, with the following description of henna, which clearly distinguishes between the henna leaves used for dye and the Impatiens flower:

"Zhijiahua: this tree is like the [willow?] and has long, flexible, diffuse branches… The flowers are very numerous, and grow in clusters; they have six petals, are of a pale yellow color, and are very delicate and minute. Their fragrance is very powerful. Women and children crush the leaves and dye the fingernails with them, the same property existing in them as in the fung-sien flower [Impatiens balsamina]."

Southern China, and the island of Taiwan off the coast, were important centres in the Indian Ocean trade and had diverse contacts with merchants and sailors from India, Persia, and East Africa for centuries — it’s certainly possible that henna had been introduced there sometime in the 15th-18th centuries. 

Another important Chinese botanical text, the Bencao Gangmu or “Compendium of Materia Medica,” composed in 1578 by a scholar named Li Shizhen, describes henna as being superior to the Impatiens flower for dyeing the fingernails, and even offers a transliteration of its name as hai-na, which also suggests that it was introduced from Persia or the Arabian peninsula.

Part of Edward C. Taintor's submission to
Notes and Queries, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1868.
It may be, though, that henna was known in China even earlier. Another botanical text that Taintor quotes is the Nanfang Caomu Zhuang (南方草木狀), “The Plants of the Southern Regions,” which has the following description of henna:

"Zhijiahua: the tree is five or six zhang [feet] in height, and the branches are slender and flexible. The leaves resemble the young leaves of the yu shu [locust tree]. The flowers are as snow-white and fragrant as the jasmine...

The plant was brought by men of the hu [nomadic] tribes from the kingdom of Da Qin and planted in southern China. The flowers are very numerous and small, being about the size of half a grain of rice. The people of that country often pluck them and place them in their clothes, on account of their fragrance."

It seems reasonable to assume that this is talking about henna, even though it doesn’t mention its use as a dye (but it does still call it the “fingernail flower”). Where is Da Qin? Literally meaning ‘Great Dynasty,” it generally is understood to refer to Rome, although most of the descriptions attributed to it are legendary or apocryphal, and in practice it can refer to anything from the Roman Empire to the Byzantine Empire, Persia, Turkey, or Syria.

The Nanfang Caomu Zhuang is attributed to a scholar of the ancient Western Jin dynasty, Ji Han (263-307 CE). So does that mean this is evidence for henna use in China in the 3rd century? That would be very exciting indeed… But let’s tread carefully. Does that fit with what we know about henna in the ancient world? By the 3rd century CE, we can be sure that henna was grown and used in the Levant, North Africa, and perhaps some parts of southern Europe.

But I don’t believe it was common or well-known enough in the Roman Empire to have travelled as a desirable product from the Eastern Mediterranean to China… Furthermore, this is an isolated source — there is no other evidence, literary or visual, to suggest that henna was known anywhere east of the Arabian peninsula before the 7th century CE.

It turns out that scholars now agree that the Nanfang Caomu Zhuang was heavily edited (if not entirely composed) during the Song dynasty, 960-1269 CE. This means that the entry on henna likely actually dates from the medieval period, after the arrival of Islam in China, and therefore we cannot assume that henna in China is older than the Islamic presence there (this was the conclusion of Joseph Needham and Berthold Laufer, two great 20th-century scholars of Chinese science).

Wait… Islam in China? That’s right! While we often associate China with its more prominent religious traditions like Buddhism and Confucianism, Islam has a long and continous history in China, first arriving with Arab and Persian ambassadors in the early 7th century who established communities in urban centres in southern and central China like Guangzhou and Kaifeng. The evidence of the Nanfang Caomu Zhuang thus suggests that they may have brought henna with them.

Between the 13th and 14th centuries, Islam also spread in Central Asia to various Mongol and Turkic groups, including in northwestern China, and the expansion of the Chinese empire under the Qing dynasty in the 18th century brought even more Muslim communities within.

Uyghur girls with hennaed fingertips, Kashgar, 2010.
Today, there are approximately 20-25 million Muslims in China, including recognized non-Han ethnic groups; many of them are unfortunately fighting against religious discrimination and governmental oppression, especially the Uyghur people in the western province of Xinjiang.

But importantly for our purposes, they have preserved their henna traditions! Henna, known in the Uyghur language as خېنە, xina (a loanword from the Arabic hinna or the Persian hana), is used for fingers and hair as a regular cosmetic, a medicinal treatment, and of course for marriage and other significant lifecycle events.

In an interview, one Uyghur educator explained that "we also apply a kind of henna, xéne (henna) as make up... Because this herb is warm and good for hair, fingernails, and joints, it can cure joint pains and prevent arthritis... We use it [as] make up from childhood."

