A little time in China will give you the correct impression that what’s beautiful to the western eye isn’t necessarily so to the Chinese, and vice versa. It’s to be expected. After all, western men and women can’t agree on who’s beautiful. There are those female icons whom only women are attracted to, ala Julia Roberts, and objects of male fantasy, ala Pam Anderson (circa ’93), who never fail to draw the criticism of any woman with an ounce of respect for her gender.
Then there’s the fact that concepts of beauty change with the times. The standards of feminine beauty have morphed with the ages, and have as much to say about the admirers as the admired.
More than a few antiquated scholars took time off from chronicling dynastic intrigue to describe what constituted true hotness. Confucian strictures and the absence of Maxim made the world a much more innocent place. For the ancient Chinese, as for the readers of Women’s Health & Beauty, smooth skin, a slim and delicate shape, shining eyes, and pearly white teeth were all a woman needed to be the village babe. The most widely-quoted description of classic beauty can be found in Shuo Ren, the 57th poem in The Book of Odes:
Her fingers were like the blades of the young white-grass ;
Her skin was like congealed ointment ;
Her neck was like the tree-grub ;
Her teeth were like melon seeds ;
Her forehead cicada-like ; her eyebrows like silkworm antenne;
What dimples , as she artfully smiled !
How lovely her eyes, with the black and white so well defined !
Soon enough, however, a woman needed more than an insectile neck, forehead and eyebrows to win admiration. By the Han Dynasty, a dancing component was required of any woman who wanted to think of herself as truly attractive. Han empress Zhao Feiyan had little of the strong moral sense and virtue expected of a royal. In fact, she was famous for prurient misdeeds, like smiling without covering her mouth, giving all and sundry a gander at her melon-seed teeth.
She made up for such sluttiness with unparalleled skill at the Zhangzhong Wu, or Palm Dance, performed on a crystal plate held by two attendant maidens. Needless to say, the empress must have had a physique tiny enough to shame a gold-medal gymnast. Zhao’s child-like form impressed Emperor Cheng enough to make royalty of her.
On the other end of the scale stands Tang Dynasty beauty Yang Guifei, aka Yang Yuhuan. A towering (for Tang times) 1.64 meters, a thundering 69 kilos, Yang burst with the kind of proportions that make men drool and make women carp “you should lose some weight”. Yang was one of the four legendary ancient Chinese beauties, and contemporaneous poets declared that flowers wilted when she passed by, in deference to her comeliness . A poem describing her love affair with Emperor Xuanzong, Chang Hen Ge, A Song of Unending Sorrow, proves that beauty by no means protects from life’s slings and arrows.
Revolutions in turn foment revolutionary perspectives, and China’s standards of beauty were turned on their head after the founding of the PRC. Any signs of being a fading lily, whether slender or full-bodied, were counter-revolutionary and to be ruthlessly suppressed. How could a woman concerned with keeping her fingers like blades of grass and her teeth whiter than melon seeds help build a proletarian paradise?
Chinese women from Shanghai to Shangri-la were enchanted. Here was their chance to be as masculine as the folks who had been waving around manhood as the prime virtue, and the prime reason why a woman was essentially a slave. Health and strength became most desirable in a prospective wife. Naturally, any indication of peasant stock was a plus, leading to the trend in ruddy cheeks and stout wrists and ankles. A lucky thing, as that was about all men got to see under the baggy military uniforms their female cadres sported en masse.
China’s much over-referenced Opening Up led to a quick erosion of socialist commitment, and its concomitant aesthetics. The West, as one may well guess, was the prime influencer of Chinese fashion in the eighties and nineties. The still jeri-curled heads of many late thirty to forty-somethings have their roots in Jacksonmania, which penetrated to the very heart of theChinese hinterland.
As we rocket into the age of anonymous internet relationships, gender neutral has become the rage, and feminine appeal means always leaving them guessing. Li Yuchun, androgyne extraordinaire and winner of Supergirl 2006, still pulls serious numbers on Chinese internet beauty polls. Most of those voters are probably female, though. Forget East and West. When it comes to describing the perfect female, he is he, she is she, and never shall the twain agree.