Women strive to make themselves beautiful to live up the beauty standard in their imagination. The standards may differ from time to time, but one fact never changes that women’s temperament, aura, mindset, thinking and action will all glow through their appearances . Analyzing the making of women’s beauty can give us a read on the spirit of the time and its aesthetic ability.
I’ve seen a couple of photos featuring Fuyi, China’s last emperor and his queen Wuan Rong. Wuan Rong would perm her hair curl sometimes, while the young empire would dress in suit. The most popular photo of the two features Wuan Rong sitting on the arm chair in her elegant cheongsam, while the young emperor in white suit standing behind her like her guard.
A photo can tell more than a church. At that time, cheongsam and curl hair were beautiful, suit and tie were handsome, even the act that man play the guarding role was consider beauty. The Revolution of 1911 not only overthrew monarchy but also upset the aesthetic norm of the late Qing Dynasty. Now that the emperor was willing to stand behind his seated wife, values can change over night. Restrictive Manchu woman dresses disappear from people’s life shortly as China stepped into the 20th century.
Era of relief (1910 – 1930)
To be frank, many trends were lead by prostitutes in the early 20th century. They liked shopping, going to theatre and dancing, they walked about with the rich, and they made a living by preening up to seduce man. It was not impossible that Wuan Rong got her inspiration of hair style from those prostitutes.
But as more and more women were able to get education, pretty female students were all over the street, leading to another kind of refreshing trend that even the prostitutes started to copy.
Cheongsam also came to prosperity. For the first time, Chinese women were able to be sexy. The anti-foot-binding movement, and anti-breast-binding movement set Chinese women’s feet and breasts free after a 1000 years of restrain. Those relieved breasts stand upright beneath cheongsam instead of being pressed down by tight waistcoat or bandages. Face cream and powder became fashionable daily necessities, western cosmetics like Pond’s and Vaseline entered the market gradually. And China made its first effort to catch up with world fashion.
Behind the change of fashion was of course the change of value. Feminism movements came into play, free feet and free love were consider due rights. Beauty icons were no longer those chamber beauties who barely stepped out of the house, nor those famous prostitutes on the ranking, but strong women with independent personality. First lady Sung Mei-ling is considered representative of these independent women. Her wedding gown gave rise to a wedding dress fever in Shanghai. Though her political capability was yet to shown at the time, her independence and grasp of her own marriage were enough to charm her generation.
Not until this time, Chinese character “她”(her) was invented by poet Liu Bannong. Women finally found their stance in character.
Era of luxury (1930 – 1949)
This period was the most chaotic time in China due to anti-Japanese war as well as civil wars. How can women manage to stay beautiful living in the middle of upheavals? How can this period be called luxury era? The answer lies in Shanghai, the cosmopolitan city of Far East. Shanghai’s beauty was China’s beauty, it not only represented the most popular elements in China, but also influenced the world’s fashion power. Latest Rolls-Royce models could be seen on rolling along its Nanjing Rd, Sincere Store might be able to rival Paris Galerie Lafayette. Billboards featuring the world’s top brands stood outside of Shanghai’s department store mansions, blinding neon lights illuminated the sky.
Shanghai modern girls were on new missions, from Pond’s cream to Lux soap, from cologne to cigarette, gals leaned on these products and got on billboards, becoming Miss Calendar, spokesperson etc. At first, flirtatious prostitutes dominated calendars until later they were took over by prominent sexy modern ladies whom had stronger purchasing power. Their presences on the calendars reinforced the glamour of the city.
In 1926, Liang You (良友) pictorial was founded as representation of the middle class and fashion. It featured female movie stars, famous modern ladies on its cover page, selling the designation of “名媛”(Ming Yuan, famous lady) along with the new social identity and expectation of woman image. Wrapped by modern commercialism, these middle-class ladies became icons of the time: sensible, elegant, value fashion and life quality.
The trend soon gave birth to Shanghai’s first formal beauty contest “Miss Shanghai” in 1930. Before that, prostitutes were the only contestants in so-called beauty contests, and the rankings stink with old fashion vulgarity. Miss Shanghai carried more modern color, contestants were of clean background or even from renowned family.
If we look at the big picture, China’s film industry at the time was actually the reflection of Hollywood in 1930s. Hollywood shone with numerous stars, whereas China had superstars like Yuen Ling-yuk (阮玲玉), Hu Die (胡蝶), Zhou Xuan (周璇) to represent the highest aesthetic standards.
And of course there were other real famous ladies too, such as Lin Huiyin, Lu Xiaoman, Ling Shuhua etc. They were icons of the time, enjoying admiration from both men and women. But not all talented beautiful women were qualified to the “Ming Yuan” title, writers like Zhang Ai-ling, Bing Xin, Ding Ling, Xiao Hong etc were not in the line of Ming Yuan. It seemed people only admired those women who married into presentable family.
So-called aesthetic value of the time is actually no more than looking through middle-class’s eyes: who are perfect women? They are those who not only have nice father and dutiful son, perfect marriage and affluent living, but also are beautiful and wealthy and a touch of romance. Don’t forget, fashion is mean.
Era of confine (1950 – 1976)
Elegant cheongsam still played an active role in early new China. But waves after waves of political movement finally got the better of modern girls, who gave in to Lenin coat. When Zhang Ai-ling attended cultural meetings in her cardigan and cheongsam, she was suddenly labeled “the alternative”.
