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Beauty in China: Common Concepts of Attractiveness

by Juli Golden (2020-09-14)


I'm an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in Shenzhen, South China and in a recent group discussion class my aim was to discern concepts of female beauty from a Chinese point of view.

Since coming to China in 2012, I'd heard many theories about what truly makes a woman attractive, mainly from older men and women, therefore I was naturally curious to see if my group of 16 to 19-year-old students felt the same way.

It's important to note that only about 50% of my class had travelled outside of China and this was to majority white countries such as America and Australia in the West, and Japan and Korea in the east. It's also pertinent that out of a populace of 1.4 billion people, less than a million of those are non-Chinese/non-Asian. In addition, Chinese media heavily censors television programmes from overseas, especially the West.

Consequently I think it's fair to say that this limited interaction with people of other skin tones has greatly coloured their views on beauty.

Images of Non-Westernised BeautyTuareg Woman | SourceAfrican Woman in Muslim Dress | Source

To stimulate discussion, I fired up the giant PC firmly bracketed to the wall (thank goodness, if it ever dropped onto my foot I'd never recover), and opened the internet onto various images of women from around the world of all shapes, all sizes and all colours. As I was specificially targeting female beauty, I omitted male images.

It was certainly an interesting 90 minutes of spirited discussion which sparked both disagreement and concensus. This article is primarily, but not exclusively, derived from my findings during that workshop.

Images of Beauty in Modern China with Actresses Fan Bing Bing and Liu Yi FeiFan Bing BingLiu Yi Fei

Current Beauty Trends and Ideas

The two actresses pictured above, Fan Bing Bing and Liu Yi Fei, are currently hot topics in China.

Their careers are riding high on the back of a string of successful domestic and international movies. They're universally acknowledged as the epitome of beauty with their long flowing hair, pale skin, and eyes and noses which are neither too small nor too big. They're are also tall, which is something Chinese men really admire, even short men want a tall, slim lady.

According to my students (a mixed group of boys and girls) they are the current standard which Chinese teenage girls aspire to and which Chinese women envy.

In a word they represent, 'perfection.'

Past Ideals of Beauty in ChinaVery white skin and traditional 'Qipao' dress | SourceFour ancient traditional Chinese beauties | Source

Historical Chinese Beauties

In China's long and ancient history, the country was divided into many kingdoms, each with its own leader and rule of law.

The Emperors of the various dynasties kept palaces of harems in order to ensure a royal bloodline which would defeat possible contenders to the throne.

It is said that the women with the whitest skin were the most favoured and consequently the most desired. They were closest to the Emperor and their children gained better positions within the Kingdom.

No one seems to know why whiter skin was so adored, it seems as though it was just the status quo at the time. As you'll see from the next paragraph, not much has changed in present day China.

The Proliferation of Skin Whitening CreamsKorean cosmetics are thought to be among the best in AsiaBird's Nest is a popular and trusted women's skin care brand in China Serums, creams, liquids, tonics. What's your poison?

The Constant Desire for Whiter Skin

This is a never-ending quest for some, though not all, Chinese ladies. My students said that this practice is also common in Japan and South Korea.

I wondered if it was due to the Western influence of famous white film stars, but they countered that pale skin was in vogue in China long before Hollywood and Western models and its effects can still be seen today.

A skin tone which is darker than those of the two actresses pictured above is classed as black and undesireable. A sun tan is also classed as black and while I personally think that a Chinese person with dark, sun-tanned skin looks beautiful simply because it's so unusual, the general concensus here is that it is an unattractive look.

Women carry umbrellas when the sun is out. I do too, but simply because I need the shade. In tropical South China, temperatures can rise to between 30-35 degrees Celsius for weeks at a time and the heat of the sun is merciless. However, many Chinese women use their umbrellas for cosmetic rather than practical purposes, they just don't want to get a tan and prefer to remain as light skinned as possible all year round.

A Day out at the Beach in Parts of ChinaOnce you've got a Facekini, no worries about getting a tan!They could at least make some that are colour co-ordinated

Some Chinese Avoid Getting a Tan at all Costs

Because of this fear of being called black, some Chinese people limit their beach visits to night time. I guess no one ever got a tan from the Moon.

Others will go to the seaside during the day, but some women may wear a face mask if they're bothered about the possibilities of becoming tanned. Wearing beach face masks is less popular now, but was once a serious fad in China.

I pointed out to my class how I'd noticed that whenever any of the boys came in with a tan, perhaps after visiting a hot place on holiday, they teased them about being black, which seemed to make the boys uncomfortable. My students said that it was all in good fun, but it was still better to have lighter skin.

In a previous class with my adult learners, one man said that he had never taken his wife to visit his extended family in a small town outside of the city. He didn't want to subject her to criticism which he knew would come simply because of her brown skin, which incidentally, was one of the main reasons for his attraction to her.

The Rise of Cosmetic Surgery Across Parts of AsiaBefore and after cosmetic surgery in Korea | Source

The South Korea Effect

South Korean culture is very popular in China. The women are considered exquisite beauties, while the men are (as you can see from the photo below of actor Song Seung Heon) ridiculously handsome.

