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Sing song girl in the 1890s
with bound feet
In a 1997 survey by the Leo Burnett ad agency 73 percent of Chinese agreed that a youthful appearance was important, compared to 35 percent of Americans.

In China, large eyes, a small nose and petite frame are all regarded as attractive on a woman. Small eyes, large lips, freckles, a flat nose and high cheek bones are all considered unattractive. The ideal beauty has wide, bright eyes and a face "shaped like an upside down goose egg or sunflower seed.” Skin should "not only be pale, but as white as possible" and the body should be slim and "hopefully tall with long legs, small feet and a Pippa Middleton style bottom." [Source: Wikipedia]

Asia wide, round eyes, a small, sharp, turned nose with tiny nostrils, firm medium-size breasts or large breasts and long legs are considered attractive for women. Many of the models on television and in magazines have large round eyes. Sharp facial features, a tall body and long legs are considered attractive for men. Etiquette classes for young women teach students to walk with books balanced on their heads and pieces of paper squeezed between their knees. A perfect smile with six to eight exposed teeth is achieved by practicing in front of a mirror with chopsticks placed between the teeth.

Many Asian men consider the nape of a woman's neck to be sensual and arousing. Chinese men used to think small feet were attractive, hence the custom of foot binding (See See FOOT BINDING AND SELF-COMBED WOMEN IN CHINA . Asians tend to have short eyelashes. Cosmetics companies translate this as meaning that Asia has the potential to be a big market for mascara. Aspiring flight attendants are taught how to do a perfect eight-tooth smile with a chopstick between their teeth.

Early mirrors were made of bronze and their backs were often inscribed with figures that brought good luck and dispelled demons. Bronze mirrors were not replaced by glass mirrors until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In China mirrors are seen as metaphors of self-examination. A wise person always carries three mirrors: one for seeing the inner self; one for seeing the past; and a bronze one for seeing physical appearance. Old Chinese stories often feature magic mirrors. In the tale of Yin Zhongwen a man is executed shortly after he looks into a mirror and doesn't see his reflection.

Importance of Looks in China

Waiyee Yip of the BBC wrote: Many people in China place a great deal of importance on looks and the quest to "be beautiful" is driving the cosmetic surgery trend, experts told the BBC. Dr Brenda Alegre, a gender studies professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that "conforming to ideals makes one more desirable, not just for romance, but for jobs". [Source:Waiyee Yip, BBC, July 13, 2021]

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Qing-era young woman
“In China, job applicants are often required to submit a photograph. Some job advertisements also specify physical requirements, especially for women, even if they are not needed to do the job. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report highlighting China's sexist job ads cited examples including one looking for an "aesthetically pleasing" clothing sales associate, and another for a "fashionable and beautiful" train conductor. “And with the internet creating a whole host of new job opportunities — all of which ride heavily on one's looks — experts say there is a renewed focus on appearance, more than ever before. "To a certain extent, beauty can bring more career opportunities — for example, there is monetisation in live streaming and creating online video content, " Gengmei vice president Wang Jun told the BBC. Livestreaming in China has become big business — and many want to look good in front of the camera for it

China's tabloid culture can also be brutal. News publications often criticise celebrities for their appearance. Earlier this year, a Shanghai art gallery promoted an exhibition that ranked images of women from "prettiest to ugliest". “Lu Yufan, a Beijing-based photographer who is working on a book about cosmetic surgery, told the BBC that growing up, people would often be straightforward when it came her looks. Her relatives would tell her that she looked like TV actresses — "not the pretty heroines but the funny side characters", the 29-year-old recalled. "When I was in middle school, boys also listed who they thought were the ugliest girls in class. They told me I was No. 5."

“Ms Lu, who has visited 30 cosmetic surgery clinics as part of her project, added that practitioners never held back when telling her how her face could be "improved". "They were so persuasive that I found it difficult to say no, except that I didn't have the money for it, " she said.

Beauty Standards in China

Anonymous posted on in 2019: Since Chinese civilization began in North China, the Northern Han were held up as the beauty standard thus Southerners aimed to look more like Northerners. People from the north are much lighter skinned than those to the south due to the difference in climate since a lack of sunlight exposure means less melanin production. The Han Chinese have also valued light skin for classist reasons as even among the very fair-skinned Northern Han, East Asians tan easily (Europeans are less resistant to the sun and burn more easily). If you were a labourer than you were more likely to be tanned since you would have to work outside compared to the wealthy who stayed indoors most of the time. [Source: Anonymous,, 2019]

This was exacerbated by Western imperialism which pushed Western beauty standards on the Chinese as Europeans on average are taller and lighter skinned than East Asian people. There also began a desire to have “larger” eyes to mimic Europeans although a larger eye shape was traditionally considered unattractive in East Asian culture. The eyeballs of East Asians and Europeans are actually the same size but the epicanthic fold over the eye gives the impression that East Asians have smaller eyes. Double eyelids have become highly sought after although this trait is far more common in South China than North China.

