From Iron Girls to Oriental Beauties

By Hongmei Li

In a piece I did for the Huffington Post on women and the Olympics, I provided a brief overview of the history of ideas about feminine beauty in China and their links to concepts of modernity. This post supplements it by looking at the shift in representations of women from celebrating iron girls to extolling Oriental beauties over the course of the still relatively short history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

During the three decades that followed the 1949 founding of the PRC, one goal promoted in official discourse was that of erasing gender differences and promoting gender sameness.  This was linked to achieving a broader agenda: the elimination of class and socioeconomic differences.  The underlying assumption was that women and men had the same fundamental responsibility: serving collective units, above the nation.  The following are typical images of Chinese women during this period.

As you can see, women were dressed in the same androgynous way as men and they were portrayed as enthusiastically engaged in building a Socialist nation. Eroticism had no place in the official discourse. High-achieving “iron girls” (smiling soldiers, peasants and workers engaged in military, agricultural and production labor) were praised in the official discourse. These girls were said to be provided with a vast platform of sky and earth on which to achieve great things (guang kuo tiandi, da you suo wei).

Typical Images of Iron Girls during the Culture Revolution

In the last three decades, however, the image of Chinese women has dramatically shifted and women’s bodies have been closely associated with pleasure and the rise of consumer culture. In the 1980s, feminized women were said to represent progress and the iron girls were ridiculed. Numerous books and magazines have begun to stress “nu ren wei,” which can be literally translated as the taste of womanliness and that stresses gender differences and femininity. There has been an explosion of feminine and erotic images of women in Chinese TV programs, magazines, billboards and other media outlets. To be good looking is now often considered something that is important to becoming happy and achieving success in a career. Here are some images of two well-known Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, which clearly link women with consumer culture and fetishize particular parts of the female body.

Images of Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li as Symbols of Beautiful Consumer Culture

In Chinese gender discourse, one of the often heard issues is the production of the Oriental beauty in China, which can be clearly seen in the Beijing Olympic medal presenters. Approximately 380 Chinese women were selected to be Beijing Olympic medal ceremony presenters as medal tray carriers, flower presenters, and attendants for guests, officials and athletes: they must be aged between 18 and 25, with height between 5”6 and 5”10. And they must have a “regular appearance with standard proportion.” It was also reported that there were guiding criteria regarding applicants’ sizes of waists, breasts, and hips (sanwei). In their heavy training schedules, they were required to carry themselves and walk in a particular way so that they could represent the oriental beauty to the world. Chops were also used to produce the perfect smile, which was defined as the exposure of six to eight upper teeth.

An Image of Chinese Medal Presenters in a Training Session

The medal presenters for the Olympics aim to represent Chinese women as reserved, submissive and traditional in the finest sense. Ironically, these women are somehow similar to women waitresses and stewardesses. Often times, in job ads for waitresses and stewardesses, there are requirements about an applicant’s height and regular appearance (五官端正). Once selected, they are often trained for their smiles and postures.

While discriminatory hiring practices existed in the US, but they become subtler now. Employers often declare that no individuals will be discriminated against based on gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientations. In China, however, such discriminatory employing practices seem to be officially endorsed and become more explicit. Indeed, it was reported in 2004 female applicants for civil servants in Hunan Province were required to have balanced breasts, which caused a public outcry. While economic reforms give some women more opportunities in their career development, they also expand gender inequalities. Ironically, China could claim the most progressive gender policy in the past, its current gender discriminations in social, political, economic and cultural arenas mean that women are put in a worse situation than before. A common Chinese saying that summarizes an effort in vain states, “several decades’ hardship only leads to the pre-1949 China overnight” (辛辛苦苦几十年, 一夜回到解放前). Efforts need to be made in order to prevent such a retreat from happening.


Sebastian Gerard said...

One wonders which set of images does more to insult Asian feminine beauty—the de-gendered young women in military Mao-era outfits, Stepford wife Olympic medal presenters, or Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi wearing glaringly awful western fashions on magazine covers. At least these days Asian women have more choice. They have long been, it seems someone else’s (men’s, Western and Eastern) canvas for the proper or desire mode of Asian femininity.

