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The Notion of Female,Beauty in Communist China

          However, Naomi Wolf's deconstruction of The Beauty Myth could also be applied to the general notion offemale beauty in Communist China in the 1990s. The development of the feminine ideal in China after the Qing dynasty was as confusing as the modern history of the country. It is difficult to trace the notion of beauty during the first half of the twentieth century when the country was undergoing endless civil wars and the disastrous Sino-Japanese War. Discussion of beauty during this period was restrictedly led by a few elite groups of women of distinct political and social classes. After the Communists took over China in 1949, female beauty was displaced from external appearance to the love oflabor, the party, and the nation. In the first thirty years of Communist China, women nationwide had their hair either tied up or cut, and the plain party uniforms suppressed every individual character or taste. Women at that time devoted their energy to economic and political practices and reforms. The plain look was to ensure that women were ready for action, and it was brought to its climax during the cultural revolution in the 1960s when nearly all the women in the country wore only blue and gray with no makeup or accessories. The only "fashion" was the shapeless socialist look, and the only exception were the brides who wore red and had their hair done for their wedding. At that time, external beauty was not important; what was important was the inner beauty ofwomen who sacrificed themselves according to Communist ideals for the nation, the people, and the party. Women with flamboyant looks would get themselves into trouble; they would be accused of succumbing to bourgeois ideologies.

 Chinese beauty 1

Only when China opened its door in the late 1970s did its women brighten up their appearance again. The influx offoreign economic investments brought famous brands of European fashion and cosmetics into the country. The flourishing commercial market brought new trends and colors to big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and southern Canton areas near Hong Kong. Consumer products for women filled the country's markets in the 1980s. (It seems to be a common phenomenon that women's fashion is always the fastest sector to develop when a developing country takes off economically.) Furthermore, when the country's power structure became fluid and economic classes appeared again, fashion and looks became the necessary symbols ofidentity and classification. Mainland women urgently wanted a new look. Advertisements for female products were everywhere, and foreign

 

magazines were imported and translated to promote new female images from Western culture. Because of the urge to modernize, to correct the backward past, and topfoc~get the "wrong" history of the cultural revolution in the 1960s, contemporary discussions of female beauty in China closely followed those in the West. Women fashion models who wear European brands are the new models of female beauty.

        The traditional standards of external beauty are less emphasized, and the "inner" dimensions of beauty such as moral efforts and intellectual qualities are only mentioned in the party's propaganda or in some "politically correct" publications. These publications continue some of the traditional principles of beauty: for instance, that external beauty originates from an inner beauty that aims at benevolence, commitment to one's community, self-improvement, the goal of developing a unique personality, and the idea that aesthetics is the natural principle that prevents exaggeration and the distortion of reality. However, the traditional discussion has become merely empty talk and is taken for granted. Instead, city women in China put up photos and posters of top fashion models at home and wish they could be like them. Their appearance attracts them. The following are some physical standards ofbeauty promoted in Shanghai women's magazines that exemplify fashion models in the contemporary Western world:

        ( a) Physical appearance:

(i) Height: ideally 1.74 to 1.8 meters, a little shorter than Western models.

(ii) Proportion: the lower part of the body from the belly button should be longer than the upper part. The lower thigh should be a little longer than the upper thigh with the shape of the leg slim and slender. The difference between the size of the breast and the waist should be 22 to 24 cm while that between the breast and the hip should be equal or 2 to 4 cm. The shoulder should be broad enough to form a V shape at the back. The ideal shape of the head is oval; it should join the neck to form the shape ofa question mark. The distance between two eyes should be one eye in length; the length of the ear and the nose should be close; upper and lower lips should be equal in thickness and red in color .

(iii) Others: Hair should be smooth, healthy, and dark. Limbs should be slender. The eyebrows should be longer than the eye and tidily trimmed. Skin should be bright and soft.

(b) Temperament:

This is the only aspect which considers inner beauty. It is said that the temperament ofa woman is the sum ofher psychological traits and her behavior. A woman's cultivation influences her gestures, posture, and verbal expressions. The difference from the past discussion is that now these standards have nothing to do with Confucian morality; the rationale for them rests solely in lay psychology.

(c) Perfonning ability:

It is said that bodily movement should be rhythmic and form a special style ofone's own. It should be noted that the traditional Chinese feminine way of movement has been replaced completely by Western forms - nothing traditional remains in the movement style of the models though their physical bodies are still Chinese.

Fashion is said to symbolically provide individuals with a mechanism for detaching themselves from the past, to allow people to cope with the present in an orderly way by helping to define what is appropriate, and to prepare for the immediate future by providing a sense of anticipation or a clue to emerging issues and tastes.Fashion also provides consolation to individuals because it promotes self-esteem and the language of identity. It explodes out of enthusiasm; the fashion codes of identity always represent leisure, fun, youth, health, open-mindedness, playfulness, energy, independence, courage, and subjectivity, no matter how controversial it could be. Women project their self-images and fantasies onto fashion models 

Chinese beauty 2

 

who from time to time appear fast, carefree, naughty, sharp, discriminating, balanced, sophisticated, coquettish, and ingenuous. With the above explanatory notes and the historical and political contexts of China in mind, it should not be difficult to understand why contemporary city women in China regard fashion models as a new frame of reference for beauty. Mter the long turmoil of economic poverty, backward living environment, and the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution in China, fashion works as a form of hope for a country hungry for various forms of reform and modernization. Women turn to fashion for new identities and power. As Roland Barthes has said, the multiplication of persons in a single being is always considered by fashion as an index of power.36 On the surface, the new social role Chinese women attained in the Communist regime seems to be more equal than ever to men becausefJf the value of their labor contribution to the country. In fact, state policies are always unfavorable to them. Fashion may further enhance women's voice in society, which will threaten the feudal Chinese constraints on women (by liberating women's body via fashionable looks and new notions of beauty); the idea of returning to a backward Communist China (by portraying modern Western designs ); and the submissive attitudes toward the "People's" Republic ofChina with the mandated collective behaviors (by choosing new and foreign ways of dressing and gestures ). One can even interpret the new look as a silent revolution and a struggle for new identities. This is not passive but an active construction that is being initiated today by Chinese women themselves. A fashionable appearance projects the image that they are fully aware of their femininity, that they are free and sovereign, and that they make their own decisions. All these explain why women fashion models have become new feminine icons in contemporary China.

        The construction is also made possible by external business investments and related promotions. Consumer culture, advertisements, popular press, television, and films all provide many stylized images of the body. It is easy then to detect the contradiction and confusion involved: the illusion ofwomen's image built by the cosmetics, garment, and diet industries - or the so-called beauty myth essential for economic markets- is mixing with and contradicting the real working ability, growing intelligence, and fluid individualistic characteristics of contemporary Chinese women. Whereas the ability and appearance of a beautiful woman could have been in great harmony with broader social values in the past, as illustrated in the courtesan tradition, now commercial interests compete to create and define these two dimensions of women, as feminists opine.Although Chinese women today are developing new self-confidence, they do not seem to be aware of the fact that one can become a slave of the fashion industry, which merely repeats the bodily constraints of past times in a new form.

 

 

 

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