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.