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.