Dental care is something we tend to take for granted because it’s something we do in our day-to-day. It’s then fascinating to see how civilizations brushed their teeth over the history of dentistry, giving this mundane task a new level of profundity. It’s easier to appreciate your toothbrush, after all, after you’ve seen an old Chinese toothbrush. Today, then, we’ll be taking a deep dive into some of dentistry’s finest moments in history—particularly ancient Chinese dentistry.
Among the various civilizations of old, ancient China probably has the dental edge over most of them. It’s perhaps here where the first dental implants and dentures have popped up. And ancient Chinese society knew how to take care of their teeth. The South China Morning Post notes that they would gargle with “saltwater, tea or wine” post-meal for their “antiseptic properties.” And they too had their own versions of the toothbrush and toothpaste.
With dental practices that were modern for the time, let’s get into the exciting highlights of ancient Chinese dentistry.
The Ancient Chinese knew how to control tooth decay
Ancient Chinese civilizations interconnect all ailments. Because of that, treatments tended to be similar. Acupuncture, for instance, could heal anything from tooth decay to digestive troubles. But while this might be counterintuitive according to today’s standards, back then, it proved to be enough to stave off potential ills.
Apart from these treatments, this ancient oral care continued with the same regularity as you’d see in modern dental hygiene. They had the concept of mouthwash and brushing one’s teeth while others still chewed on sticks to keep their teeth clean. And they knew the perils of toothbrushes with bristles that are too hard and brushing rigorously—something that we know all-too-well nowadays.
Indeed, ancient Chinese society seemed to have grasped how to control tooth decay, even when the science behind it was still non-existent. The “toothpaste” of the day came in powdered form, similar to today’s eco-friendly toothpaste alternatives. And they were made of ingredients that were thought to increase your oral health. Just like current toothpaste.
Ancient oral care resembled modern-day techniques
Nowadays, when it comes to any form of healthcare, there’s a lot of specialization involved. And for a good reason—specializations (or specialties) help focus on those tricky ailments that require extra care. In ancient China, however, this was not the case. Medical practitioners don’t treat one type of disease, but all of them. This meant that the people who treated your muscle spasms are the same people who’ll fix up your eye problems.
And ancient Chinese dentistry works the same way. The South China Morning Post tells the story of Chunyu Yi, one of the subjects of Records of the Grand Historian briefly. A well-known doctor in ancient China, the Records detail 25 of his medical cases, with one including a dental problem. And Zhang Zhongjing—a doctor during the Eastern Han dynasty—also gave recommendations when it came to treating tooth decay.
While healthcare today puts more of a premium on specialization, ancient oral care practices don’t fall far from today’s treatments. Mentions of people “planting teeth” beckon to the current dental implant practice. And to cure a toothache, some of these ancient oral care practitioners prescribe patients a rinse with herbal infusions—much like how some dentists recommend therapeutic mouthwash to their patients.
Seeing these parallels, then, give us a new perspective on how far we’ve come when it comes to our oral hygiene. And, perhaps, shine a new light on the dental care we have today.