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    MEINIi JINGJI/CHINAS BEAUTY ECONOMY:

    BUYING LOOKS, SHIFTING VALUE,AND CHANGING PLACE

    Gary Ku and Susan Fe iner

    INTRODUCTIONOne is no t born, rather one becomes a woman.

    Simone de Beativoir, 1948Along with the new products, modes of behavior, and economic relationstha t followed Chinas access to the World Trade OrganiLation (WTO) in2001, came the introduction of new words in everyday language. The newvocabulan, which is largel comprised of compound tenns importedfrom new-found economic realities, television, and videogames, can he

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    GENDER. CHINA AND THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATIONChen Jie claims: The two most successful and most productiveeconomic sectors in todays China are real estate and mcmli jingji (2004:1). The Peoples Daily reporis that the beauty industry employs morethan 16 million of the countrys labor force (2005). According toZhang Xiaomei, a member of the tenth National Committee of theChinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference and President ofChinas Beauty and Fashion Daily, China has nearly 1.6 million beautyparlors, employing 9.4 million people and reporting business incomes of

    176.2 billion yuan ($21.3 billion USD) (quoted by Wen Chen 2005).These beauty salons offer the usual range of services: hair coloring andstyling; make-up applications, training, and sales; manicures and pedicures;hair removal; and skin whitening. Statistics offered by Pan Xiaoming,president assistant of the China Beauty and Cosmetics Chamber, claim thateach urban resident currently spends an average of 30 yuan (roughlyUS$3.70) on cosmetics every month (Peoples Daily 2004). Some even bragthat they spend half of my income every month on skincare andcosmetics. This huge beauty market plays a significant role in thetransformation of womens social position.Womens equality was a major part of the Chinese Communist Partysplatform. After the Communist victory in 1949, women were pushed intothe workplace, foot binding and prostitution were outlawed, and womenwere celebrated as equal comrades. In the films, songs, and plays of the1950s and 60 s, the brave female worker was a celebrated trope,encouraging women to focus on their contribution to society rather thanon their looks and families (L isa Mov ius 2004). But with the liberalizationof trade and huge growth in the media, advertisements touting womensimportance as beauty objects are eroding womens status as equals inproduction. Women are increasingly viewed in terms of what they look likerather than what they can do.

    THE EXCHANGE OF EQUALScomm odity. The pudendum muliebre: coil.; lat e C. 16 1 9. Shakespeare, inKing John, Tick ling commodity; commodity the bias of the world.2. Ocr., but only in context, a whore: lat e C. 16.

    Francis Grose 1811/1971Commodity. A woman s commodity; the private pails of a modest woman , andthe public pails of a prostitu te.

    Er ic Partridge 1990

    The states praise for and investment in mcm ii yingi accentuates andIt gitami/ts s nts set of gt mlei ismmetr1es in ( hina oindn of all ages

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    CHAS BEA UT Y ECONOMYdevote their bodies to male pleasure to survive, and an unconsciousrepetition of that use since the boys desire represents his wish toparticipate in Chinas new wealth even as he recognizes that this is totallybeyond his reach.

    CHINESE BEAUTY AND THE BARBARIAN BEASTWome n are given in marriage, taken in battle, exchanged for favors, sent astribute traded, bought and sold. Far from being con fine d to the Ilthnitiveworld, these practices seem only to become more pronounced and comm ercializedin more civilized societies.

    G ayle Rubin (1975: 175)Mein jingji did not spring fully formed from the head of chuang-Mu,the mythical Chinese goddess of the bedcharnber. Rather, the socialconventions of beauty in China have a long history. Since the onslaughtof Western imperialism in the nineteenth century, Chinese beautypractices have mimicked those of the Anglo-European world. Today,the mlange of performances constituting mein jingfi is an amalgamof indigenous (pre-nineteenth century) and Western practices. Thebeauty pageant and the beauty economy have roots deep in Chinesehistory.In pre-modern China, beautiful women were ranked through publicactivities enjoyed by both the educated elite and the peasantry. Oraltraditions passed on the stories of The Four Great Beauties (Xishi, fifthcentury BCE; Wang Zhaojun, first century BCE; Diaochan, second century

