“In general, when men come across something they’re not used to seeing, there’s no shortage of deeming it strange. When I saw a westerner’s face for the first time, I remember thinking it was too pallid, the hair was too light, the pupil too pale, the tip of the nose too high. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but in any case: it looked different than it should. When it comes to the faces of the Chinese, there are no objections: even if it’s very ugly, it’s always acceptable.
Lu Xun, 1927
“Every problem with contemporary Chinese society finds its origin in the traditional culture fermented in soy containers.”
Bo Yang, 1991
The unequivocal words of Lu Xun—the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century—confirm intuitions. They give prestige to initial, superficial reflections that strike upon arrival in China. Diversity emerges even at first sight. Not only do they have different features, but a cursory glance immediately reveals the underlying characteristics: the differences in the environment, behaviors, and assumed responsibilities. This perception has to do with daily habits, like gait, clothing, body language, behavior towards food, the traditional squatting resting posture. The following analysis guides to the discovery of differences in aesthetics. Architecture and urban planning are different. Functionality is frequently sacrificed for geomancy, the Chinese feng shui that imposes construction canons that take environmental and structural characteristics into account equally. The road signs, commercials, social communication, newspaper and website layouts seem eccentric. More generally, the perception of a different concept of beauty prevails, intended even in its most simple meaning.
These Chinese characteristics—remember the shrewd and controversial book by Bo Yang (an intellectual that fled to Taiwan from China, and was then imprisoned by the Nationalists in control of the island)—are born and grow in the fermentation of consolidated ideas that found a way to become incontestable in their very continuation. In any case, globalization has chipped away at a rock-hard institution, and imposed more aggressive social dynamics in the face of traditions. In this way, it created unheard of contradictions for the country that found itself suspended between the legacy of the past and the impositions of the present, between pride for their history and those who, maybe involuntarily but inevitably, want to write a new chapter.
Chinese teachers taught that nature’s beauty must be respected. Artists painted its harmony, and sculptors the balance of its shapes. Paintings reproduced beauty before interpreting it. Deference toward regents imposed the repetition of styles, a perfected but stable synthesis between emotions and rationality. The landscapes seem eternal, as if the changing of seasons imprints an unavoidable destiny. Chinese portraiture is completely different from European; beauty is inserted in the context, in the courtyards, in harmony with the surroundings. Even the war scenes—magnificent bronze dragons from the warring states period—lose characteristics of realism or intimidation and appear supernatural, sources of pure decoration.
The works of art sublimate the social tensions that generated them. China was traversed by internal strife, dynastic disputes, and wars with the Mongols. It was the times of peace, however, to recompose the dominant ideas. Continuity was the unifying trait and until a few decades ago it sorted out the millennial values and behaviors that constituted the true core of the Chinese civilization. Today, this “ideological powder” has changed appearance. It’s more prosaic, it wafts in the cities and settles on cars navigating crazed traffic, and it prevents people from breathing well. China has interrupted the beauty of the natural world. Instead of supporting it, China bent the environment to its will. It’s one of the country’s many, unresolved contradictions, too often identified as an unchangeable monolith. In reality, the past century’s acceleration produced drastic and unanticipated changes. The question of whether the mutation inserted itself into the country’s traditions or overturned them remains to be answered. In the meantime, aesthetics have changed and new forms were affirmed. Clothing serves as an example—a symbol of the three most important periods: the first half of the century (with the demise of the empire, Japanese invasion, and civil war), the Maoist period (1949-1976), and Deng Xiao Ping’s opening that paved the road for the China of today.