Most coloniser-colonised relationships apply gender to the experience whereby the dominant group is “masculine” and the submissive becomes the “feminine”. Even outside the Han ethnic group, the Han Chinese view the groups that conquered them to be more masculine such as Mongols or Manchus while minorities they conquered themselves such as the Zhuang or Bai to be more feminine to them. The fact that the Mongols and Manchus originated north of China while the Zhuang and Bai were from the south also further solidify the masculine/feminine dichotomy. When the Manchus conquered the Mongols, they began to view Mongols to be feminine relative to them with their stereotypically masculine qualities viewed as “barbarian” or “uncivlized” behaviour instead.

What is Beauty?

What makes a person beautiful or handsome is a question that has vexed those who thought about it for millennia. One set of studies shows that when people are shown a series of photographs of faces and a computer-generated composite of the face they prefer the composite. This finding backs a theory — first offered by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin’that the more average a face is the more we find it attractive. But this theory has been questioned by more recent research that has shown that people prefer composites with certain exaggerated features such as high cheekbones and large eyes to a plain composite.

A 1994 study by David I. Perrett and Keith May of the University of St. Andrews and Sakko Yoshikawa of the Otemon Gakuin University in Japan, published in Nature, found that faces are regarded as inherently attractive regardless of culture or race. According to the study, subjects from Britain and Japan both preferred computer-generated faces of women with certain features such as large eyes, high cheekbones, thin jaws and a short distance between the nose and mouth and between the mouth and chin. It didn’t matter if the faces were Japanese or Caucasian. The features were generally ones associated with youthfulness and good health.

When asked why he though these features were deemed attractive Perrett told the Washington Post: “The adaptive value of these signals are likely to have to do with age, fertility and reproductive status.” Donald Simons , an anthropologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara added that a thin jaw and small lower face are associated with high levels of estrogen (the hormone of femaleness) and low levels of testosterone (the hormone of maleness). The beautiful face he said announces: “I am full of estrogen and free of testosterone,” which in turn says, “I am fertile.” But the problem with his theory is there is no evidence that estrogen or testosterone affect the bony structure of the face.

Looks Discrimination in China

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Chinese kawaii
Looks-based discrimination that affects hits women harder than men is said to be widespread in China. One Shanghai cosmetic surgery hospital estimated last year that half its customers were undergoing operations for career-related reasons. Most of those were women. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 28 2010]

Lu Ying, former director of the Gender center at Sun Yat-sen University, told The Guardian it was common for employers to pick out female candidates because they were prettier. "The effect of looks discrimination is much bigger for women than men. What makes it worse is that for women, the job opportunities are less than for men already," she said. "It is a very bad phenomenon. It is much worse when a government body does this because it will set a terrible example."

"Flower vases" is a Chinese idiom for women who are decorative but of little use. For a time the Hunan provincial government required women civil servants to have "symmetrical breasts." The requirement was dropped in 2004 after it was widely ridiculed.

Economists have noted the "beauty premium" in many places, but employment experts say it flourishes in China thanks to inadequate laws. A current advert for a sales assistant at the Zhengzhou Electric Bike Company requires a candidate with "a smile to topple the city" and even stipulates her vital statistics: 36-22.5-36.

Li Fangping, a lawyer who has handled many job discrimination cases, said: "In the current employment law it only says that opportunities should be open and equal to everyone. It does not directly point out that employers should not include criteria such as looks and height — it is too general to be implemented." See Police

Height in China

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Chinese Giant in 1870

Height is very important in China. Being tall and having long legs are regarded as attractive for both men and women. Potential male and female partners are categorically dismissed if the are not tall enough. Contestants on television dating show often state their height before anything else. Many jobs require women to be over 1.6 meters tall. Even people applying for government jobs or university places are often rejected out of hand if they are under 1.5 meters.

The 7-foot-six basketball player Yao Ming and the 5-foot-10 supermodel Lu Yan are among the most famous people in China. Diplomats have to be at least 170 centimeters tall presumably to give the impression that China is not a land of shrimps. People who have tried to use anti-discrimination laws to fight being rejected on the basis of height have had their cases thrown out of court. If Deng Xiaoping were alive today he would have not even been accepted into the army. His 1.5 meters tall body is well under the 170 centimeter tall limit.