Much of this beauty, however, is ascribed to the surgeon's knife as increasing numbers of men and women are going under in the pursuit of better looks which will hopefully be followed by fame and fortune. (Just to be clear, I'm in no way stating that actor Song Seung Heon has had cosmetic surgery. After all, how would I know?)

My students believe that having cosmetic surgery for the process of altering one's features in order to become better looking is perfectly okay. We discussed the enormous cost and the tremendous pain, but this didn't deter them. They really were convinced that the Koreans had the right ideas about how to become beautiful.

Liu Yi Fei and Korean Actor Song Seung Heon Married couple Liu Yi Fei and Song Seung Heon in a publicity pic for their Chinese film, 'The 3rd Way of Love.' I didn't plan to include any male images but he's just so handsome! Sigh. | Source

Cosmetic Surgery as a Legitimate Beauty Treatment

I asked them if cosmetic surgery had caught on in China and they stated that in some parts of Mongolia, the women may do this, as they believe that their Mongolian lineage is ugly.

At various times over the last couple of years, there have been reports of angry men who divorced their stunning wives after the women gave birth to plain babies. Apparently this was the point where the gorgeous wife had to admit that her looks were cosmetically enhanced and then face the consequences of bringing up her child alone, as well as the possibility of being sued for false representation.

But isn't this craze partly the men's fault for being swayed so easily by something as superficial as outward beauty, which fades with time? I think so.

Perhaps if women could be certain about being accepted for their natural selves, they wouldn't go to such extremes.

Tattoos. Still Taboo?Asian woman with tattooed arm | SourceCherry Blossom tattoo | Source

To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo? (Try Saying That Fast)

Although perfectly acceptable in the West (excepting many Customer Service jobs where they still have to be hidden), Chinese elders and many youth feel that tattoos are a sign of rebellion. Girls who sport tattoos are seen as loose, while inked boys are regarded as anti-establishment.

As I've written in other articles, looks are extremely important in Chinese society; consequently, according to my students, something which 'defaces the skin' such as visible tattoos is regarded as cheap, common, or low-class. They are also reluctant to make friends with people who have tattoos and state that their parents would never allow them to have one themselves.

However, times are a-changing and compared to just a couple of years ago, I'm now seeing more tattoo parlours around town and a few more people of both sexes wearing them with pride, effectively putting their personal choice above everything else.

My Student's Thoughts on Black Beauty

For obvious reasons, this was the most interesting part of the discussion for me.

I rolled out various images which showed black women of all ages, with different hair styles, skin tones, and hailing from a variety of locations including from the continents of Africa, Europe, and South and North America.

The more Eurocentric the features and the hair, the more beauty my students ascribed to the woman. Afros, plaits, or braids, and anything that is largely classed (erroneously in my opinion) as black in dress, hair, or facial features confused them and was considered unattractive.

When I stated that many of these images were considered beautiful by millions of black men and women, they accepted that but specified that these portraits were new to them and therefore outside of their usual scope of beauty, which I suppose is a fair point.

This point of view could be altered considerably when they leave China to study in the West and are exposed to a more diverse group of people.

Images of Black WomenMy students couldn't see her beauty. All they talked about was her 'strange' hairstyle, along with the shape of her nose and her lips. | SourceHer skin is too dark and her hair is too short. Hence, she could not be beautiful as far as my students are concerned. However, some of the girls did admire her big, clear eyes. | SourceThis actress who could be said to have European features, was considered beautiful. | Source

The Beauty of White Western WomenUS Singer Songwriter, Taylor SwiftBritish Singer, AdeleBritish Actress Keira Knightley

Western Women

When I asked my students to name beautiful Western women, I was really playing a game with myself. I'd already chosen pictures of whom I thought they would select and wanted to see if my assumptions were correct.

Their choices were all from the singer/actor/entertainment category and yes, I was partially right, as they did indeed choose the women in the photos above. They also included singers Rihanna and Beyoncé, who are light-skinned black women with European features.

I queried whether they thought these women were beautiful simply because of the charismatic allure of their profession, as artists are generally seen as being superior looking. They agreed, but also thought that these women would stand out in any crowd.

Interestingly, they also added Russian women to the pot because in China, their long legs, blonde hair, thin bodies, and facial features are much admired.

Take the pollDo you agree that women of any nationality can be beautiful?
  • No, I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder and people naturally prefer what they see in themselves
  • Yes, I agree. Beauty is not uniform or standard. It's contained within variety.
See results

Final Thoughts

These are the results of an afternoon spent discussing beauty, namely what is and what isn't beautiful according to a small, non scientifically chosen, totally biased, and personally judgemental group of 10 Chinese teenagers—boys and girls.

Their honesty permeated our talk, which made their opinions even more relevant.

But what about you? Do you agree with them? Do you think that beauty is determined by what you see around you or by what society dictates? Or do you think it's perfectly possible to embrace other forms of beauty outside of your cultural norms?

Hm, food for thought.