A Travellerspoint blog

The Illusion of Beauty - China Version

By Lis

While we travel, Toby is often focused on UNESCO world heritage status, religious affiliation to sights, or the best angle to photograph beautiful landmarks. I, on the other hand, get lost in cultural observances and norms. Lately I've been thinking about how a culture defines beauty. I think the first place to do the research is in the media. The face plastered on the billboard will likely be the one presented as Ideal. So right away I thought I had a grasp of what is considered beautiful in China. For women, it is fair skin, large, doe eyes, perfect teeth, and shiny hair. In other words, what most women are not. Isn't that the same all around the world? In times that promote high-fat, convenience food, thin is in. In lean times of hardship, curvy women are valued. If lower-class work has you in the sun, fair skin is better. If lower-class work has you indoors, glowing tans are better.

My thoughts were confirmed by a local guide who took the time to have a heart-to-heart with Toby, myself, and two other Westerners. We realized the desire to be fair skinned is the reason that women ride their motorbikes in the 40 degree heat with a long-sleeved shirt over their outfits. Using umbrellas to provide shade is the norm, and women will avoid the direct sunlight like the plague. Don't get me wrong - I think that the majority of Chinese women are beautiful, but by having such a narrow definition, especially regarding things you can't change without plastic surgery, conveys the wrong message, and immediately excludes all of the golden-skinned minority women in China.

For men, the norms were harder to crack. I observed several groups of men. The upper-class men dressed preppy and some grew their fingernails as a sign of not having to do manual labour (according to one source). The younger men were hipsters, with stylish hairdos that rivaled the women and brand name clothing.

In the Tibetan highlands of Jiuzhaigou, Toby and I met a young lady while out for a walk in a quiet village. She greeted us, and gave us a thumbs up. We couldn't understand her Tibetan, but grasped the meaning behind her gestures and facial expressions. She said I had a nice straight nose (straight finger over her nose with smile) and she had an ugly flat nose (finger pressed her nose down with frown). She said my skin was beautiful and white (pointing to me, then her white shirt and smiling) and hers was ugly and red (pointing to her cheek, her red sweater and frowning). My jaw dropped, and the only response I could come up with was to thank her. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't thanked her, because I was, in effect, confirming her delusion that I was beautiful and she was not. I wish I could have conveyed to her that I thought she was beautiful, asked to take a picture of her, or something.


I scanned my thousands of photos for a picture of a minority woman, to illustrate their beauty and contrast their features with the pictures above, and am embarrassed to say that I didn't take any. My shyness, or lack of guts, really let me down in this area. So I Googled for pictures and found this one, but the accompanying website was blocked. Perhaps outside of China you can see the true beauty of its people a little more clear.

Posted by Lis.L 19:56 Archived in China

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HI Lis and Toby!

I love reading about your trip and your observations! I am currently studying in Japan. The product range of skin whitener creams and body soaps is amazing! More shocking that the girls around me using them , apparently do not think further of how their skin can be seriously damaged :(

I also took up blogging, if you have a free minute to have a look at it, I'd be more than happy! conbiniparty.wordpress.com
Sorry, it's written in German most of the times, but mostly I put up pictures, which are nice to see too ;)

I would also like to put your link on my blog - is that OK with you?

best regards, and if you by any chance choose to come over for a visit to Tokyo, please let me know!

Anna from Austria from Harmony guest house in Pingyao :D

by Anna

Am LOVING reading your travel adventures! Miss you at the Farm Lis! But am glad I can live vicariously through your travel adventures. Incredible pics too! Interesting observations about beauty in this post. It seems every culture has their own "take" on what makes a beautiful woman. ...interesting. Take care and be safe! Karyne

by karyne whalen

Dear Lis & Toby,

I have just finished reading the blog entries of your journey and I like this section the best. Lis, I guess you have finally mastered & understood the illusion of beauty - China Version and I concurred with your blog entry.

As you may have seen the coloured terracotta sculpture (i.e. Tang San Chai) of Tang dynasty women in Xian, It was well known and considered fashionable for women to be full-figured (or plump) and Men, at that time, enjoyed the presence of assertice, active women. In similar, during Qing dynasty, it was considered to be a society norm and beauty for women to have small feet. Women, at that time, will begin to tie their feet with robe when they reach their teenage years and until they reach their old age. From the two examples mentioned, we can see chinese women valued beauty differently from dynasty to dynasty. Even now, as mentioned in your blog entry, the best way to look at the norm is through media because the way how we value beauty is affected directly by teachings from the media and degree of popularity.

Well Toby, how's your journey so far, are you and Lis in Vietnam and moving on to Cambodia and Thailand? Have you guys encountered anymore of those cockroach hotels, or those with spiders that make both of you freak out, or those squatty toilets that are full of mosquitoes and unpleasant smells? haha... Toby. keep us update with some more interesting stories.... Looking forward to hear more!!!!!

Best Regards,

Trick or Treat, Happy Halloween!!!!


by Michael Pang

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