In ancient China, there were Four Great Beauties－Diaochan, Lady Yang, Xi Shi and Wang Zhaojun [*note] － who was so famed for their beauty that, like Helen of Troy, they could overthrow states and cities(倾国倾城qīngguó qīngchéng). Their beauty has been depicted in countless traditional paintings, but unlike the art that came much later, ancient painting techniques make it hard to tell how accurate these depictions are.
By the end of the 19th century, however, calendar posters had begun to gain popularity in China. In 1914, the revolutionary painter Zheng Mantuo created a painting technique that could vividly portray the lively charm of women at the time.
From the late Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China, marketing and promotional materials that depict female beauty have influenced the ways in which our ideas of beauty have evolved. More importantly, these pictures represent a snapshot of women’s lives at the time.
Foot-binding(缠足chánzú) has become one of the most famous aspects of ancient Chinese culture. Bound feet even had a poetic name － golden lotus. Today, there are different opinions about the origin of this painful practice. It had become a fashion during the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) but reached its peak in the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).
After the First Opium War (1840 — 1842) opened China’s doors to Western influence, it also brought with it a fresh perspective on the practice. Slowly, Chinese people began to realize the harm it did to women and society.
Although bound feet were considered beautiful in ancient China, they were usually not shown in paintings.
As the winds of Western culture blew in, some reformers came forward with a proposal to ban foot binding, promote women’s education, and change the costume system. But their initial efforts had little effect on the feudal ethical code that was deeply rooted in Chinese society.
What truly played an important role in the abolishment of foot binding was the Hundred Days’ Reform(百日维新bǎirì wéixīn) (1898) [*note]. The main supporter of the reform, Kang Youwei, strongly opposed foot-binding and other outmoded conventions and customs that oppressed women.
In 1883, Kang and other reformers gathered in Guangdong Province to create the No Foot-binding Draft and later founded the Guangdong No Foot-binding Society in 1895, which was promoted to Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, and other cities.
In 1901, Empress Dowager Cixi issued the first imperial edict banning foot-binding.
The Revolution of 1911 further fueled the ‘natural feet movement’. In March 1912, Sun Yat-sen ordered the Department of the Interior to issue notices to all provinces promoting the abolishment of foot-binding. During the May Fourth Movement (1919), urban women began to regard natural feet as the new fashion. In this way, the painful tradition of over a thousand years was left in the past.
In the 1920s and 1930s, progressive(进步 的 jìnbù de) Shanghai advertising artists like Zheng Mantua and Xie Zhiguang began portraying Chinese women wearing high heels and feminine clothing in their pictures.
Life soon followed art and these pictures inspired modern Chinese women to pursue a new life while copying the latest fashions they saw in the pictures.
Thanks to the revolutions and favorable economic tides, the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s was a paradise for business people. A boom in advertising materials boosted consumption and women never stopped pursuing the latest fashion styles. Beautiful women wearing figure-hugging cheongsam became icons of the era.
Chinese clothing had a strict hierarchy, which was not abolished until after the Revolution of 1911. After that, things changed fairly quickly and in the 1920s and 1930s, women’s dressing in advertising posters became noticeably skimpier.
Cheongsam beauties were undoubtedly the most glamorous image of the time. Originally the traditional costume of the Manchu nationality, Western influences combined with the aesthetic taste of the era to produce a form-fitting dress that enhanced a woman’s charms.
Advertising artists and tailors influenced each other in further developing the cheongsam designs. Needless to say, women were eager to copy the glamorous designs they saw every day.
Civilized Marriage and Nuclear Families
The traditional marriage concept in ancient China relied heavily on parents and matchmakers(媒人méirén). Romantic relationships among single men and women were strictly forbidden under the feudal ethical code.
With the social revolution and the rise of the feminist movement, women’s old outlook on life, ethics and values began to change, as did their views on marriage and family.
On June 7, 1902, a man boldly advertised in a Shanghai newspaper for a girlfriend, specifying that she must have natural feet and possess Chinese and Western knowledge. He declared that if he found her, they would have a new-style civilized wedding(婚宴hūnyàn).
The May Fourth Movement accelerated the liberation of Chinese women. They longed for more freedom and were increasingly willing to pay the price for it.
Unsurprisingly, this modernization of marriage values was reflected in advertising materials of the time, which began portraying men and women hugging and showing intimacy.
Another important phenomenon was the emergence of civilized weddings and mass weddings. In the 1930s, a simple civilized wedding that combined Eastern and Western traits was the dream of all modern women. Chinese brides in Western-style wedding dresses also began to appear in advertisements.
Moreover, women no longer wanted to have large families. Families got smaller and smaller as people pursued the quality of life. And in smaller families, women could gain a more important status.
Many advertisements of the time showed women living in foreign-style houses with suit-wearing husbands, inducing a yearning for an ideal middle-class life among women of that era.
* The Four Beauties are four women in ancient Chinese history who were famous for their beauty and their influence over kings and emperors.
Yang Yuhuan (26 June, 719 — 15 July, 756), often known as Yang Guifei, was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty. During the An Lushan Rebellion, as Emperor Xuanzong and his cortege were fleeing from the capital Chang’an to Chengdu, the emperor’s guards demanded that he put Yang to death because they blamed the rebellion on her cousin Yang Guozhong and the rest of her family. The emperor capitulated and reluctantly ordered his attendant Gao Lishi to strangle Yang to death.
Xi Shi (circa 7th to 6th century BC) was said to have lived during the end of the Spring and Autumn Period in Zhuji, the capital of the ancient State of Yue. Xi Shi’s beauty was said to be so great that it could make fish forget how to swim.
Wang Zhaojun (206 BC – 8 AD), was sent by Emperor Yuan to marry the Xiongnu Chanyu in order to establish friendly relations with the Han Dynasty through marriage. In the most prevalent version of the Four Beauties legend, it is said that Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback on a bright autumn morning and began a journey northward. Along the way, the horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a stringed instrument. A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground.
Diaochan was said to have been born in 161 or 169 or 176, depending on the source. However, unlike the other three beauties, there is no known evidence that suggests her existence; therefore, she is likely to be a fictional character. Diaochan appears in Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a plot involving the warrior Lü Bu and the warlord Dong Zhuo.
* The Hundred Days’ Reform was a failed 104-day national cultural, political and educational reform movement from 11 June to 21 September 1898 during the late Qing Dynasty in China.