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A Young Woman’s Curves

June 19, 2011

“A Young Woman’s Curves” (少女之曲线美)
From Hubei Paper (鄂报 e bao, this is not an official translation of the title)
1941, no. 7

This is another piece from 鄂报 (Hubei Paper), published in 1941. I have read so much material that was published between 1910-1940 about the beauty of curves and nudity but this is one of the first non-art nude images of a Chinese woman published in a Chinese publication that I have found. The girl’s name is Li Hongying and she is seventeen years old, which is described puberty/youth (妙龄 miaoling). Her form still slightly has “child’s phenomena” (孩子气象 haizi qixiang). Then the text uses a series of chengyu to describe Li’s beauty:

天真烂漫 (tianzhenlanman) – innocent and artless; simple and unaffected. This chengyu has come up many times in my research in reference to natural beauty and women who do not use “artificial” beauty methods to ruin their bodies

螓首蛾眉 (qinshouemei) – refers to a large forehead and long and thin eyebrows, traditional symbols of beauty

秋水为神 (qiushuiweishen) – 秋水 (qiushui) refers to a woman’s fluid eyes, this is in reference to her spirit or essence?

巧笑倩兮 (qiaoxiaoqianxi) – Skillful + smile + pretty/winsome + particle, I have been looking in chengyu dictionaries for a real translation of this to no avail, I think I can assume it is about the charm of her smile.

In all honesty, there is something a wee bit creepy to me about the way this article gushes over Li’s beauty, especially after it made a point to mention that she still has some childlike traits. However, Li’s place as a young woman in between childhood and womanhood could be the reason why she was photographed for the magazine in the first place. She is still young enough that she does not necessarily have to be perceived as a sexual being. She is described as innocent and there is no reference to her assumed later roles as wife and mother, which in a way removes her from the realm of sexuality. However, the focus of the piece is on Li’s curves, which are sexualized. Furthermore, young women were precisely the group that anti-breast binding advocates were trying to reach because breast binding typically started during puberty. It is important that breast binding is never mentioned in the accompanying text. Li would have been born in 1924/5, after the debate on breast binding and “natural beauty” had already begun. Although women of all ages continued to bind their breasts during these debates, it is possible that Li was influence by these debates. But what kind of undergarments did she wear? Or, what if she did bind and her body was unaffected by it?

The person who photographed Li was so entranced by her beauty and her eyes that he (I assume he) forgot about everything else. The rest of the text talks about just how beautiful Li is: her skin is like “congealed fat” (凝脂 ningzhi) which I take to mean creamy, she is curvy, her breasts peak high and lofty (乳峯高聳 rufenggaosong), and she is graceful (绰约 chuoyue). Li Hongying is “so beautiful as to overrun cities and ruin states” (倾城倾国 qingchengqingguo) and she intoxicates people (陶醉 taozui). The text ends by claiming that Li is a rare beauty and treasure. Just from this little bit of text the reader can get some idea of what is valued in a woman: creamy (whiter?) skin, curves, breasts, a large forehead, thin eyebrows, and a certain spirit and smile. Li’s value as a woman is as an exemplar of beauty. Her life, interests, studies, work, and family are never referenced.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Ma permalink
    November 19, 2013 12:27 pm

    Hi! Your blog is very interesting! I am a native Chinese, and I really want to share with you what I find rather intriguing. The word 凝脂, “congealed fat” (ningzhi) – it amazes me in how many layers it implies.
    I was just reading some poem the other day and toying with the idea of translating it into English, until I suddenly realize that this word can be really *unpleasant* (esp. for a vegetarian like me) if translated literally. You read it as creamy, which I guess is a description of color and texture. The rather slippery thing here is that 凝脂 is usually used to describe certain body parts that does contain a little fat, like cheek or belly. The thing about these body parts that makes it similar to congealed fat is not only the color (pale) but also the glow (smooth skin – surface of a curd something), and the texture is not only the smoothness of the skin but also the texture of the fat beneath, namely soft yet slightly jelly-bouncing.
    The word 凝 (freeze, – still, quiet – focus) here is a fairly common word in women names and various description of women, so it almost conveys, per se, a sense of serene and docile which is very important in the norm of femininity in ancient China.

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