Chinese Beauty – Then & Now

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.

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73 Responses to Chinese Beauty – Then & Now

  1. Ernie says:

    The closer you get to truth, the stranger it seems. That's why I only walk backwards and never let anyone step on my shadow.

  2. girls looking pretty good in their traditional dresses

  3. rishi says:

    Some great information about Chinese beauty.Though different people have different opinion about beauty.Some care about inner beauty and some outside beauty.In my opinion beauty lies in the eyes of beholder.It depends on the person how they see the person or the thing.Beauty is not to spend thousands of dollars on anything.It is something from your inside.
    mens diamond ring

  4. I wonder if Chinese art remains like it was earlier. Things have changed all around the globe, and people are moving away from traditions. I guess this is not the case with China.

  5. i would say that beauty is from our eyes its not in our body or in face..

  6. i would like to prefer natural beauty is the best one for health

  7. I like the natural beauty is the best one we should not collaborate with medical creams etc it will cause an problem later

  8. Zenerx says:

    This blog makes me appreciate the sheer color of China.

  9. Thank you for sharing the information, I like to hear Chinese culture information here.

  10. cool site about Chinese people

  11. Prevajanje says:

    This blog makes me impressed to have an regular updates about chinese

  12. Chinese people always different from other country peoples they always rocks in all criteria s

  13. Ernie says:

    Especially modesty.

  14. Chinese people where always beautiful for their pretty activeness, and small cute impressing eyes

  15. glass pipes says:

    Chinese people are the best in all categories

  16. Ernie says:

    You better. They invented pizza.

  17. pizza recipe says:

    Chinese people has great mind to do everything in a time i like them a lot

  18. joomlawind says:

    Chinese girls are indeed very beautiful and there is no doubt in that….

  19. Anonymous says:

    I think that Chinese women were and are beautiful. With short hair or long with long legs or not , even with long wigs . Who cares anyway,chinese females will always be beautiful.

  20. Ernie says:

    Gee, you're clever.

  21. Jenna says:

    This is a great and refreshing article. It is really nice to peak into other cultures' beauty and understand the now and before beauty they have. It truly shows a great transition between the times. Thanks for sharin

  22. Ozymandias says:

    As usual, an interesting contribution from Ernie. I suspect that the plump vs thin contest is one that crosses all kinds of national boundaries. But where there is possibly a bigger gap between China and the West is in things like dark vs light skin, small vs large eyes, etc. To which one might add thick vs thin lips, straight vs curly hair, friendly vs cool expressions (some guys love that supercilious Korean look), and many more.

    My suspicion is that differing standards in judging Chinese women’s beauty is partly a product of the exoticism factor. Those high cheekbones, narrow eyes, and dark complexions might look sexy and exotic for a Westerner, but for Chinese are the essence of ugliness. And many Chinese men seem to be taken by rather ordinary looking Western women, merely because they have exotic blonde hair and blue eyes.

  23. Ernie says:

    As usual, an insightful comment from Oz. Ain’t we a pair?

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