Chinese big buck beauty standards today are notoriously known to include a desire for big eyes with double eyelids, that bar all sunlight skin tone, a sharp chin, and one Slim Jim silhouette — movie star Fan Bingbing (范冰冰 in Chinese) embodies this entire beauty box. The R-Rated question remains… How can one society go from cash-flow to cultural fluidity?
Interestingly, some of the first Chinese pioneers in the international fashion industry did not possess the “double eyelids, big, round eyes” features. Liu Wen (刘雯 in Chinese) was once named “China’s first bona fide supermodel” by the New York Times. Tall and slender, she certainly is, but rather than doll eyes, Liu features your “typical” almond-shaped Asian peepers — and stands out from the modeling crowd. Liu is the haute couture, the cat’s meow and runway pow of models.
Then we have Dilraba Dilmurat (迪丽热巴), a Chinese model and actress of Uyghur ethnicity, currently the most sought-after ethnic group in China’s fashion and entertainment industries, who in 2019 has received the “honor” of being China’s “No.1 Wanna-Have Face.”
The above beckons to wonder and ponder… How fluid are the Middle Kingdom’s beauty and modeling standards?
Bodacious, Curvaceous And Voracious
First things first. Not all the aforementioned Fan features have always been considered the epitome of beauty. Think of the infamous practice of foot binding – which has, fortunately (well, for 99.9 percent, that is), disappeared today. Other beauty standards have faded with the centuries. Traditional Chinese clothing designer Ao Luojia (敖珞珈 in Chinese) back in early 2018 caused an online sensation with her photoshoot portraying women in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝| 618-907) era. The photos showcase the typical beauty ideals of that age, which appear to be rather different from those upheld by the nation today – or should we simply say “on the opposite of Fan.” Back then, women were considered beautiful when they could boast a curvaceous bodacious figure. I.e. a portrait of wealth.
During the Song (宋朝| 960-1279) and Ming ( 明朝| 1368-1644) Dynasties, the days of the dramatic curves were long gone and beauty attitudes changed towards the androgynous model. Straight and slender body shapes covered by simple, yet colorful, clothing became the cat’s pajamas. Under Qing rulership (清朝| 1644-1912), the modest fashions of previous decades expanded into an overall lifestyle commanding women to be silent and obedient. Until the 1950s and 60s, when Mao Zedong’s idea of a New China came packing unisex vibes, the 21st Century facial standards of wide eyes with double eyelids and a V-shaped chin were hard to come by. Nevertheless… Common denominator? A light-skinned complexion.
The most common occupation of the lower classes included working the land, turning the skin darker as a result of sunray-laden labor. Pale skin became the telltale sign that the woman in question had nothing to do with physical toil, thus hailing from a higher social level.
My Fair Ladies
The fair skin phenomenon dates back to the day of China’s “Four Great Beauties” (四大美女| sìdàměinǚ in Chinese). Even the legendary beauties from their time boasted the lighter facial palettes – think Xi Shi during the Spring and Autumn Period, Wang Zhaojun of the Western Han Dynasty, Diaochan in the Late Eastern Han times and Three Kingdoms Period and Yang Guifei of the Tang Dynasty. And yes, we’re sparing you the Chinese for all of these. Even the recent term “báifùmĕi” (白富美 in Chinese), literally meaning “white, rich, beauty,” shows us just how very much alive this cultural notion slash tradition remains to this day.
Beauty model Dilraba Dilmurat (دىلرەبا دىلمۇرات in Uyghur) in 2019 has the honor of being China’s “No.1 Wanna-Have Face”. To be more precise, the majority of Chinese women pointed towards her in a poll seeking out the most desired face Chinese twentysomething women would want to obtain — with a little help from plastic surgery, that is. Dilmurat is a Chinese actress of Uyghur ethnicity, currently the most sought-after ethnic group in China’s fashion and entertainment industries.
Dilmurat’s fellow Uyghur actress Gülnezer Bextiyar ( گۈلنەزەر بەختىيار in Uyghur), too, frequently receives much “acclaim” for her snowy white appearance. Many videos across Sina Weibo, Youku, Tudou, and even YouTube, live streaming channels show Chinese judging or contest and beauty panels referring to her as “Xinjiang’s Venus,” “Barbie Doll” and “Snow White”, obviously and strongly emphasizing her “gorgeous white complexion.” They ask her if her light-colored skin is genetic, they compare her skin color with the skin tones of your “average” Jane Wang”, and so the list goes on.