Personal ads in newspapers are often very specific about height requirements. One ad from the Shanghai Morning News, quoted in the New York Times, was taken out by a 162-centimeter-tall woman looking for a man who was at least 170 centimeters tall. Another was taken out by a 36-year-old, 176-centimeter-tall man who wanted to meet a 30-year-old woman who was at least 163 centimeters tall.

The average Chinese man is 5-foot-6 and the average Chinese woman is 5 feet 2. But Chinese are getting taller. The average Chinese child in six centimeters, or around two inches, taller than 30 years ago according to the Chinese Health Ministry. The increases have largely been attributed to improved health and nutrition.

With so much emphasis placed on tallness it is not surprising that there is a big market for elevator shoes and high heels in China. Street corner quacks hawk herbal tonics that promise to make people taller. Infomercials on television push exercise machines that emit infrared energy that is said to stimulate growth hormones.

Beauty in the Mao Era and Afterwards

In the Mao era, people gave little thought to their appearance. Worrying about beauty was regarded as vain and decadent. Film actresses were more likely to wear sack-like clothes to cover their curves than sexy dresses that showed them off. One woman told the Los Angeles Times, “In those days, there was no such thing as beauty. Having breasts was shameful, so we made little tight bras to keep them hidden. Everything was about revolution.”

Beauty pageants were banned and the act of trying to look beautiful was often equated with prostitution. Women were encouraged to look ordinary. They wore sexless Mao suits as did the men. Things like make up and stocking were regarded as symbols of bourgeois decadence. During the Cultural Revolution women were taught to conceal their femininity. They wore shapeless jackets and trousers and had their hair cut short. They could be beaten for wearing the slightest amount of lip stick or eye liner. Red Guards sometimes stopped women in the street whose hair was deemed too long and cut it.

right In the Mao era, clothes were made with little regard to sizing and fit. The idea of wearing colorful clothing during the Mao years was considered scandalous and bourgeoisie. During the Cultural Revolution some women used to wear frilly lace blouses and brightly colored sweaters under their baggy Mao suits and compare them in the washroom before starting work. In 1976 Chinese journalists were shocked when they found a young female shipyard worker "wearing a pink blouse under her Mao jacket." British journalist Martin Wollacott wrote: "that scrap of cloth sticking out from under her collar, a tiny signal of forbidden femininity, was the basis for many essays on how the wind was shifting in China." See Cosmetics, Feminine Clothing in Mao Era

With the end of the Mao era and dawn of the “Get Rich is Glorious” era, looking good has become desirable once again, even among the poor. The owner of a successful Chinese cosmetic company told AP, “All women want is to look pretty, and poorer women want it even more. Without good education or rich parents, appearance is what they count on to move up the social ladder.” A consultant in the health and beauty business told the Los Angeles Times, “Before the economic reforms we weren’t getting enough food to eat, so we paid little attention to how we looked. Today we have enough to eat and we care a lot about how we look.” An executive at L’Oreal told the Times of London. “Ten years ago it was difficult to identify who was a cute girl and who wasn’t. They all looked the same. But today they know how to make the most of themselves.”

Asian Skin, White Skin and Tans in China

Many Asian women eschew the tanned sporty look and favor the white, frail look. Pale skin is considered beautiful and has traditionally been associated with sophistication and wealth while brown skin traditionally has been a sign of being poor and working outside in the sun. One 38-year-old Hong Kong public relations executive who spends hundred of dollar a month on face masks, scrubs and whitening creams told Reuters, “I love to be pearly white because that is more beautiful.”

Women often refuse to go out in the summer unless they have an umbrella, a makeshift cape or some other kind of skin protection. One 27-year-old accountant told the Times of London, “I prefer women with light skin. Westerners look healthy with bronzed skin, but Asians look dirty.”

Pregnant women have traditionally avoided soy sauce out of concern it might make their baby dark. Skin whitening products are a huge industry. Among the skin whiteners available in China are White Detox by Biotherm, Pure by Dior, Blanc Expert by Lancom and Derma White by Clinique.

The skin of Chinese women is denser and better quality than the skin of Western women. Chinese women tend to have skin that is free of blemishes and lines for ten years longer than Western women. When the ageing process begins it happens suddenly — with pre-auricular wrinkles developing vertically from the ears and an interocular line crossing horizontally between the eyes and wrinkles appearung on the chin.