All of the pictures I’ve seen of henna in northern China show either dipped fingertips (up to the first or second knuckle) or solid palms, and occasionally a simply design of concentric rings around the fingertips. 

Uyghur woman with hennaed fingers,
Kashgar, 2007
You can watch a video of a Uyghur woman in Kashgar applying henna here — note how she covers each fingertip and then wraps it in plastic:

And there’s another religious minority in China that has henna traditions: Jews! There are a number of Jewish communities in China, including the well-known Jews of Kaifeng who have lived there since at least the Middle Ages. Although the Jews of Kaifeng had no henna traditions that I am aware of, another Jewish community did: the Baghdadi Jews of Shanghai. 

The Baghdadi Jews were merchant families (not just from Baghdad — many were from Mosul and other Iraqi centres, as well as Syria, Yemen, and Persia) who formed expatriate communities across South Asia in the 18th-20th centuries; major centres of Baghdadi Jews included Mumbai, Yangon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. In all these places, Baghdadim maintained close family ties, continued speaking their own dialect of Judeo-Arabic, and stayed connected to their homeland and ancestral traditions.

And one of those traditions was henna! Just as in Iraq, the henna ceremony was an essential part of the wedding preparations for Baghdadi Jews in China, Malaysia, Burma, and Singapore. In her book on the Jews of Shanghai, Maisie Meyer writes that before a wedding, the groom’s family was responsible for sending “henna, sweets, wax candles and shoes to the bride’s home,” where she had her fingertips dipped in henna “to protect her from evil spirits” while traditional poems in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic were sung. It would be interesting to know whether henna was readily available in Shanghai markets, or whether it had to be imported specially from Iraq.

David Sassoon (seated), the Baghdad Minister of Finance;
his sons Elias (far left) and David (right) opened a branch of
the family business in Shanghai, while Albert (left) went to
Mumbai and then England. 
Unfortunately the Baghdadi Jewish communities of China have migrated away almost completely; this article describes a wedding of a Moroccan Jewish woman living in Shanghai, and she describes her henna ceremony as “a way for us to perpetuate our Moroccan custom in a country that has nothing to do with where we come from.” If only she knew! 

Similarly, while a number of the correspondents of Notes and Queries describe the Chinese women around them in Guangdong Province using henna to dye their fingernails, I think this practice must have died out in the early 20th century, although I’d be happy to be corrected. 

Nonetheless, henna traditions are still going strong among the Muslim communities of northwest China, and of course henna is readily available in many major tourist centres.

So despite my meagre abilities in Sinological research, we have still found some valuable information! Henna, known as "the fingernail flower," was likely introduced to China from Central Asia sometime in the Middle Ages. It was historically used by Hakka women in Guangdong Province, and continues to be used by Uyghur Muslims in northwest China today. Baghdadi Jews living in Shanghai also maintained their henna traditions as a diaspora community, until their dispersion in the mid-20th century. 

As I said in the beginning of this post, I hope to continue learning about the history of henna in China, so please share this widely and add your comments! A Islamic tradition attributes to the Prophet the saying “Seek knowledge, even until China” — advice that still rings true today.

Sources Cited

  • Bieder, Joan. The Jews of Singapore. Suntree Media, 2007.
  • Chen, Yangbin. Muslim Uyghur Students in a Chinese Boarding School: Social Recapitalization as a Response to Ethnic Integration. Lexington Books, 2008.
  • Hance, Henry Fletcher. "Henna in China." Notes and Queries on China and Japan, vol. 2, 1868.
  • Huang, Cindy. Muslim Women at a Crossroads: Gender and Development in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. PhD thesis, UC Berkeley, 2009.
  • Laufer, Berthold. Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran, with Special Reference to the History of Cultivated Plants and Products. Field Museum of Natural History, 1919.
  • Mayers, William Frederick. "Henna in China." Notes and Queries on China and Japan, vol. 2, 1868.
  • Mayers, William Frederick. "Henna and the Jasmine in China." Notes and Queries on China and Japan, vol. 2, 1868.
  • Meyer, Maisie. From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai. University Press of America, 2003.
  • Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China, Volume VI (I): Botany. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Sampson, Theophilus. "Henna in China." Notes and Queries on China and Japan, vol. 1, 1867.
  • Smith, F. Porter, and G.A. Stuart. Chinese Medicinal Herbs: A Modern Edition of a Classic Sixteenth-Century Manual by Li Shih-Chen. Georgetown Press, 1973.
  • Taintor, Edward. "Henna in China." Notes and Queries on China and Japan, vol. 2, 1868.
  • Taintor, Edward. "More on Henna in China." Notes and Queries on China and Japan, vol. 2, 1868.
  • Taishan, Yu. China and the Ancient Mediterranean World: A Survey of Ancient Chinese Sources (Sino-Platonic Papers 242). University of Pennsylvania, 2013.

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