Evolution of Beauty in China

Costume Revolution

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.

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.

Foot Binding

Foot-binding 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). Although bound feet were considered beautiful in ancient China, they were usually not shown in paintings.

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 Shanghai advertising artists like Zheng Mantuo 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.

The Four Beauties

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.


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