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The Changing Face of Chinese Beauty

They say "beauty is only skin deep," but maybe they are wrong. A glance at the surface can tell a person a lot about the suffering soul of women in Chinese society.

Early 20th century-Tell-tale Fringes


A woman of a rich family in Qing Dynasty. Photo taken between 1861 and 1864.
Before the May 4th Movement of 1919, women of any class could expect pretty much the same fate: to become part of a man's family, either as a wife or as a concubine.

Some more liberated ladies begin to explore an alternative avenue: campus life. In their eagerness to carve out a clear distinction from their painted sisters, these women fashion an austere look: white blouse, black skirt and no cosmetics.

A genteel young lady of that time might smooth her hair with pomade, a long fringe plunging down the middle of the forehead in the shape of a peach leaf. More independent-minded women sport fringes at only half length, thus allowing their more expressive eyebrows to tell their liberated tale. To a woman of this era, life's possibilities seem quite rooted, with few real surprises. Different fringes reflect different levels of emancipation.


1901, Qing Dynasty formal dress.
1920-Eyebrow Protest

Under pressure, most young women must finally abandon their American dream of study and accept their fate like a lady. Sometimes women would be confined to the home, only to see their husbands on rare occasions.

Unbearable idleness ushers in a new era of modern cosmetics: eyebrow plucking becomes the order of the day. The overlytrimmed brow does not rally agree with the traditional oval Chinese face, and hints at the disordered mind: Richer women spend hours in front of the mirror, torturing their eyebrows to ease the pain of their suppressed passions.


Chic Beijingers of the 1930s.
1930s-Hollywood Parade

Hooray for Hollywood. Movies function as the bible of beauty. Famous actresses, ladies and young girls from ordinary families all copy the same style, with the help of various eyebrow pencils, eye-lash-plucking tweezers and false eyelashes. Even gifted novelist Zhang Ailing cannot resist the temptation and willingly joins the popular fad of using imported dark-colored lipsticks she bought with her first royalties The lipsticks even made a comeback at the end of the 1990s.

1940s-Silk or Steel

During the Japanese invasion, lipsticks become improper luxuries. Patriotic wives abandon cosmetics altogether. Chinese movies stars explore a brave new performance technique: no make-up, Natural beauty only. Well-tended brows and soft chins indicate affluence under occupation and a certain "indifference to national humiliation," While plain eyebrows and firm chins indicate solidarity with the masses, revolutionary fervor etc.

1950-Idealistic curls

Groups of Chinese women intellectuals return to China with their husbands, bringing back the lively fashions of idealistic elegance prevalent in Europe and America after the Second World War. Delicate faces wrapped in short curls resemble the last roses of summer in 1958. This ideal of combined beauty and intelligence is perfectly embodied in the talented poet Lin Huiyin.

1960s-Just say 'no' to whitey

Late in the 1960s, a schoolgirl from an ordinary worker's family might well be ashamed of the "evil whiteness" of her skin. Her dreams are to be rid of the "capitalistic color".


1968: Fashion goes of fashion.
At the first opportunity-graduation from middle school, for example-a woman volunteers to go to the countryside, where flesh is exposed willingly to the merciless sun. A sun-kissed, scorched visage after two years' graft in the fields is your ultimate early' 60s fashion statement.

The onset of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) quickly erases fashion. Cosmetics are absolutely unimaginable. Women of all ages jump at the opportunity to perform group Zhongzi wu, Mao folk dancing.

The reason? Loyalty of course. But they could also put on as much make-up as they liked without the danger of being punished-the performances resemble mask balls due to the heavy overuse of face paints.

1970s-Secret Curls


In the looser social environment after 1976, some city women cautiously implement their silent beauty experiments from the kitchen. Unsatisfied with the pitiful beauty aids available in the shops, they learn to use fire tongs for curled fringes.

1980s-Conspicuous Consumption

Fashion-any fashion at all-is in. There are still some high-ranking prudes who seriously endeavor to lay down strict rules for "good social effect" and thus trigger a national debate. Panda eyes and blood red lips inspire a lot of popular jokes and stories. People need time to realize make-up can be applied according to personal preference.

1990s-Contemporary Lady

From scarlet lips to false moles, contemporary women at last have freedom to change their faces. Singer Faye Wang is well-known for her innovative face make-up. Fed up with the overwhelming variety and increasingly complicated style gimmicks, some women miss the blue-gray edges and opt increasingly for "less is more" fashion.




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