Love and beauty always supplement each other. When love disappears in people’s life, beauty turns evil. The leaders shouted out the slogan “time is different, man and woman are equal”. The result was disastrous: man and woman all dressed the same, looked the same and worked the same. In 1958, city girl Xing Yanzi participated in village labor work, her team was named after her and the fame spread across the country. Xing Yanzi herself and her iron girl image became the icon for youngsters in early 60s.
When care for looks and personal feelings were forbidden, what was the use of wonderful youthfulness? Devote them all to the country. At the time, China probably had the largest women working force in the world. College students married to stranger soldiers, workers, peasants regardless of their family background, their educational level, working environment or personal hobbies. Because that was the beautiful image at the time, that is promoted, praised upon and reinforced. In Zhao Shuli’s novel “How Xiao Erhei gets married”, the bride was asked why she chose him as husband, and she replied “because he can work”.
Yes women got to participate more and more in the society, but their appearance and dressing style just kept pushing the limit of plain coarseness. Neutralization and de-sexualization were the only two choices for women. This period was also the prosperous time for political propaganda paintings, on which every girl was Xing Yanzi with glowing face and upbeat spirits; their expressions were either warm and passionate spring-day-like smiles towards comrades, or ruthless, hateful faces with their fists threatening enemies.
In fact, we can not say that this era is short of fashion. The products of so many revolutions and fights were Lenin coat, Mao jacket, and Chinese tunic suit, which were really well-received by women of the time. Pioneer women liked to wear Lenin coats, short hair or pig tail, no make-up, walked on liberation shoes with rubber treads. During the cultural revolution, Red Guard suit became the ultimate costume to go with evolutions. Its complete set included: old army uniform, old army hat, army belt, liberation shoes, red sleeve emblem, army satchel with sparkling scarlet characters “Serve the people”.
The love for beauty is like weed seed, grows anywhere possible. Even they were restrained by army uniform, young girls still figured their way out: putting belt on the waistless uniform, puffing out their chest, getting a white collar on top of the plain coat, knitting a bit on the trousers to spell out their body curve.
Fortunately, days like this are over.
Era of pomp (1977- 2010)
Melodious music by Teresa Teng (邓丽君) spread wide in the villages, softening people’s coarse hearts that had been hardened by too many fights and struggles. Beautiful and sweet Teresa melted the ice that frozen people’s desire for beauty. Bell bottomed pants, goggles and jeans soon came into people’s life. Young men grew long curly hair, wear checkered shirt with peaked collar and bell bottomed pants of all forms; they put on labeled goggles and carry a giant SANYO recorder playing Teresa’s songs, and walked about with pride. This was so cool at the time that it angered somebody, who would size the pants bottom with a beer bottle, once he found out the pants bottom is too large, he would scissor cut the extra clothes off. It is weird as today, who would have the right to cut others’ pants? But in late 70s after the Cultural Revolution, everybody seemed to have the authority to scissor cut anything against their aesthetic values, and still feel justified.
Maybe it is because people were repressed for too long, once set free, they let it go. Bagger rag, tight, bat shirt, big plastic earrings, and heavy make-up constitute the most beautiful looks for urban gals. You can’t blame the Chinese for being loud, because that was the way the world trend went in 80s - disorder and pompous. China just got in touch with world fashion, she looked a bit surreal indeed.
In pomp era live pompous icons. Liu Xiaoqing was the first one at the time to exclaim with her hands on the hips that “I am beautiful” “I am the best actress in China”. She was showy and different. When many of her peers faded out from the entertainment circle, she still frequented entertainment sections, which proved her durable success.
But cheap fashion past like wave. The 80s is an age of beauty enlightenment and humanity resurrection. Yet after the enlightenment, helpless people choose to bury their heads in the sands of consumerism. It makes little difference to talk about change of dressing style: people craze for J-pop, K-pop, yuppy, hip-hop, bohemian, and cheongsam all at the same time. Any types of clothes can find their own faithful fans. Housewives go to work wearing mini-skirt and sun-top, guilt free.
Everyone is typical, so-called nobility will be looked down upon. It is meaningless to talk about standard beauty, because personality and individual charm are the rule. Hence, here come the super girls (超女). Tomboys like Li Yuchun declare their disruptive success over conventional aesthetic standards. And, after all these years, her new aesthetic value is still hot. Li Yuchun’s neutrality points at elegance and handsomeness, which is different the senseless 70s neutrality.
However, the society becomes more and more tolerant that it allows the bottom limit of beauty to keep dropping. For the same bohemian style, we have San Mao as icon before, see who we have now, Yang Erche Namu, we can only sigh that time degenerates. And then, Miss lotus is in, Sister Feng is hot, and Shoushou is all over the Internet. Although they are not the icons, but look at the anchor’s gentle faces that couldn’t conceal her red eyes. I think it is definitely aesthetic value’s failure that make mass media put these kinds of women in front of us.
Of course, the more you see the more you know. Deep down we all know very well what real beauty should be like.
Which age produce the most beautiful women? We will get different answers when we take history and personal interests into consideration. Dostoyevsky once said: “Beauty will save the world.” Saving the world may be too much, but I think it is fair enough to say beauty can save human kinds.