Ancient civilizations are often really fascinating. Their cultures can teach us a lot about our own if we allow ourselves to learn from them. When we normally hear about history, we often hear about the nobles and royalty that made the big decisions. Those decisions made by people who have long been dead have shaped our society and will continue to shape our society for years to come. We like hearing about those times in history, so we end up just focusing on those. However, the most interesting parts of history aren’t always the parts that get immortalized in textbooks across the world. Sometimes, the most interesting parts of history are the parts where we learned about how regular people lived their lives.
Very few ancient civilizations are quite as interesting as Ancient China. The Ancient Chinese were lightyears ahead of their time, while simultaneously being very far behind their times. They did things that were really smart and that we very rarely give their society credit for. However, they also did some things that were pretty darn gross. Life in Ancient China was a struggle, and to make matters worse, life in Ancient China wasn’t very long. Here are 15 things to know about Ancient China that prove that it was not an easy civilization to live in.
15.For Men, Ponytails Were Mandatory
Imagine living in a society where a certain hairstyle was mandatory. This seems kind of foreign to our ears as modern day people, for a lot of reasons. For one, everyone’s hair is different, and not everyone can do every style on their hair. For another, making hairstyles mandatory is a Manchurians did to the Chinese when they invaded and subsequently conquered China. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the non-Chinese Manchurians made the Manchu pigtail, or the Queue, a mandatory hairstyle for all men. All Chinese men had to have this ponytail, or they’d be sentenced to death. There was even a weirdly popular slogan that got popularized during that time: “Keep your hair and lose your head. Or lose your hair and keep your head.”
14.Warriors Would Eat Their Enemies
Whenever two societies go to war, we find that both of those societies have different ways of dealing with winning and losing. For example, when the Japanese of the Sengoku Jidai would lose a battle, many samurais of the day would often commit suicide in a ritualized manner called seppuku. In Ancient China, winning and losing a battle could often mean life or death in a totally different way. A lot of warriors in Ancient China, after defeating their enemies, would literally eat them. They’d defeat someone and then eat their heart and liver. They’d also do this as a form of punishment, or even just to settle a personal vendetta.
13.They’d Eat Eggs Soaked In The Urine Of Small Children
The medicine of Ancient China was really advanced. They had ideas that wouldn’t reach the Western World for millennia. However, while their ideas were sound, their execution decidedly was not. Back in the days of ancient China, they’d make a dish known as tongzi dan, which is eggs boiled in the urine of a prepubescent boy. Tongzi dan was such a staple in the culture, it’s seen as a part of the cultural heritage in some places, like Dongyang. People ate them when they were in dire financial straits when they needed to preserve eggs. Most people in China preserved their eggs in tea, but in Dongyang, they preserved them in pee. People in the area still eat this stuff, and it’s considered part of Chinese medicine. There are doctors in China who swear by this.
12.They Sexualized The Feet Of Women
We could probably do a whole article about Chinese foot binding and the lotus foot phenomenon, but for now, the thing you need to know is that Chinese women have been doing this for thousands of years, regardless of social or economic standing. That’s something you knew already, but the thing that you probably didn’t know is that men went crazy over this. The deformed lotus feet that women were intentionally giving themselves were the sexiest things about women, at least to the men. In Ancient China, foreplay started by a man fondling his partner’s deformed lotus foot, and they’d do it thoughtfully and not skip over it the way a lot of guys do nowadays. There was even a Qing Dynasty sex manual on the subject! Sex books of the day would have women totally naked, except for their feet.
11.They Hated Body Odor
For the Ancient Chinese, body odor was a sign that you were a savage, so wealthy people would go out of their way to make sure they smelled good. The women of the day would walk around with aromatic bags on their waists. If a man was going to be in the presence of the emperor, their breath had to smell good, so they’d suck on cloves to keep it away. Nobles would get hygiene subsidies because they spent so much of their salary on it. Poor people had the same hangups about body odor but didn’t have the same resources, so they improvised. One doctor of the time recommended that poor people wash their armpits with urine once a year, which just goes to show how far people were willing to go. That being said, there were some parts of China where people went the whole winter without bathing, because they were afraid touching water would make them sick. Taoists wouldn’t bathe at all, because they thought it spread illnesses. Needless to say, thoughts about hygiene were different across the region.
10.Lice Was A Delicacy
While people did take hygiene seriously, not everyone bathed every day, and as we learned, huge parts of the country were afraid to. That meant that there were some issues with hygiene, like lice. Ancient China was basically lousy with the stuff. Early Chinese doctors would use them to figure out if people were sick. If the lice were hanging out on the patient, he’d live, and if they were running away from the patient, he’d die. The poor of Ancient China would literally just pick them off their bodies and eat them compulsively, the way people today bite their nails. This was such a commonplace phenomenon that there were remedies to help people who did this too much. They’d eat ashes and drink water that was boiled in old combs. Doctors would promise that they’d pass all of the lice they’d eaten the next time they went to the bathroom.
9.Men Would Castrate Themselves
Chinese peasants would castrate themselves in order to get jobs in the palace. Not only would they do this, they’d line up to volunteer to do this. This is because being poor in ancient China was a very raw deal for them, and the one way that men could escape is by becoming eunuchs. Eunuchs were allowed to work as servants of the emperor, which was the best shot at a better life that they could have. Some parents would even castrate their sons as soon as they were born, so they’d be in a good position to get hired by the government. Many adult men would do the same. This really became a thing during the Ming Dynasty, when there were 100,000 eunuchs working for the emperor across the country. It got so popular, that the government had to chase guys who’d castrated themselves away. Many of those men ended up beggars on the street, with the full knowledge that they’d castrated themselves for nothing.