In recent years dark skin has become a symbol of wealth — a sign that someone has enough money to take a beach vacation in place like Thailand. Honolulu or Spain — with models with sexy tans being featured in fashion magazines . The first tanning salon in Beijing opened in the city’s chic Jiawai Soho area in the mid 2000s. It is patronized mainly by young office ladies, who pay $12 for a ten minute session.

Development of Views About Female Beauty in China

Yuan Ren wrote in the New York Times: The fact that bodies are changing in a rapidly developing China has been well documented. The country’s sweeping urbanization and the adoption of richer diets mean that Chinese adults, over all, weigh more than they used to and that obesity is a growing problem. But while real Chinese bodies have gotten heavier, the ideal body type — for women at least — has shifted in the other direction.[Source: Yuan Ren, New York Times, June 30, 2018]

“In the 1980s and 1990s, healthier body images prevailed, exemplified by women like the actress Gong Li and the singer Deng Lijun. These reflected ideas left over from the Cultural Revolution, when the ideal woman was portrayed as ruddy and strong, said Tan Jia, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in gender and media studies.

“In recent decades, however, notions of beauty in Asia have converged around the tall, thin and fair image exported by Korean and Japanese pop culture. Whitening products, popular across East Asia, and the widespread use of “beautification” apps like Meitu, where you can enlarge eyes, slenderize legs and sharpen chins with a few taps, have contributed to narrowing representations of beauty on social media.

“The increasingly slender, so to speak, range of acceptable bodies comes at a time when Chinese society is putting an increasing premium on women’s looks. The country’s transition to capitalism has been accompanied by setbacks in the area of gender equality. Discrimination against women is rife and often overt in the workplace, and women can be hired as much for their youth and beauty as their skills. Job advertisements often state a preference for men over women, and employers seeking female workers sometimes include height and age requirements.

Challenging the White, Slim, Pretty Chinese Female Stereotype

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1990s Ponds skin cream ad
Yuan Ren wrote in the New York Times: For a moment, it looked as if China’s rigid beauty standards were on the brink of being upended — or at least expanded slightly. “Produce 101,” a popular online talent show, puts women through their paces for one of 11 spots in a female pop band; at first, Wang Ju, a 25-year-old model manager who’d almost lost her place on the show earlier in the season, seemed an unlikely candidate for success. But over the course of a few weeks, Ms. Wang rode a mounting wave of public affection to find herself second among the show’s 22 finalists. Suddenly, Chinese commentators were at pains to explain just how Ms. Wang — a woman Chinese media variously referred to as “stout,” “dark” and “not pretty enough” — got there. [Source: Yuan Ren, New York Times, June 30, 2018]

“Ms. Wang had long been seen as different from the rest of the women on “Produce 101,” who, with their fair skin, slender bodies and sweet smiles, embodied an aesthetic known as “bai shou mei,” or “white, thin, beautiful” — the gold standard of beauty pursued by young women across China today.

“Anyone outside China might be surprised to learn that Ms. Wang has been viewed as a mold breaker: She is, in fact, rather pretty, and her body hardly seems outside the range of average. But in a sea of bai shou meis, Ms. Wang’s differences — her slightly darker skin, her slightly larger body, and her unwillingness to apologize for them — made her stand out. Ms. Wang embraced her so-called flaws: In one video, she was shown jokingly grabbing her stomach in front of a more slender friend, who later offered her a slice of pizza. And she displayed a self-confidence that drew comparisons to American pop stars like Beyoncé: A rap she performed included the English lyrics “You don’t have to put a ring on me, I can buy my own (bling bling).”

“When Ms. Wang was unexpectedly catapulted into second place, many in China hailed her overnight popularity as a chance to rethink ideas about Chinese womanhood and femininity. A victory was not to be: Ms. Wang fell to 15th in the finale, falling short of the final 11, who will go on to become a new band called Rocket Girls. Still, her dramatic rise and fall have unleashed fervent discussions on a range of topics including body image, social mobility and female empowerment.

Ms. Wang was especially popular among those who viewed themselves as outsiders. She found a particular base of support, for instance, in China’s L.G.B.T. community. Her personal story, too, resonated with many young people: Unlike most of the other contestants, who had formal training and were backed by talent management companies, Ms. Wang was an independent contestant who had given up her dream of being a performer at 17, in accordance with her family’s wishes for her to train as a teacher, only to return to it at 25, making her one of the oldest contestants on the show.

