China Beat Archive



Hongmei Li

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December 9, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright December 9, 2008 Hongmei Li. Used by permission.


In a piece I did for the Huffington Post on women and the Olympics, I provided a brief overview of the history of ideas about feminine beauty in China and their links to concepts of modernity. This post supplements it by looking at the shift in representations of women from celebrating iron girls to extolling Oriental beauties over the course of the still relatively short history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

During the three decades that followed the 1949 founding of the PRC, one goal promoted in official discourse was that of erasing gender differences and promoting gender sameness. This was linked to achieving a broader agenda: the elimination of class and socioeconomic differences. The underlying assumption was that women and men had the same fundamental responsibility: serving collective units, above the nation. The following are typical images of Chinese women during this period.

As you can see, women were dressed in the same androgynous way as men and they were portrayed as enthusiastically engaged in building a Socialist nation. Eroticism had no place in the official discourse. High-achieving “iron girls” (smiling soldiers, peasants and workers engaged in military, agricultural and production labor) were praised in the official discourse. These girls were said to be provided with a vast platform of sky and earth on which to achieve great things (guang kuo tiandi, da you suo wei).