In search of a beautiful woman

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Translated and introduced by Kyoko Selden. While a slim body is a prerequisite for beauty today East and West, plump women were considered beautiful in Tang dynasty China and Heian Japan. Starting from around the twelfth century in China, bound feet symbolized the attractiveness of women. But Japan, which received sundry influences from China, never adopted foot binding. Instead, shaving eyebrows and blackening teeth became markers of feminine beauty. Before modern times, neither Japanese nor Chinese paid much attention to double eyelids, but in the course of the long twentieth century, they became a standard for distinguishing beautiful from plain women.

Thus criteria of beauty greatly differ by era and culture, and therein lies many riddles. Before modern times, Japanese culture was profoundly shaped by Chinese culture, and representations of feminine beauty, too, received continental influences. In considering Japanese representations of feminine beauty, the author examines literary and artistic sources scattered across historical materials and classical literary works.

His specialization is comparative literature, with cultural history as a secondary field of research. What constitutes a beautiful woman? Intrinsically, criteria vary greatly depending upon peoples and cultures. A woman thought of as a beauty in one culture may be considered plain in another. This is not normally in our consciousness. Rather, images of beauty are thought to be universal across cultures. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn gain worldwide fame as beauties, not simply in American eyes but in Asian and African eyes.

But on the basis of what criteria? Have universal standards for determining beauty emerged with the global reach of consumer culture and the media? As products of multinational enterprises transcend national boundaries to spread worldwide, people of different races and nations have come to use the same cosmetics, and people of different skin colors and facial and bodily features have come to don similar fashions.

In search of a beautiful woman

As a result, the fact that different cultures have distinctive standards of beauty was forgotten before we realized it. In earlier epochs, different cultures shared no common conception of beauty. In ancient times, each culture held a different image of beautiful women.

This was naturally so when cultures were widely different, such as Western Europe and East Asia, but images were not identical even between closely connected cultures. Both Chinese and Japanese are Mongoloid.

In search of a beautiful woman

Moreover, in pre-modern times China and Japan shared Confucian culture. Despite the fact that cultural ties between the two countries were extremely close, however, images of beauty in Edo Japan and Qing China were strikingly different. For example, while bound feet were a condition for female beauty in China, in Japan blackened teeth were considered beautiful. At present, with the advance of globalization, the same commodities are not only distributed throughout the world, but also information easily transcends cultural walls.

Boundary crossings represented by satellite television, film, and the Internet have greatly changed values and aesthetics of the non-Western world, but also of the Western world But Chinese and Japanese conceptions of beauty have also, at various times, made their way across the globe through art, literature, film, commodities, and communications.

In search of a beautiful woman

Despite the rapidly advancing standardization of aesthetic sensibility, however, criteria of beauty have not necessarily become uniform. In Sichuan province, a young medical student from the Republic of Mali became acquainted with a Chinese woman. They fell in love and eventually married, the bridegroom staying on in China and becoming a doctor. The delicate and subtle markings, which are as sensitive as the lines of the face, and sometimes accentuate them, sometimes run counter to them, make the women delightfully alluring.

In their daily lives, however, most people still believe that essential physical beauty exists universally. Honolulu Museum of Art; WikiCommons. It was in the twentieth century that images of beauty became homogenized from the West to Asia and Africa.

Earlier, aesthetics of facial features not only differed, but, with some exceptions, different peoples thought one another ugly. Their hair is rough and straight…. The narrow, elliptical eyes are noticeably black. The nose is small and flat…. In other respects their eyes are dark-brown, or rather black.

The eyebrows are also placed somewhat higher. Their he are, in general, large and their necks short; their hair black, thick, and shining from the use they make of oils. Their noses although not flat, are yet rather thick and short. Westerners similarly appeared ugly or grotesque in Asian eyes. Of course, peoples of the Western Regions are not Westerners.

But to Tang Chinese, deep sculpted faces of the Caucasoid type appeared ugly. Likewise when they directly described Europeans. As in Tang China, red hair or gold hair and blue eyes were directly connected to the image of wild animals. Such a view was finally reversed in modern times. Following the Opium WarChina and the West experienced a reversal of power, and Chinese views of Westerners gradually changed. Inthe Qing official Bin Chun was sent as the first formal representative to observe Europe. European women came to look beautiful in his eyes.

When looking at people of a different race or ethnicity, whether the observation is of the same gender can affect aesthetic judgments. There are many examples in which, in the eyes of male observers, foreigners of the same gender look ugly yet women look beautiful. Siebold and Thunberg mentioned above, as well as the German physician and naturalist Engelbert Kaempferwrite in their travelogues that Japanese women are quite lovely.

In search of a beautiful woman

Likewise, even if Western women looked attractive to a Qing government official, he may not necessarily have similarly appraised Western men. Indeed, in the twentieth century they were transformed into a symbol of beauty. Western fiction in translation exerted great influence on the reversal of the image. Along with that, approaches to the portrayal of Westerners also changed. A similar trend was common in Japan as well. There seem to be two stereotypical depictions of Westerners in modern Japanese fiction: extremely ugly or exceedingly beautiful.

When portrayed as ugly, physical characteristics suggestive of non-humans such as a bear-like huge body, intense body odor, and uncanny blue eyes are heavily emphasized. From the start, it is meaningless to try to determine whether Caucasians or Mongoloids are more beautiful.

In search of a beautiful woman

To compare the appearances of races that differ in eye color, hair, and skull structure, is like comparing chow and bulldog, as it were, and judging which animal is more aesthetically appealing. The more we go back to ancient times, the more striking this tendency becomes. Chinese dynastic histories invariably depict foreign peoples negatively. That is also the case with portrayals of diplomatic emissaries in paintings. This is not limited to foreigners. In writings portraying conflicts, be they historical s or fiction, friends tend to have beautiful countenances while foes, both leaders and soldiers, look ferocious.

Commoner women rarely appear in literature of ancient times. Nearly without exception, those depicted in poetry and fiction are court women or noble women.

In search of a beautiful woman

Because sartorial splendor was among the requirements for a beauty, women who could not hope for such garb were eliminated as objects of depiction. That beauty and ugliness are metaphors of vertical relationships is readily apparent in representations of rank among states and races. Among the Han themselves, descriptions of beauty and ugliness formed metaphors of vertical relations. In China, where Confucianism was the official learning and the Imperial Examination System presided over entrance into the bureaucracy, literary ability was a crucial measure defining social standing.

In every culture, goddesses are without exception depicted as beautiful. Alongside this, the entrance of a beautiful woman into a scene is often portrayed in the same way as the descent of a goddess to the earth. An unparalleled beauty frequently shines dazzlingly as if clad in a halo. Such metaphor, or interchangeable relationship between a beautiful human and a god or goddess, can be observed in Buddhist images as well.

In literature of all ages and regions, a good woman is almost always beautiful, and a bad woman is ugly. We cannot laugh this away as a paradigm in old fiction. In fact, the same pattern is repeated today in Hollywood movies. Yet, the audience does not find it uncomfortable. Hino Hiroshi Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, Louis J. Gallagher, trans. Timon Screech, ed. It covers the history of China under the Western Han from B. Zhong Shuhe Yuelu Publications, Three Heian Poems, translated with calligraphy by Kyoko Selden.

Kyoko Selden taught Japanese language and literature as a senior lecturer at Cornell University until her retirement in Author, translator, artist and calligrapher, she was the translation coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Journal. Her major works as translator centered on Japanese women writers, the atomic bomb, the Ainu and the Okinawans.

August 15, Are There Universal Criteria for Beauty? Created by DataMomentum.

In search of a beautiful woman

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