In my book, For Goodness Sake, A Novel of the Afterlife of Suzie Wong, one of the main themes is the matter of the portrayal of Asian. In the movie, The World of Suzie Wong, Robert Lomax becomes incensed when Suzie appears a Western outfit, complete with hat and matching pumps and handbag, seeing her as betraying the elements of her beauty (which is otherwise displayed in a cheongsam). One might agree with is aesthetic, but not with his imperiousness. But it usually the male aesthetic (and in high fashion, apparently gay men’s aesthetic) that seems to dictate what women wear.

It can be difficult to unravel women’s choice from their conformity. Those who have a need to be “in fashion” will gladly wear whatever is the fashion, sometimes even the occupational fashion (uniform). The important element is choice; the aesthetic results obtain from a different “standard.” Indeed, some men might find even the Iron women erotic in a dominatrix sort of way. But is there an aesthetic for Asian women that transcends fashion and men’s desires?

It might be that the qi pao, the ao dai, kimono, and other Asian “traditional” fashions have “evolved” from forms that address the Asian women’s body type and show them off to best effect. Ian Buruma’s, The China Lover, opens with an exegesis on the corporeal differences between Japanese and Chinese women, one of which is claimed to be the longer legs of the latter (does this explain the difference between the qi pao and the kimono?)

The Chinese wanted their Olympics to show them off to the world. They did in a number of positive respects, but there was also that underlying image of regimentation and conformity that we mentally link with the Mao era—masses of Chinese performing in lock step, and beautiful, but Oriental “Barbie Doll” medal presenters. It was an unintended, but unmistakable reminder of the incongruities of economic growth and static democratic choice.

Thankfully, Asian feminine beauty, underneath the political or aesthetic fashion, will outlast it all.
Sebastian Gerard


Anonymous said...

The association of Chinese women and consumer culture are not recent developments in China. The Shanghai poster girls from the 1920's exemplify early Chinese sexual marketing campaigns.

Mao's egalitarian objectives made great strides in bringing the notion of gender equality to the Chinese mindset. But, the elimination of gender differences also destroyed Chinese feminine identity at the same time. Today's Chinese women use style to express themselves like never before. This progression seems to empower Chinese woman rather then objectify them.

Criticism of China's selection process for women in the Olympic Ceremonies seems ill targeted. Just look at the sidelines of any NBA or NFL sporting event and you will see the same type of "discriminatory" practices. Cheerleaders are also selected based on height, proportion, and smile requirements.

It's oftentimes easy to overlook the progress made in China in light of seeming regressions. Today's Chinese are living in an era well beyond 1949.

Michael_p said...

I think the sexualisation of women is an indication of the moral corruption that has taken place in the higher levels of society.

Professor Hongmei Li said...

Thank you for all your thoughtful comments. I certainly do not mean to state that the rise of consumer culture in the last three decades in China is new or unique. Many scholars have documented booming consumer culture in Shanghai in the 1920 and 30s, where well-known foreign brands were consumed by foreigners and wealthy local Chinese.
I of course agree that Chinese women now have more choices than before largely because of the open-door polices and economic reforms. Even the policies of gender sameness in the first three decades since the founding of PRC is often criticized as not paying sufficient attention to the fact that women often shouldered most, if not all, domestic household responsibilities. Gender sameness was not necessarily emancipation for many women. Indeed, the re-emphasis on gender difference in the 1980s was largely a backlash against rigid policies and practices of gender sameness.
Having more choices for women, however, does not mean that we should not critique the gender policies and practices in contemporary China. It seems to me that men have benefited much more from economic reforms than women. Women are often the last to find jobs and the first to be fired. When I was looking for a job right before I graduated from Peking University in 1997, I had to constantly face the challenge of being told that “we do not need women.” Many of my female friends had similar stories to tell. Of course, beautiful women might have more chances in China than women who are considered ordinary or even ugly, but again, it is men who are dictating what is beautiful.
I think the Beijing Olympics is the right target for this kind of criticism precisely because it is the most costly Olympics predominantly funded by government money, and its constructions of Chinese women can be considered official endorsement by the Chinese public. While there is always a tendency in China to use practices in the US in specific and the West in general to criticize or validate Chinese practices—in this case, because the US is objectifying women, it is thus ok for China to do the same thing--, I would argue that the objectification of women in the US should make us even more aware of harm that capital can do to women in China and in other parts of the world. Besides, feminists in the US have long criticized commodification of women in US media and sports, but we have just seen the beginning of such a critique in China.

Hongmei Li
email: hongmei.li9@gmail.com