    CE; and Yang Guifei, seventh century CE). Countless poems and storieswere written about these beauties, all of whom were involved in strugglesfor court power and duplicity in military conquests. Beautiful women wereseen as the origin of all disasters (hong yan hiwshuz). The Four GreatCourtesans or the Ten Great Courtesans were often blamed for specifictragedies. In popular history, courtesan Chen Yuanyuan is, for example,widely held responsible for the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. Sim ilarly, afamous Chinese novel, Dream of th e Red C hambe r (Honglau meng, eighteenthcentury), tells the tale of the Twelve Beauties of Nanjing. Romanticstories about beautiful but dangerous women are widely enjoyed by Chinesereaders in all walk s of life.The enjoyment of feminine beauty plays a key role in the formation ofChinese national identity, which derives from the historical differentiationbetween the I-Ian ethnicity and the barbarians and between thecultivated aesthetics of the Chinese and the primitive sensibilities ofoutsiders (Lydia Liii 2006). When Western barbarians invaded China inthe middle of the nineteenth century, traditional notions of Chinese

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    GENDER. CHINA AND THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATIONnational identity were undermined by the barbarians greater power andtechnological superiority. At the same time, their women (white womennow visible, but taboo) began to displace traditional Chinese beauties asobjects of desire.This shift can be seen most clearly in Colonial Shanghai, Chinas culturalcapital in the first half of the twentieth century. Here, emigr Russiancabaret dancers and prostitutes were more popular (and expensive) thanChinese women (Andrew Field 1999). During this period, Chinesepictorials attracted readers with photos of Western beauties. And evenwhile Chinese prostitutes continued to receive rankings and appraisalsfrom their customers in local tabloids (Han Bangqing 1894/1930; GailHershatter 1999), Western-style beauty pageants gradually came into vogue.By 1946, the Miss Shanghai competition was a full-blown imitation of theWestern form:

    Henan Province was devastated by flood. Throughout China peoplemade generous donations to help those who suffered. Shanghai wasno exception. But even for philanthropy, Shanghai had to do it with aromantic and splendid twist. The Miss Shanghai beauty pageant wasimmediately staged as a fundraising event with all the proceeds goingto the flood victims Shanghai was synonymous with modern,and Miss Shanghai was even more representative of modern. InShanghai, what could be more modern than the Miss title? (WangAnyi 1996: 62)

    The Peoples Republic of China, founded in 1949, put an end to theseWestern practices. Maos revolutionary rhetoric made beauty pageants aspectacle of the corrupt and bourgeois past. In the early postRevolutionaryperiod, notions of female beauty, especiallyWestern ones, were condemnedas bourgeois. Beauty pageants and fashion shows were unthinkable.Even colorful clothes and make-up were deemed counterrevolutionary. ASoviet-influenced notion of sublime beauty de-sexed, militarized, andmasculine became the onl acceptable form of beau (see Ban Wang[1997] and Barbara E. Hopkinss contribution to this issue [2007]).Against the somber, monochromatic background of the CulturalRevolution, the beauty and modeling competitions that reappeared in1976 were initially seen as liberating. Many Chinese fondly remember theexcitement of the post-Cultural Revolution Beijing fashion show staged byPierre Cardin in 1979. While first held in secret on college campuses, in onlya few years, beauty pageants were both publicly staged and officiallyendorsed.The e u 200 as the turning point for mein ii JU ZI Pi evioush hciiitpageants were only found in a few majol cities, where they served as a

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    CHINAS BEAUTY ECONOMYTFIE GLOBAL BARBIE

    Usually there are other objects circu lat ing as well as women. Women move inone direction, cattle, shells, or mats in the other.Rubin (1 97 5: 191)

    During Chinas application for membership in the WTO, the slogan, Letsconnect the track seamlessly with the world outside China (yu guojijiegui)was endlessly repeated. In giant posters displayed everywhere, this slogandominated the foreground while Chinas pre-WTO backwardness wasrepresented in the background with narrow train tracks epitomizing theabsence of centralized, consistent economic regulations based on the rulesof the market, few workers with foreign language proficiencies, and aconfusing maze of local protectionist rules, The posters not-so-hiddenmessage was that when China enters the WTO and embraces internationalstandards, the Chinese economic engine will face no barriers as it speedsaround the world.The same slogan is used to promote Chinas participation and hosting ofinternational beauty pageants. The same logic is at work: all pageants mustconform to international standards; all must