“For now, however, it seems that mainstream Chinese beauty has won out. Yang Chaoyue, a doe-eyed contestant who gained the third-highest number of votes in the finale, was also viewed as an underdog, in part because of her rural background. But many commentators claimed she won votes in part because she was often seen crying on the show and portrayed herself as sensitive and self-doubting — a foil to the confident, assertive Ms. Wang, but one in keeping with traditional ideas about Chinese femininity.

Beauty Standards and Geography in China

Anonymous posted on in 2019: Geography is always the most important aspect for any ancient nation which contributes greatly to how the people end up physically adapting and developing a culture. North China is very flat and close to the Eurasian steppe peoples making it an easy target for invasion compared to the South’s thick forests and rugged terrain. North China conquered what would become South China and assimilated the population by having Han Chinese men marrying indigenous women from the south to form the modern Southern Han Chinese population. [Source: Anonymous,, 2019]

The steppe invaders were nearly always men as their women stayed behind to look after the base. The Han would have thus been exposed more to southern non-Chinese women and more to northern non-Chinese men. Yet despite North China being invaded by steppe men countless times, the Northern Han seem to have been hardly affected by the genetics of foreign steppe invasions. This is in contrast to Southern Han who have been considerably genetically affected by those of the indigenous southern Chinese peoples. The steppe peoples suffered from a severe lack of resources hence their constant invasions into North China to procure them in the first place; whereas the indigenous southern people had far higher populations as they had well developed agricultural communities living in favourable climates with plenty of resources. This resulted in the northern invaders being far smaller in numbers relative to the Han and also the indigenous southern people.

Patrilineality played a part as well so if a Han woman married a steppe man and had children with him then her children would not be identified as Han but the ethnicity of the father. The little foreign northern admixture we have observed in the Han population is overwhelmingly maternal indicating it was from northern women who settled in China and became assimilated through marriage. As a result of the lack of gene flows in the Northern Han Chinese population, the Northern Han have a high level of genetic homogeneity and are more or less the same as the fossilised remains archaeologists have uncovered of Han Chinese from 3000 years ago while the Southern Han display a fair amount of genetic admixture. The two are still strongly genetically related and do not consist of two different groups but they are a clinal population — forming a tight cluster on the paternal line but the maternal line increases in diversity the further south one travels.

The impacts of geography and foreign peoples meant North China had to fend off invasion and developed a much more war-like culture. Many of the more aggressive Chinese martial arts, military tactics, and sophisticated weaponry were developed in North China. South China in contrast did not undergo anywhere near the same amount of military pressure and with it’s warmer climate became more concerned with agriculture and production of goods. South China’s exposure to the seas and closer proximity to the more friendly nations in Southeast Asia also had it focus more on the mercantile needs of China. As North China was devastated by countless wars and a constant north-to-south migration occurred, the North became less populous and the South is significantly wealthier than the North in the modern era.

The Northern Chinese with the harsher climate they lived in were unable to support larger families because they required far larger plots of land while the Southern Chinese could which influenced religious worship in these areas. The Northern Chinese are far more likely to worship Chinese gods and spirits while the Southern Chinese are far more likely to venerate their ancestors and historical figures as familial ties were often more elaborate than those in the north. Even today there is a stereotype that Southern Chinese have good business sense and are clannish while the Northern Chinese are usually working class and more willing to start a physical fight.

Where Are Prettiest Girls in China?

Sichuanese women are regarded by some as the most beautiful in China but also as temperamental, tempestuous and loose. Some say Shandong has the prettiest girls. Jiangnan (the region immediately to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) women of Southeastern China are historically considered (and still by many today) to be the most beautiful women in China for their artistry, traditionalism, and femininity.

One person posted on I’m a Shandong girl. In my opinion, there are many pretty girls in China, such as in Chongqing, Chengdu, Shanghai etc. It is unreasonable to have a consequence that there is a place or certain city which could have most prettiest girls in any country in the world. There are some famous actors or actresses born in Shandong. For instance, the famous top actress Fan Bingbing, and actor Huang Xiaoming. They both from Shandong province so that we could say there are many beauty genes in Shandong's gene pool.” Another person posted: Generally the prettiest girls are found in “the south bank areas of the Yangtze River, such as Sichuan, Hunan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.”

right Robert Wu, former Engineer, posted on in 2018: I traveled extensively in China and found some beautiful women and some plain looking women among mostly average looking women in any given location. With that as my baseline, I found women of Hangzhou to be way above average. One day, I was in a bus traveling in the city of Hangzhou. Looking at the streets, I was astonished to see about 50% of women to be pretty. There is a adage about the best things in life in China: To be born in Suzhou (as the most beautiful people are found in Suzhou), Live in Hangzhou (as the city by West Lake is the most beautiful city in China), eat in Guangzhou (as the food and cuisine is the best in China), and die in Liuzhou (as it has the mature trees to make the best coffins). I did not find as many pretty women as a percentage of the population in Suzhou as in Hangzhou, so I do not completely agree with this adage. But as Suzhou (in Jiangsu Province) is only about 100 miles from Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province), the adage is not too far off, in my humble opinion.

