Le Monde diplomatique
China’s new faces
THE 2003 and 2004 Miss World beauty contests were held in
Hainan in China, and if that were not enough of a cultural
change, Beijing was the venue for the first Miss Artificial
Beauty contest last December. All its contestants were from
China, and all had had cosmetic surgery (1) – indeed three
years ago one was a man who had had a sex change operation.
The contest of artifice was partly a response to traditional
restrictions. In 2003 Yang Yuan was disqualified from the
Miss Intercontinental contest when its organiser, the Beijing
Tianjiu Weiye Culture and Media Company discovered (2), after
seeing before and after clinic pictures, that she had had
extensive cosmetic surgery; they called her a “man-made
beauty”. She had spent $13,280 on 11 operations so that she
could enter contests, and she decided to sue, claiming she
had suffered emotional damage. A Beijing court rejected the
claim and said that “man-made beauty” was already a common
description. So the Tianjiu Weiye company decided to organise
a contest in which natural beauties would be banned. Yang
Yuan didn’t enter.
The new contest seems even more extraordinary when you
realise that in 1993 Beijing University students refused ever
to enter a beauty contest; they were “meaningless western
culture” and contestants lacked “self-respect and spiritual
pursuits” (3). In the Maoist era, communist ideology had
condemned emphasis on individual beauty as bourgeois; during
the cultural revolution using red paper to colour lips
(lipstick was unavailable) would have risked a self-criticism
session. Perhaps suppressed demand for much that was banned
then has led to the current obsession with beauty. Another
factor is the rapidly rising income of the urban middle
class, now connected to global media and aware of fashion.
Most of those who buy beauty products and pay for surgery are
urban women. Those in their 20s hope that surgery will help
them to a better job or a wealthy husband; those in their 40s
want to look young. In Chinese society the elderly have
always been respected, but now older women are pressured into
looking young; a contestant in the artificial parade was a
62-year-old retired woman who had had a facelift. Older men
do not escape. Some clinics have reported that up to 30% of
clients are men.
The most popular operations are putting a crease in the
eyelids to make the eyes seem rounder; making the nose
narrower and higher; liposuction and breast implants. There
have also been cases of leg-lengthening (4) and
foot-narrowing surgery; almost a century after women were
freed from bound feet, they are choosing again to restrict
In the West the main reason for surgery is personal vanity;
in China it is seen as an investment in the future. Many
parents encourage and pay for their children’s operations.
With intense competition for jobs, many young people,
especially students in their senior year, feel good looks
will give them that crucial edge in the market. The process
is risky, since the practice is largely unregulated; it is
claimed that there were more than 200,000 botched operations
in the 1990s.
This strong belief in improved employment prospects is
supported by studies that show a link between good looks,
higher productivity and higher income (5); however the effect
on productivity has been accepted without an examination of
the role of the media in ensuring that beauty is treated as
important. The reaction in Chinese media to the boom in
surgery has ranged from voyeuristic interest to discussions
on improved job prospects (6). Some commentators have focused
on the “beauty economy” (7), others lament that Chinese
companies are losing to established foreign firms such as
L’Oréal, Estée Lauder and Shiseido.
China traditionally had four classical beauties (8)
representing the ideal in different periods. As in Europe, it
was not a constant – in the Tang Dynasty plump, dynamic women
were perfection. Features considered beautiful included an
oval face, fair skin, black hair and a small, pouting mouth,
in contrast to the new ideal, derived from a globalised
standard, which requires women to be slim and tall and have
skin that is white, rounder eyes, a high, narrow nose and
This, for the first time, is an external ideal of beauty,
owing nothing to any of the peoples of the current People’s
Republic of China, which includes 56 national minorities (9).
Some of these ethnic groups have been long sinised and are
indistinguishable from the majority Han; others, such as
Tibetans and Uighurs, are distinct in their appearance; even
among those who call themselves Han there is much variety.
Although with changes in diet and more sedentary lives
Chinese citizens are growing taller and larger, they are
otherwise condemned by the ideal to feeling that there is
something wrong with their appearance.
It’s easy to see the sources of the non-Chinese ideal of
beauty. Advertising companies, television and fashion and
lifestyle magazines all use similar narrow definitions of
beauty, with decreasing resemblance to Chinese women’s real
appearances. Advertising is ubiquitous in the urban
environment and the same digitally enhanced images are on
billboards, buses and products. There is no escape. One
television ad by the cosmetics company Olay for its
skin-whitening products (10) shows a young woman and friends
looking at chocolates with faces on them. Most are dark
brown. One is white. She picks it out and says: “I want my
skin to be as fair and soft as milk.” We are shown the
supposed effect of the cream, which changes her fair skin to
an unnatural, bleached white. The final shot shows her
giggling cheek to cheek with her friends who still have
“yellow” skin. Another Olay ad uses Hong Kong actress Maggie
Cheung, whose fair skin undergoes a similar transformation.
In the West the ad would be withdrawn as racist, but no one
has complained about it in China, despite the clear and
unambiguous message that fair-skinned beauty is not enough if
your skin is “yellow”.