In one 2017 interview, Gülnezer herself, too, has confessed to almost caving into the burdens of beauty and considering rhinoplasty in order to get a more “standard” face. Beauty may physically-speaking only be skin deep, but its social standards can cause far deeper mental scars.
Running With Economic Models
Professor Jaehee Jung (University of Delaware), wrote in Science Daily that the Chinese beauty image is “not just signaling the Westernization of culture, but also the changing of gender roles and increased consumerism in the Chinese economy, which is growing so fast.” The professor points out that the drastically changed beauty criteria in contemporary China seem to be “unrealistic and remarkably similar to Western standards.”
Max Liu, CEO of Beijing-based modeling agency Fun Models, also refers to the current Chinese beauty standards having their roots in the newly blossoming Chinese consumerism back in the 1990s. In one NPR interview, Liu explained that “up and coming Chinese domestic fashion brands, joint by the rise of Chinese purchasing power, started searching for a new image. One more friendly than the Caucasian models, yet more exotic than ‘real locals’. The industry, therefore, ended up employing the Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group featuring a half-Asian, half-European appearance, not to mention that they are Mandarin-speaking, Chinese nationalities”.
How does this new culture of spending propel a new culture of beauty?
The Pan-Asian Catwalk Goes Trending
Preceding the recent Uyghur “hype”, Gen 2 had already been expressing their preference for Eurasian, and Pan-Asian, beauty. Time to break down the barriers of one concept…
- Angelababy (Angela Yeung Wing or 杨颖 in Chinese), the Chinese actress often described as a beauty icon, is one-quarter German — explaining her more “interesting” characteristics.
- Tajik Minority policewoman Dilireba Yahefu (迪丽热巴牙合甫) in 2014 went viral, not because of her professional occupation in the realm of law enforcement, but because of her “exotic” Han Chinese – Tajik, a Xinjiang Province minority which has its roots in Iranian culture, appearance.
Funnily enough, some of the first Chinese pioneers in the international fashion industry did not possess the “double eyelids, big, round eyes” features. Liu Wen (刘雯 in Chinese), the first Chinese model to appear on the cover of American Vogue and the first Asian model to appear in Victoria’s Secret and Estée Lauder campaigns, was named “China’s first bona fide supermodel” by the New York Times. Tall and slender, she certainly is, but rather than doll eyes, Liu features your “typical” almond-shaped Asian peepers — and stands out from the modeling crowd. Liu is the haute couture, the cat’s meow and runway pow of models.
When push comes to shove, all beauty standards and ideals aside, in a once-and-still-white-dominated fashion world, Asian models are to this day habitually regarded as a token of diversity and multicolored-ness. However, the increasing global demand for Asian and Chinese models in particular also announces the second coming of Greater China, a state that will for the first time in centuries “overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest fashion market,” according to McKinsey’s State of Fashion 2019.
China is ready to get its Pan-Global stomp on.
The driving forces behind racial fluidity within China Fashion are the combined results of one Kingdom’s traditional beauty standards, the rise of consumerism and the new national power that is Generation 2.
It’s the tale of how, once upon a 21st Century time, cash goes with the cultural flow.
FEATURED IMAGE: An oldie, but SUCH a goodie. Fan Bingbing poses for i-D Magazine, Fall 2012 Issue. Photography by Chen Man. Image comes courtesy of i-D Magazine and ChenManer.com. All rights reserved
WRITTEN BY MINYOUNG LEE FOR TEMPER MAGAZINE’S “THE R-RATED ISSUE,” 2019. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
EDITED BY ELSBETH VAN PARIDON FOR TEMPER MAGAZINE
THE CONTENT IN THIS FEATURE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN TEMPER MAGAZINE’S “THE R-RATED ISSUE”, NO. 3, 2019. ANY FORM OF REPRODUCTION WITHOUT PRIOR CONSENT IS PROHIBITED.
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Lee consequently spent around three years as a product developer/fashion merchandiser for contemporary South Korean brand Lucky Chouette.
Later on, Lee spent two years living and studying in Beijing, mostly writing articles about Chinese culture and Chinese fashion and wrapped up her China Life with a Master’s Degree in Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University.
Nowadays, Lee resides in Germany, still keeping China and its fashions on her radar, as well as working as a freelance translator for the apparel industry.
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