Wei Fan wrote in 2020: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You would probably get almost a hundred different answers if you ask this question a hundred times to different Chinese individuals. For me at least, I find myself disproportionately attracted to women from the far south of China, places like Guangxi, Yunnan, Hainan, Guizhou, and Guangdong. I prefer their more exotic SE Asian like features such as larger eyes with double eyelids and thicker lips. A lot of people say that Sichuan, Chongqing, Jiangsu, and Dongbei have the prettiest women, but to me they all look too northern, too pale, and not exotic enough for my taste. I have nothing against people who prefer Northern Chinese looks, after all each and every person is entitled to his or her own opinion. However, don’t act like the guy named Li Shu Yan below who tries to show his preference for Northern Chinese by defaming and demonizing the southerners. That’s a very shameful and low-life thing to do imho.

Xitong Zou, who was born in China, wrote in 2018: “Beauty is so subjective I don’t think there is a correct answer for this. A girl some people might find ugly others might find beautiful and vice versa. And especially when you get into fashion + makeup there’s so many ways to enhance your appearance as well. In a country of 1.3+ billion people and over 50+ ethnicities there is no right answer for this. Anyone can enhance their appearance by putting on makeup, better fashion sense, better hairstyle, not wearing glasses etc Personally, I think Shanghai has the girls with the most fashion sense - although I cannot say anything about their natural beauty at all it is a city full of transplants after all.”

Modern Notions of Beauty in China

“The Chinese notion of beauty has been ingrained and uncontroversial for a long time,” the chief technology officer Meitu, a company that makes apps that make people look more beautiful, told the The New Yorker. Executives with the company were careful to dispel the implication that their apps influenced people’s preconceptions about what is attractive. said. “Big eyes, double eyelids, white skin, high nose bridge, pointed chin.” (This view is historically debatable, but widely held in China.) [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, December 18, 2017]

Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: Wen Hua, the author of “Buying Beauty,” a study of Chinese aesthetic standards and consumerism, confirmed that this appetite for individualism is a new phenomenon in a society that has long prized conformity. “The arrival of Meitu and plastic surgery can seem an opportunity to take ownership of yourself and your body,” she said. “But is it real individuality?” She saw the fanatical pursuit of beauty not as a genuine expression of independence but as a reaction to social and economic pressures. Whereas older Chinese grew up with the so-called Iron Rice Bowl (tie fan wan), the security of a life lived entirely in government employment, today’s young people, Wen pointed out, have no safety net and also face an economy that produces many more college graduates than it does jobs for those with a degree. What’s more, the growth of service industries has put a premium on self-presentation. The Iron Rice Bowl has been replaced by what’s sometimes known as the Rice Bowl of Youth (qing chun fan) — low-level but decent-paying jobs in fields like public relations and sales, for which youth and good looks are considered core qualifications. The new emphasis on appearance, she said, was at the root of Meitu’s success: “Meitu is in the business of manufacturing a desire for perfection, so that you feel its gaze everywhere and find yourself conforming to — and confirming — its standards.”

Li Bin, a senior surgeon at a hospital in Chengdu that specializes in cosmetic surgery, told The New Yorker: “In the past, in conservative China, we used to prioritize a person’s interior to the exclusion of all else. But, in today’s competitive world, your appearance is an asset that you want to maximize.” He mentioned that it is normal for a job applicant’s résumé to include a head shot, and, indeed, plastic-surgery patients in China are often more interested in the professional benefits of good looks than in romantic ones. The procedures are viewed as a simple investment that will yield material dividends.

