Beautiful Women Come from Suzhou and Hangzhou and …

Beautiful women come from Suzhou and Hangzhou. Or so the proverb goes (referring to Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces). Why here? According to local lore, more than half of the beautiful women in southern China are in Suzhou and Hangzhou. They are reputed to have light skin due to the cloudy weather and their delicate complexion comes from the mild humidity. Small, graceful hands speak of considerate and desirable lovers. Indeed, the women of these parts are the ideal of beauty. As Journey to the West would have it (p. 339):

All had moth-eyebrows glistening blue,

Pale and spring-like faces.

Seductive beauties who could tumble kingdoms,

Disturbing men’s hearts with their quiet charm.

Elegant were their ornaments of golden flowers;

Their embroidered sashes floated above the worldly dust.

Their half-smile was a bursting cherry;

Their breath was perfumed as they walked with slow steps.

But beautiful women are to be found in places other than Suzhou and Hangzhou. I tell one young man I am going to Chongqing.

He turns to me with a look of longing and says, ‘Ah, the most beautiful girls live in Chongqing’.

‘Why Chongqing?’ I say.

‘It’s in the mountains’, he says. ‘Chongqing girls are always climbing hills, so they have long, beautiful legs’.

‘Is that all?’ I ask.

‘Oh no’, he says. ‘Like the food, they are fiery, charming, and full of personality. I wish I was coming with you’.

Some (men and women) may prefer the savvy and sophisticated women of Beijing, or the stylish and exquisite women of Shanghai, or perhaps the fashionable women of Hong Kong. But those with more discerning tastes look elsewhere.

In Chengdu (Sichuan province), for instance, the women are petite and pure. The soft, rich soil is said to produce a deep natural beauty that does not rely on makeup. They are reputed to be delicate, with soft, white skin. Or in Nanjing, the ancient capital of empires past has created women with effortless grace. No need for elaborate clothing or efforts to impress, for that grace is part of their very bearing. Quiet simplicity speaks far more powerfully. Or in Changsha (Hunan province), women are said to have faces from southern China and the slender bodies of the north. But if one seeks a true northern woman, then Dalian is the place to go. A Dalian woman is tall, with long glowing hair. She has a simple boldness that defies the timidity of other places, and yet a distinct gracefulness emphasised by long legs and an athletic body. Since they love to swim, Dalian women may have darker skin that defies the ancient norm of lightness.

All the same, this map of desire in all its variations has one common feature: all the women are supposed to be young, light skinned (except Dalian women), with natural beauty and a hidden allure. Some have attributed the desire for light skin to foreign influences, especially of western women with white complexions. Yet, this misses a much older tradition, in which upper class girls were kept indoors under the watchful eyes of parents and servants. They were certainly not to be seen in public on their own, and any courters would seek their attention at a distance and with parental approval. Out of the sun they should be kept, for otherwise their skin would darken far too much. A girl outdoors and with a tanned skin was too much like a peasant girl.

The key, however, is youth. Men prefer a young woman. In fact, much of Chinese society sees beauty in youth. Age may bring profound respect, in that particular Confucian way in which parents and elders are honoured (although also regarded as decrepit). But youth is the basis of beauty. Thus, a woman who has passed thirty years of age and is yet to be attached is regarded as an ‘old girl’. She is passing, as some say, into the ‘third gender’. Parents worry, their peers press them, and men are not interested. If an older man has a lover, she will be a woman in her twenties.

I beg to differ. The true beauty of China is in the tanned and lined face of the older countryside. Here a woman works in the fields all day, soaking up the sun. Bodies have been toughened by many seasons of hard work. A woman’s creases and wrinkles speak of experience, as do discerning eyes that assess you quietly. Faces become darker and more defined, with stronger lines and dimples from laughter. And she has learned to take no crap from men and their foibles. This is the time in a women’s life, graced with the lines and calm of experience, when she reaches in some way beyond herself.

For all his faults, it was Mao Zedong who saw the beauty and strength of China in these people, the farmers and workers. After all, beauty comes with age.

Dining Hall in China

Puffed and peaked hats weave around one another. At times, they dip in concentration over a wok or large saucepan; at others they sway as the wearer lugs a heavy pot from stove to bench; at yet other times they lean towards one another as they work on the same dish. I see them from my window at first light, preparing for a breakfast that begins at 6.30 am.

Is this some trendy café or restaurant preparing signature dishes for well-heeled clientele? Are the chefs stoned and chain-smokers, as is the case so often in other countries? No and no. I am looking upon one of many dining halls at a school or university campus in China. And these are hard-working chefs preparing food for the masses, so there is little time to indulge in the past-times of chefs in other places. Needless to say, such preparation requires not one or two chefs, but fifty or more, decked all in white.

Soon enough the masses arrive: hundreds upon hundreds of students and staff for the first meal of the day. My empty stomach draws me to the fining hall too, where I join the throng. Despite the milling crowd, everyone makes way for one another. I grab a simple stainless steel platter with indentations for different types of food. Chopsticks complete the collection. What will I eat? Long, fried breakfast buns to dip in warm soymilk? Noodles and freshly cooked vegetables? Fried dumplings or Chinese breakfast pancakes? Rice porridge with red bean paste? Flat cakes filled with green vegetables and egg? The possibilities are almost endless, but I opt for the soymilk, a long bun and the flat cakes – for less than a dollar (in comparison).

Sitting at a table with three others (for sharing space is the norm), I pause to look out across the vast dining hall. I am surrounded on all sides by heads of straight black hair bent over their meals. Chopsticks blur, slurps are loud, talk is subdued during the more important task of eating. I estimate about three hundred people as my breakfast companions – and this is only for the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to eat my own morning meal. Multiply that number for the full breakfast period, for the two and half hours from 6.30 to 9.00 am. Multiply again for lunch and then dinner, each of the same length of time. And multiply again for the dozen or so dining halls on this campus, let alone the sixty campuses across Beijing.

As I look out I ponder whether this is the practical response to a massive population. Perhaps it is of the same ilk as the practice of half a dozen students sharing the same dormitory room for their undergraduate years. The same may apply to sleeping berths on a train, which are also shared with many others. I wonder whether those practical issues are overlaid with the history of socialism in this country. To be sure, one can find plenty of relatively expensive restaurants in town. But even those are less patronised now as the president (Xi Jiping) invokes Mao’s call for party cadres and many other to continue to live a simple life. So in the dining halls, students, staff, children of staff, even visitors may be found. Everyone eats in the sample simple manner – freshly cooked food costing next to nothing.

What about those chefs with their puffy hats? What do they do when the meal time is finally over? On one occasion I arrive a little late for a meal, when students and staff have departed. The dining hall is full of white hats, all of them bent over their own bowls. A moment to eat after the hard work, to chat and rest. Not for long, however, since preparation for the next meal time soon begins. It starts in a little over an hour.