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    Greater China
     Dec 8, 2012

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How beauty shapes power in China and Japan
By Cho Kyo and Koko Selden

An oblique tooth is viewed in the United States as requiring straightening, but in Japan it may be thought of as emblematic of a young woman's charm. While a slim body is a prerequisite for beauty today, plump women were considered beautiful in Tang Dynasty China and Heian period Japan.

Starting from around the 12th century in China, bound feet symbolized the attractiveness of women. But Japan, which received sundry influences from China, never adopted foot-binding. Instead, shaving eyebrows and blackening teeth became markers of feminine beauty. Before modern times, neither Japanese nor

Chinese paid much attention to double eyelids, but in the course of the long 20th century they became a standard for distinguishing beautiful from plain women. Thus, criteria of beauty greatly differ by era and culture, and therein lie many riddles.

Focusing on changing representations of beauty in Chinese and Japanese cultures, Cho Kyo, in The Search for the Beautiful Woman, attempts to clarify such riddles from the angle of comparative cultural history. Before modern times, Japanese culture was profoundly shaped by Chinese culture, and representations of feminine beauty too received continental influences. In considering Japanese representations of feminine beauty, the author examines literary and artistic sources scattered across historical materials and classical literary works.

Are there universal criteria for beauty?
What constitutes a beautiful woman? Intrinsically, criteria vary greatly depending upon peoples and cultures. A woman thought of as a beauty in one culture may be considered plain in another. This is not normally in our consciousness. Rather, images of beauty are thought to be universal across all cultures. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn gain worldwide fame as beauties, not simply in American eyes but in Asian and African eyes. But on what criteria?

Princess Shokushi from One Hundred Poets by Katsukawa Shunsho. Tokugawa, private collection.

Have universal standards for determining beauty emerged with the global reach of consumer culture and of the media? As products of multinational enterprises transcend national boundaries to spread worldwide, people of different races and nations have come to use the same cosmetics, and people of different skin colors and facial and bodily features have come to don similar fashions. As a result, the fact that different cultures have different standards of beauty was forgotten before we realized it.

In earlier epochs, different cultures shared no common conception of beauty. In ancient times, each culture held a different image of beautiful women. This was naturally so when cultures were widely different, say, between Western Europe and East Asia, but images were not identical even between closely connected cultures.

Niimura Nobu, consort of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun. In the possession of Ibaraki Prefecural Museum of History. Pola Research Institute of Beauty and Culture (ed), Bakumatsu-Meiji bijincho (Shin Jinbutsu Oraisha, 2002).

Both Chinese and Japanese are Mongoloid. Moreover, in pre-modern times China and Japan shared Confucian culture. Despite the fact that cultural ties between the two countries were extremely close, however, images of beauty in Edo Japan (1600-1868) and Qing China (1644-1911) were strikingly different.

At present, with the advance of globalization, the same commodities are not only distributed throughout the world but information easily transcends cultural walls. Boundary crossings represented by satellite television, film and the Internet have greatly changed values and aesthetics of the non-Western world, but also of the Western world... such that the very categories of East and West, and perhaps North and South, are problematized. As American visual culture is being consumed at the global level, the Western sense of beauty inevitably penetrates today's developing countries. But Chinese and Japanese conceptions of beauty have also, at various times, made their way across the globe through art, literature, film, commodities and communications.

Despite the rapidly advancing standardization of aesthetic sensibility, however, criteria of beauty have not necessarily become uniform. In Sichuan province, a young medical student from the Republic of Mali became acquainted with a Chinese woman. They fell in love and eventually married, the bridegroom staying on in China and becoming a doctor.

A reporter from China's state-run People's Daily who interviewed him asked: "Would you let us know the secret for winning a beauty like your wife?" "We Mali people have a completely different sense of beauty from yours. A person you regard as a beauty isn't necessarily always beautiful in our eyes," he said by way of preface before answering the reporter's question.

The absence of universal standards for physical beauty was recognized early on along with the discovery of "the intercultural". Ever since Darwin stated that "It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body," [1] many researchers have made the same point.
Claude Levi-Strauss, who observed the body drawings of the Caduveo tribe in Brazil and described them in his memoir Tristes Tropiques, conjectured as to why many men belonging to other tribes came to settle and marry Caduveo women at Nalike: "Perhaps the facial and body paintings explain the attraction; at all events, they strengthen and symbolize it. The delicate and subtle markings, which are as sensitive as the lines of the face, and sometimes accentuate them, sometimes run counter to them, make the women delightfully alluring." [2]

When he wrote this, the aesthetics that greatly differed from Western sense of beauty did not shock his readers. In their daily lives, however, most people still believe that essential physical beauty exists universally.

Utagawa Kunimasa, Young Woman and a Cat at a Kotatsu.
Tokyo National Museum. Ukiyo-e, Nihon bijutsu zenshu, Tokugawa, (Comprehensive Collection of Japanese Art) vol. 20 (Kodansha, 1991).

How foreign races were regarded
It was in the 20th century that images of beauty became homogenized from the West to Asia and Africa. Before then, aesthetics of facial features not only differed, but, with some exceptions, different peoples thought one another ugly. The Portuguese Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz (1520-1570), who visited China in the mid-16th century, portrayed Chinese people, in his South China in the 16th Century, as having "small eyes, low noses, large faces."[3] Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the Italian Jesuit priest who stayed in China from 1552 to 1616, wrote, "Men's beards are thin and meager and at times they have none at all. Their hair is rough and straight... . The narrow, elliptical eyes are noticeably black. The nose is small and flat. ... "[4] While neither missionary directly says Chinese are ugly, discomfort lurks between the lines.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Array of Supreme Beauties of the Present Day: Takikawa. Tokugawa, Tokyo National Museum. Ukiyo-e.

Japanese faces looked the same way to Westerners' eyes. The German doctor Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold (1796-1866), who resided in Japan in 1823-29 and 1858-62, states of people of inland Kyushu, "their faces are flat and wide, with small and wide noses, large mouths, and thick lips", "wings of the nose pressed deep, eyes wide apart, cheek bones protruding". [5] 

Continued 1 2 3 4

China goes under the knife (Jun 8, '05)



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