8.They Used Pigpens For Pooping
Ancient Chinese farmers might have had a raw deal financially, but they used that lack of resources as a way to get really resourceful. Some farmers would use a special type of outhouse that was built over a pigpen, and their poop would fall into the pig’s trough. The pigs would then eat the human poop. This is pretty horrifying, but it gets worse when public toilets became a thing. Peasants would go into the city to poop, then bring that poop back as a fertilizer. Collecting from public toilets and bringing the poop back as fertilizer was actually considered something like a get rich quick scheme. The difference was that this ‘get rich quick’ scheme actually worked. There was even a slogan about it: “treasure nightsoil as if it were gold.”
7. Pee Was Medicine
Chinese medicine was a really big deal. They basically invented endocrinology back in 200 BC, when the Western world didn’t have it until the 20th century. This is a really interesting thing, but it’s also a horrendously gross thing, too. While the modern science of endocrinology was all about hormones, the Chinese figured it out using pee. They’d take as much as 150 gallons of male pee in a pan, boil it until it evaporated, and use the “autumn mineral” to treat people. The autumn mineral was basically crystallized hormones made of pee that people would eat a lot of. Amazingly enough, it actually worked, which was how the Chinese managed to have a science 2000 years before the rest of the world would even conceive of the idea. Sure, that guy who came up with the idea might have needed a little help in the brain, but at least it worked!
6.Poop Was Medicine Too
They didn’t stop at using pee as medicine. They’d use poop as medicine too. By the time the 4th century BC rolled around, they were doing stool transplants, which was another idea that the West didn’t have until the 20th century. However, the technology wasn’t the same back then, so the Ancient Chinese got really gross with things. They’d make something called yellow soup, which was basically water mixed with a healthy person’s poop. They’d give it to people who had stomach issues, and they’d actually get better! The healthy person’s poop would help get rid of the bad bacteria in the patient’s body. We actually do something similar to treat C. diff, but back in China, it was just for diarrhea. Personally, I think I’d rather just suffer through it.
5.Kids Would Eat Smallpox
Ancient China had a lot of good ideas about medicine. They ended up coming up with the first smallpox vaccine. By 1548, they’d had a how-to guide on how to make a smallpox vaccine, but before it was written down, people were taking the idea into their own hands. Parents who had kids and wanted them vaccinated would take the scabs that fell off of smallpox patients and feed them to their kids because they’d heard that doing that would keep you from getting the disease. However, they’d missed a lot of crucial details, so they were basically just feeding their kids scabs and hoped for the best. Feeding them scabs really doesn’t help anything, but the real treatment was worse: doctors would crush up scabs into a powder and blow them up the noses of the people getting vaccinated for smallpox. While this could get you really sick, the odds were good that you’d never get smallpox and be vaccinated for it, so people signed up for this treatment in droves.
4.They Invented Toilet Paper
The Chinese invented toilet paper, but it wasn’t something the world was thankful for. Around the year 600, the world was horrified at the thought of people using toilet paper. We use it because we’re used to it, but if we hadn’t been, we might be just as horrified as the world was hundreds of years ago. Since there was no indoor plumbing then, people would use it, then throw it away. One record from 1393 said that the imperial court at the time ordered 720,000 sheets of toilet paper in a year! People were disgusted by this. One Arabic traveler wrote about it, saying: “They are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash with water when they have done their necessities, but they only wipe themselves with paper.”
3.They Invented Writing Independently
While the invention of writing tends to be credited to the ancient Sumerians, the ancient Chinese managed to invent it totally independently. The earliest confirmed evidence that the Chinese had their own system of writing dates back to 1200-1050 BC, during the late Shang dynasty. Markings on turtle shells have been proven to be from 1500 BC. They’d pick different surfaces to write on depending on the subject they were writing about. Some types of writing go back even further, back to 6,000-5,000 BC. While there were a lot of different societies making writing work for them, including the Greeks, Cretans, Egyptians, and more, the Chinese are unique because they did it totally independently of any other society.
2. The Chinese Invented Soccer
The world’s first soccer ball was made of leather, and it was filled with feathers and hair. It’s reported to have come from China. Sure, England made the game in 1863, at least the game as we know it, but the concept itself was made in China. According to FIFA’s website: “The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China.” The game was called Tsu Chu back then, which literally translates to “kicking ball.” The rules were basically the same as the rules we know nowadays. Tsu Chu was really popular in the days of the Qi kingdom (319-201 BC), and it was mentioned throughout the dynasties after that.
1.Today’s China Is Pretty Cool Too
We should mention China’s modern culture because there are things that happen there that are totally foreign to our ears. For one, babies don’t wear diapers over there, they wear split pants so they can just poop wherever they want. It’s actually really common to see moms with their babies, holding them over trash cans so they can poop. Some Chinese police forces don’t use dogs, they use geese because they have good eyes and an aggressive demeanor. There’s also a trend in Shanghai where people wear PJs everywhere. Weirdly enough, there are a ton of kids in China named Aoyun, which literally means “Olympic Games.” Despite being the biggest country in the world, China only has a single time zone, so in some places, the sun rises hours after the rest of the country’s sun. I can bring up a lot more, except I’d be here forever. If you’re interested in finding out how China’s modern society works, you might do well to learn about China’s history.