Meitu Beautification Apps

Meitu is a Chinese company that makes apps that people look more beautiful. Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker:“Chen Xiaojie, a twenty-seven-year-old with caramel-colored contact lenses and waist-length hair, gave me a demonstration of Meitu’s most popular apps, on her Meitu M8 phone. Holding the device at arm’s length, she tucked in her chin (“so the face comes out smaller”), snapped a photo of us, and handed me the result. My complexion looked smoother, my eyes bigger and rounder. I asked if I had been “P”-ed — the Chinese shorthand for Photoshopping. Chen said that the phone had automatically “upgraded” me. “Only when you enjoy taking selfies will you have the confidence to take more,” she explained. “And only when you look pretty will you enjoy taking selfies and ‘P’-ing the photo. It’s all very logical, you see.” [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, December 18, 2017]

Next, using the BeautyPlus app, she showed me how to select a “beauty level” from 1 to 7 — a progressive scale of paleness and freckle deletion. Then we could smooth out, tone, slim, and contour our faces, whiten our teeth, resize our irises, cinch our waists, and add a few inches in height. We could apply a filter — “celestial,” “voodoo,” “edge,” and “vibes” are some of the options. A recently added filter called “personality” attempts to counteract a foreseeable consequence of the technology: the more that people doctor their selfies, the more everyone ends up looking the same. Like everything else in the app, the personalities available — “boho,” “mystique,” and so on — are preset.

“Chen opened up the BeautyCam app and the words “Beauty Is Justice!” flashed up on the screen. The interface was laid out like Candy Land, with a winding path of rabbits, rainbows, and unicorns. Then came MakeupPlus, which not only applies foundation, lipstick, blush, eyeshadow, and mascara, but can also dye your hair, shape your brows, and change your eye color. Meitu has recently started partnerships with a number of cosmetics brands, including Sephora, Lancôme, and Bobbi Brown; users can test products on their selfies and then be redirected to the brands’ Web sites to place their orders.

An influencer named HoneyCC told me that it is considered a solecism to share a photo of yourself that you haven’t doctored. “Selfies are part of Chinese culture now, and so is Meitu-editing selfies,” she said. Founded in 2008, Meitu — whose motto is “To make the world a more beautiful place” — has almost literally transformed the face of China. There’s a name for this new kind of face, perfected by the Meitu apps, which you now see everywhere: wang hong lian (“Internet-celebrity face”).

Using Meitu Beautification Apps

Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “I asked a number of Chinese friends how long it takes them to edit a photo before posting it on social media. The answer for most of them was about forty minutes per face; a selfie taken with a friend would take well over an hour. The work requires several apps, each of which has particular strengths. No one I asked would consider posting or sending a photo that hadn’t been improved. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, December 18, 2017]

“Wu told me that user data remained central to the company’s strategy. “It tells us, in real time, what we need to know,” he said. In the beginning, people tended to favor a Japanese anime look, with huge eyes and pale skin. Now people have shifted to what he described as “Euro-American wave,” a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that the apps have a way of making people look more Western — for instance, by replacing single eyelids, which are typical, though not universal, among East Asians, with a double eyelid fold. There is even a new filter on BeautyPlus called “mixed blood,” used to achieve a Eurasian appearance. In 2017, there was a spate of outrage on social media after international users pointed out that increasing beauty levels in the app invariably resulted in a lightening of skin color.

Anytime I took out my iPhone 6 to take a selfie with someone, I was rebuffed. People would suspiciously ask what kind of camera it was before walking away with expressions ranging from offense to pity. “I can’t allow you to take a picture of me with that camera — it’ll be too ugly,” a woman from Chongqing told me. I assured her that I was not a wang hong and would not be posting it, and we reached a compromise: she would take a selfie of us on her Meitu phone, edit her face, and then send the photo to me. Wu Guanjun, a political theorist at a university in Shanghai implied that Meitu was democratizing beauty, making it into something you could work at rather than a matter of genetic luck. “Lao bai xing get to aspire to something more beautiful than anything they have ever known,” Wu said. “That’s an achievement.”

““A regular camera can’t capture the whole of a person,” a young man with shaggy bleached-blond hair and brilliant blue contact lenses told me, as he showed off his editing skills. “It has no way of expressing the entirety of your beauty.” Meitu employees like to describe the company’s products as “an ecosystem of beauty,” but ecosystems are inherently diverse, whereas Meitu and the trends it epitomizes seem to be moving China in the direction of homogeneity. A generation of Chinese, while clamorously asserting forms of individualism that would have been unthinkable for their parents and grandparents, is also enacting a ghastly convergence. Their selfies are becoming more and more similar, and so are their faces. Through the lens of a Meitu camera, the world is flawless, but flawlessness isn’t the same as beauty, and the freedom to perfect your selfie does not necessarily yield a liberated sense of self.

Beauty Pageants in China

The Miss World beauty pageant was held at the tropical resort of Sanya on Hainan Island in December 2003. It was the first time an international beauty pageant was held in China. Before the event Shanghai held a Miss Ugly contest, with the winner getting $12,000 worth of cosmetic surgery. Selection for the 2002 Miss Universe contest was held at an underground meeting that was broken up by authorities. Miss China traveled incognito to Puerto Rico, where the pageant was held, and finished as the second runner up.