The zimarra. The zimarra was a centuries-old ankle-length tunic diffuse until the first half of the last century and today completely in disuse. It dressed the image of the Chinese man with the little ponytail, symbol of the last Manchurian empire. For modern China, it was the symbol of oppression, ignorance and obscurantism. It prevailed in a fragmented country, lacking a strong government and prey to foreign aggressors. It was the period in which an immobile China was held responsible for backwardness and submission. Bo Yang doesn’t concede extenuating circumstances to the national rhetoric; he reminds that horrible social models and aesthetics are inserted in Chinese culture. Binding the feet of women is the most striking example. For thousands of years, it was the most widespread cornerstone of feminine beauty. Feet were compressed, mutilated, and cut to reach a length of about 8-10 centimeters amidst intense and unnatural suffering. The phenomenon affected thousands of women, forced to confirm to a tradition that didn’t leave the possibility of rebellion. The motivations for his type of induced beauty have complex economic, social and aesthetic origins. The subordination to men was immediate. A woman with small feet cannot work, and therefore becomes dependent, loyal, and submissive. She’s as small as a doll, with sinuous movements that prevent her from taking long steps, strengthened by her leg muscles. Therefore, she has all the qualities demanded by Chinese tradition: she’s at home, takes care of the family, and is at her husband’s service, most importantly, she doesn’t infringe on the established order. Initially, foot binding was reserved for the wealthiest women or those who aimed to improve their social status with marriages organized by families. A woman with small feet cannot perform difficult tasks, and most importantly, she’s not required to perform them to survive: an overt sign of well-being and respectability. Social imitation spread the practice, even if less rigid restrictions were imposed on farmwomen so that they could continue to perform heavy labor. The length of the foot and the severity of the mutilation changed, but not the culture that inspired them. The practice was so rooted that it gave way to elaborations that are difficult to imagine today, like the spiritual satisfaction gained from contemplating the silk shoes that encased the limbs and the excitation of the senses from stroking the deformities.
The aesthetics of writing is one of the noblest aspects of Chinese culture. Calligraphy is the art of lines, a communion of expression and significance, of style and sentiment. It’s not a formal art; its marks give life to concepts presented with participation. It goes beyond order and balance, expressing itself where the artist isn’t subjected to rigid parameters. Initially close to painting, over the centuries calligraphy was assimilated with music and dance, because the sophistication of its forms needed rhythm. Beauty was unified with the value of texts; ideograms represent and model reality, allowing the quality of communication. In the phonetic version, summits of praise and courteousness are reached: to translate “America,” the suffix Guó (country) is preceded by the almost homophone Mĕi, that translates beauty. The USA thus became Mĕi Guó, “the country of beauty.”
Pale white almost ghostly skin is an immutable and indisputable concept of feminine beauty. It’s the prevailing image in artwork, paintings of courtesans, women that don’t spend their lives working in fields and therefore don’t suffer the sun’s rays. Olive complexions are avoided and tans are abhorred. The canon is purity, the ideal separation—certainly not material given the living conditions—from work and hardship. Sport, sweating, and a direct relationship with nature don’t belong to the criteria of prestige that Chinese culture handed down. In the elite, scholars prevail among the men and refinement, manners and devotion among the women. Wars, blood and suffering fill prosaic realities instead.
Mao’s uniform. The contradiction between the classic ideals of beauty and the population’s immense misery was the nerve center of Mao’s analyses. Breaking the continuity was the immediate goal of the People’s Republic’s first years. The vestige of the past was their victim, involved without distinction from accusations of obscurantism, superstition and submission. In the frenetic construction of the “New China,” traditional canons—symbols of socio-cultural submission—were removed. Foot binging was made illegal in the framework of a larger movement poised to give aesthetics a new direction. The people’s affairs would be the inspiration for artists and intellectuals, specialists that were supposed to restore beauty under pleasing and didactic forms. “Serve the people” was the password. There was no room for idealistic aesthetics, art for art’s sake, or avant-garde work whose educational message was hard to comprehend. Traditional beauty, often tied to the feminine image, was thusly sacrificed in the greater social movement. Individualism was condemned; women—“who uphold half the sky” according to Mao’s famous phrase—were consigned to collective labor, not just domestic. The necessities of development didn’t leave space for consumerist deviations. In the years of the Cultural Revolution, when ideology frequently bordered fanaticism, any waiver from egalitarian rigor was the prelude to repression.
