Taiwanese craftsman Xianyi Chan makes his seemingly simple wood combs using traditional techniques. But there’s more than meets the eye with this elegant instrument of personal care. They are sold today under the brand M Comb, and the inspiration for their design and use goes back centuries.
Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo combed his hair one hundred times each night before bed.
Flying bugs dance to greet the moon,
I let my hair down in front of moon-lit windows.
A thousand combs quickly wake up the skin and stimulate the bones,
Energy nourishes the roots like dewdrops.
Su Dongpo romanticized the ritual of the comb in ancient Chinese life. A modern person might wonder why. Was it because he didn’t have a television to watch? Or was there something about the ritual that today’s people don’t know?
Meet the M Comb, a wooden masterpiece
Xianyi Chan has loved wood from a young age. He and his brother used to make wood hair clips and hairpins for money. One day, a customer said, “Before putting on hairpins and hair clips, we have to comb our hair. Why don’t you make us some combs?” The brothers thought it was a great idea, so they added wood combs to their product line.
About ten years ago, Chan got a terrible toothache. He saw a dentist who sent him to a neurologist, who discovered a tumor in his ear. Even though it was benign, it was big enough to affect his trigeminal nerve, and Chan needed a surgery that had only a 50 percent chance of survival. After a 15-hour operation, Chan made it through, but his facial nerves had been damaged. He lost motor function completely in half of his face. He even had to tape his eye shut in order to sleep.
As part of his physical therapy, Chan received massages. The woman only used her hands, but it triggered a memory. He recalled a teacher by the name of Mula.
“Mula told me of the wood comb’s many functions. Many of my customers who bought my combs took lessons with Mula. She taught them how to use the wood combs for massage.”
The benefits of wood comb massages
After learning Mula’s wood comb massage technique, Chan taught it to his masseuse. From that point on, Chan would bring his own comb to the salon when he got his daily 30-minute massage. Four months later, he was brushing his teeth when he noticed his mouth twitch. At first, he thought his mind was playing tricks, but he wiped the mirror and looked again. “I saw my face really twitched. I was so happy. I felt like I had just won the lottery.”
After six months of wood comb massages, Chan regained 100 percent of his facial functions. His doctors were amazed.
People say “wood comb massage,” but that’s actually a misnomer, he says. The goal of massage is generally for blood circulation and muscle relaxation, whereas wood combing focuses on adjusting the body’s qi or energy. The theory makes sense from both a traditional Chinese perspective as well as modern medicine, which has come to embrace the old ways more and more.
“It’s not only our nose and mouth that breathe. All of our sweat pores breathe. When people have a cold, they feel miserable because they lack energy. The same is true when your sweat pores are congested, especially the sweat pores on your head, which are the greatest in number.”
Chan says that people sometimes feel energized after combing their head because the qi congested under the skin gets expelled through the sweat pores. Once the qi is smoothed out, a person experiences a renewed sense of wellness.
Wood combs can also be used to massage other parts of the body. Chan combs his entire body every day. Qi can become murky and hover around, causing inflammation. A wood comb can expel that murky qi while stimulating fresh qi.
“The best part is that, unlike with medication, this method has no side effects. Wood combs are completely natural. It combs your energy and makes it flow so as to relieve pain and other symptoms.”
Even knowing that Chan is a true lover of wood combs and a gifted artisan of many years, it’s still surprising to discover that his process for bringing a comb into the world takes more than a hundred steps.
“Anything handmade has a heart. When there’s a heart, there is feeling, and it has power.”
Chan’s wood combs are always handmade. The wood is selected according to weight, colour, and aroma. Wood type is also important. One of Chan’s most popular choices is the black and purple sandalwood.
The first step is to cut the wood into blocks. Chan will wait months, sometimes years, for the blocks to air dry. Once completely dry, the wood retains its shape and resists warping. Only then can it be used for production. Many manufacturers use heat to speed up the drying process. Chan believes this method alters the fibre, drains the resin, and altogether damages the wood.
After drying, patterns are drawn onto the blocks, and a thread saw is used to cut out the comb. A person then manually sands the comb until each tooth is cone-shaped with a pointy tip and thick base. This design ensures optimum energy flow. Chan got the idea from the shape of a boat. The comb moves energy like a boat moves water.
“Machine-made teeth are straight and easy to make,” he says. “Mine are cone shaped, and the process involved is much more complicated. Only handmade teeth feel smooth on the body.”
Wood combs made with love
Chan requires his artisans to leave their problems at home and maintain a positive mindset while making his combs. He believes that the emotions of the craftsman live in the craft. “Anything handmade has a heart. When there’s a heart, there is feeling, and it has power.”
Chan’s process is one of intimacy. He says he notices nuances that others don’t. “It’s just like dating someone you love. You want to know everything about her, her family, her everything. That’s why I say I’ve been in love with my combs all my life.”
Chan believes virtue is the most important thing in a person’s life. Without it, one doesn’t have blessings or fortune. A tree also has virtue. Its virtue starts from being a seed. It falls into soil, grows downward to find its base in the earth, and wraps around the earth with its roots. It then grows upward, taking in light and giving out pure oxygen that refreshes us all. It blooms into flowers, bears fruit, and becomes a tall tree that protects and provides.
“A tree doesn’t take much from this world but offers a great deal. It’s very quiet but always devoted. Even after it dies, we still use its body. I hope when people use their wood combs, they feel the virtue in the wood and are grateful.”
Here’s what Chan suggests: Every morning and every night, spend three to five minutes combing your hair. Start from the top of the head and comb downward in all directions. You’ll smooth out the congested qi and let out the negative energy. Relax and enjoy the therapeutic process.
“In the old days, combing hair was a daily routine, a very natural thing to do,” he says. “Modern people don’t pay attention to it and have lost it. It actually has a great impact on our health. People say you can assess a person’s success from his daily routines. This success might not be monetary. If you routinely smoke, then your lungs will not be successful. If you routinely comb your hair, your health will be very successful.”
The M comb will be launched at store.Magnifissance.com in Jan 2021.