This assaults the idea of what it means to look Chinese. The
unrealistic images are seen as the ideal, without any
substantial dissent or counterculture, and most women have
already accepted the proposal that it is good that people are
now free to become more “beautiful” without questioning the
definition of beauty. The “success story” of Hao Lulu,
China’s first man-made beauty, helped popularise surgery. She
was an unemployed fashion writer from Beijing who in 2003
decided to undergo six months of surgery donated by the
Evercare Beauty Centre as a live advertisement (11). Media
frenzy attended her every operation. The surgery helped her
to a starring role in a Taiwanese television drama. Her story
seemed to show the drastic effect surgery can have on
appearance and life, acting as a short cut to fame and
The media highlighted examples of other “ugly” women
transformed into modern beauties by surgery (the artificial
beauty contest was a platform for such miracles). Now
millions of urban women have the financial means to change
their appearance with or without surgery; millions more,
especially rural women, cannot, which undermines their
self-confidence. There are great ironies. Lu Yan, from a
mining town, “was considered ugly . . . She had small eyes, a
flat nose and freckles on her high cheekbones, all negative
attributes, according to traditional standards” (12). She is
now a successful model in Paris, thanks to her height, an
above average 1.78m, and striking looks. In China she would
be thought a candidate for radical surgery.
The most peculiar aspect is the lack of comment in China –
women’s groups have been silent – about this colonisation of
the mind and eye by powerful western images. (Consider how
ludicrous it would be if tall, blonde Scandinavians were
targeted by advertising that suggested they should be short
with almond eyes and dark hair.) The decline in communist
ideology has led to more emphasis on nationalism, so the
Chinese, especially the government, are extremely sensitive
to anything foreign that seems to attack Chinese culture
(13). Part of the reason for the lack of criticism may be the
importance of the beauty industry to the economy. It is now
the fifth largest sector after property, cars, tourism and
IT. In 2004 the estimated number of beauty and hair salons
exceeded 1.6m, with 5 million people directly employed and
another 3 million in related jobs. The combined revenue of
salons will soon reach $21.2bn, contributing $10.2bn and
$674m to China’s GDP and tax revenue respectively. The
industry is projected to continue growing at an annual rate
of 20%. Banks have promoted loans for cosmetic surgery above
$3,600, while insurance companies plan to provide insurance.
Cosmetic surgeons, already beneficiaries of the boom, worry
that customers might use cheaper backstreet clinics rather
than the major hospitals where they operate. They are proud
of their skills – the cosmetic surgery branch of the national
medical association was a sponsor of the artificial beauty
contest – and plan to enter the global market. A clinic owner
admitted: “We’d need to become more adept at western faces.
We won’t get anywhere trying to make foreigners look
An exhibition at the London Science Museum, Future Face (14),
looked at beauty through history and considered further
possibilities. Its curator, Sandra Kemp, says: “It may be
that the destiny of the face lies in the virtual world and
the ways it subtly influences our facial appearances . . . A
long-term German research project at the universities of
Regensburg and Rostock concluded that compound faces were
considered more attractive than existing faces. These faces
were more symmetrical than nature could produce and mirrored
the current fashion for women to have small smooth faces with
narrow pointed jaws, big lips and big eyes, as in Japanese
manga animations” (15). (Manga are popular in China.) Yet the
digital face was only created because computers could not
simulate a real human face in all its complexity.
The first Miss Digital World was staged in 2003 (16). How
much longer before the first beauty contest for humans with
digital faces? There are more than 6 billion humans, in
hundreds of ethnic groups, each with its own ideas of beauty.
But the future face of beauty may not be human.
(1) Although the terms cosmetic and plastic surgery are often
used interchangeably, plastic surgery was to repair injury or
for medical reasons, cosmetic to improve appearance.
(2) The website of the company featured before and after
photos of all contestants.
(3) “OK to be beautiful once again”, 21st Century (part of
the China Daily group), Beijing, 5 November 2003.
(4) This involves breaking the bones and forcing them apart.
The bones should grow to fill the gap. Pins and screws are
inserted for support but bones stretched too much will not be
strong enough to support the body’s weight.
(5) Economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle found that
good-looking teachers got higher performance ratings and
lawyers were more successful. “Price of made-to-order
beauty”, China Daily, Beijing, 3 August 2004.
(6) “Beautiful job seekers”, 21st Century, 3 November 2004.
(7) This is a term defined by Zhang Xiaomei, president of
China Beauty Fashion News, in March 2004: “Beauty industry
needs facelift”, China Daily, 29 October 2004.
(8) The four are Xishi (Western Zhou), Wangjun (Western
Zhou), Diao Chan (Eastern Han), Yang Guifei (Tang).
(9) Officially there are no ethnic minorities, as all ethnic
groups are equal: 92% of Chinese are Han.
(10) See http://olay.com.cn/download/
(11) Her operations included a crease in her eyelids,
liposuction, breast implants, nose reconstruction and
hairline correction; cost $36,000. “Beauty comes at a price”,
China Daily, 22 July 2004.
(12) “Enhance your cool”, 21st Century, 25 December 2003.
(13) A Nike commercial showed US basketball star LeBron James
defeating a kung fu master and two dragons, sacred in Chinese
culture. According to the State Administration of Radio, Film
and Television it violated rules that require ads not to
“blaspheme national practices and cultures” and they banned
it soon after it was aired in November 2004.
(14) This exhibition by the Wellcome Trust ran from 1
October 2004-13 February 2005: See the future face website
(15) From correspondence with Professor Kemp. See also Sandra
Kemp, Future Face, Profile Books, London, 2004.
Original text in English
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Attilio Jesús – Le Monde diplomatique
Le Monde diplomatique