Some cardinals of Chinese beauty have been substituted, others reformed. Calligraphy has lost its elitist character but not its appeal. Characters were simplified; the meaning of the ideograms remained unvaried, but the writing demanded fewer marks now, calligraphy on paper needs fewer brush strokes. Maybe the esthetes were not happy, the literate will probably have less intellectual solitude, but hundreds of millions of people learned to read and write for the first time in their lives. The same criterion punished every instance of diversity. The image of the country until the ‘70s didn’t surprise anyone. Everyone wore a Mao jacket, with few color options. Bicycles were black, shirts white. Men had short hair, while girls cut their braids the moment they married. The commercial manifestations were unimaginable; the few in existence bring back the party’s propaganda. The stores only sold staple products; cosmetics didn’t exist except for soap, also useful for keeping the complexion white. This necessity resists every ideology. It’s revealed at Nanchang, capital of the Jangxi province, where the Red Army was born in 1927 (which later became the People’s Liberation Army). August 1st, the anniversary of its founding, is a national holiday and Nanchang is revered as one of the historic cities in modern China. Next to the Grand Hotel—Zhou En Lai’s neighborhood, who launched the insurrection against the nationalists—monuments celebrate the feat. Sculptures commemorate war scenes, where farmers battled the regular army. The combatants were armed to the teeth. The sculptures immortalize them with guns, knives, hand grenades and cartridges. Some of them, shouldering their bayonets closely, carry parasols, luckily kept closed for convenience, but always ready for use in case the sun came out during battle…
The branded suit. For many years now, China’s past frugality and unity are only a memory. The landscape of Chinese cities has changed radically. The ancient architecture resists the assault of skyscrapers. Their skylines dominate the old buildings, including the soviet working class homes and the old hutongs, at this point relegated to tourist destinations. The typical visions persist—which is not surprising if one knows Chinese history: the fragmentation of the images, the predominance of food, the political message, and the goal of propaganda. Beijing and the other great cities resemble the umpteenth Asian metropolises on the surface, where the citizens’ fabric gave way to a haphazard modernization. Steel, glass, and cement impose an image that cannot be reconciled with the old dwellings from which they trace origins. On one hand, China embraces these changes, but on the other it preserves its strong identity. Aesthetics are uncertain, in a fusion that recalls modern techniques, but is incapable of defining a precise identity. Together cause and effect, with beauty criteria the image of a woman also changes. Among many reasons, economic motivations best explain the change. Many women work, acquire independence and create careers. Marriage is no longer a fateful destination, and deference is no long an obligatory destiny. Especially in the big cities, a new social security has imposed different lifestyles, a more modern and secure perception of femininity. Cosmetics are among the most flourishing markets, with unstoppable growth rates over the past few years. China now rivals Japan as the number one buyer of luxury goods; lingerie adorns bodies that can now flaunt themselves without risking the same social repudiation of the past. For 10 years China is host to international beauty contests, while fashions shows have been routine events for even longer. All of the most important global brands have invested in China; the most exclusive locations are occupied by foreign luxury brands, capable of providing the suggestion for Chinese consumers and serving as a proud testimony for a growing country. Chinese women don’t “westernize” themselves, but they borrow what they can finally choose and, most importantly, afford. The phenomenon is even more striking in the case of plastic surgery, which is always more popular. It tends to eliminate certain features that are now considered undesirable. It’s not a matter of flaws, but of trends: in a few minutes a scalpel can erase centuries of tradition. The speed that marks these changes is surprising, and the willingness to embrace the new and foreign in an essentially conservative country. A complex and confusing picture emerges, where classical beauty is honored and maintained, albeit permeated by new canons that affirm themselves with the emergence of unprecedented economic relationships and the birth of new social classes. It’s further proof that not even a proud country soaked in its own history can resist the collateral damage that a revolution lacking the clamor of weapons is causing.