The Miss China Organization was established in 2001. All the administrative divisions of China and the national capital are represented, for a total of 34 delegates. The first ever Miss Universe China titleholder, Zhuo Ling, was selected in Guangdong province in March, 2002. She represented her country in Miss Universe 2002 and placed 2nd runner-up. Some reports claimed that the Chinese contest was shut down before voting took place by officials who mistakenly believed it was not licensed. However, Zhuo Ling, denied it and stated that 40 finalists from across China made it to the event. [Source: Wikipedia]

In July 2002, the Miss Universe license for China was awarded to Johnny Kao, a prominent Chinese-American entrepreneur and businessman.The organization held the Miss China Universe pageant for the next few years. On January 6, 2011, the Miss Universe Organization official designated media icon and entrepreneur Yue-Sai Kan, as the official licensee for the People’s Republic of China. On July 10, 2011, the China National Pageant was held at the MasterCard Arena in Beijing (formerly the WukeBeijing Wukesong Culture & Sports Center) in which 32 contestants participated. The winner of the competition, Luo Zilin.

Performance by Chinese in International Beauty Contests

In 2007, China won its first Miss World contest. Miss China Zhang Zi Lin, a 23-year-old Beijing secretary from the industrial city of Shijiazhuang, won the title in a contest held on Hainan Island. Chat lines lit up with praise for the newly-crowned beauty queen. Zhang’s blog received more than 1 million hits.

Miss China Luo Zilin was made it to the final five at the 60th Miss Universe contest in Sao Paolo, Brazil in September 2011 but ended up as the 4th runner up (5th place). Many Chinese though she had what it took to win. In response to her question — "Nude beaches are common in some parts of the world. Is public nudity appropriate or inappropriate and why?” "Every country has its rules and regulations and every country has their own habits as well. We should respect them and be more understanding." Some said her “too Chinese” response prevented her from doing better.

Before the Miss Universe contest Lou Zilin went to New York to undergo extensive training on how to become “less Chinese,” under the guidance of TV personality Yue-Sai Kan, national director of Miss Universe China. Will Pavia wrote in the Times of London, Yue-Sai Kan “took her young charge to her Upper West Side apartment four weeks ago and has since put her through lessons in English conversation, French table manners, samba, jazz and tap dancing as well as high-level socialising. ‘she has met Paul McCartney, Russell Simmons [the hip-hop artist],” she told The Times yesterday. “We were with Claire Danes for a screening of Homeland.” Kan said “When I say she’s too Chinese, I don’t mean to be negative. Too Chinese means they are very reserved,” she said. “When you compliment them, they put their hands over their mouth. They are not used to being assertive. Also, we have absolutely no culture of beauty pageants.”[Source: Will Pavia, Times of London, the Australian, August 20, 2011]

Ms Lou was already a successful model. “But they are just walking hangers,” said Ms Kan, who appears to have been extremely successful in overcoming any shyness she might have suffered. “They don’t have to say anything. They don’t have to express any emotions whatsoever.” Lou told Forbes before the contest, “I’m excited and love what I’m doing, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. I understand that I am in a position to make a real impact on any number of important humanitarian causes, not only as a role model, but as a doer. And that responsibility stays with me whether I win or lose.” With the weight of China and its 1.3 billion populace, she said, “I don’t want to disappoint.”

Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis blog reported that after the contest Lou was eager to use her experience as a springboard to a future career in the America: Luo Zilin — or Rosaline, as the reigning Miss China prefers to be called in the U.S. — was set to walk in the Sherri Hill fashion show Wednesday, an event where the Kardashian sisters are expected to film an episode of their reality-TV series. Luo’s mentor, the Chinese beauty mogul and TV personality Yue Sai-Kan, sees the potential TV appearance as a launch pad to bigger and better things in America. First she will shoot with the Kardashians, then we will help her break into the U.S. market,” said Kan, the director of the Miss China program. “I would like to try to place her in some television shows, a magazine like Sports Illustrated and maybe something like Victoria’s Secret.” As for Luo, her taste of life in the Big Apple has left her wanting more once her year-long obligation to be Miss China in her home country is complete. “I would like to get the chance to work in New York,” she said. “I have no regrets. There is more to come.”

Image Sources: University of Washington Excepet Mao-era poster, Landsberger Posters, dyed hair, Cgstock , modern sidewalk barber, Nolls China website ; Wikicommons; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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