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From Ancient to Modern: How Chinese Beauty Standards Changed

Chinese beauty standards are a tapestry of China’s long history. From the oval faces and fine lips to pale skin and double eyelids, these evolving ideals mirror the nation’s cultural heartbeat. Let’s enjoy the journey about beauty, societal values, and shifting norms.

Feature How Chinese Beauty Standards Changed

Chinese Beauty Standards For Female

Facial Features

Chinese beauty standards for women have evolved significantly, particularly in facial features. In the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), the fashion trend emphasized pale skin, a marker of wealth and purity. Women used white face powder or even pearl powder to achieve lighter skin.

Synthesized white lead from the Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE - 476 BCE)
Synthesized white lead from the Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE - 476 BCE)

The Tang Dynasty (618 CE – 907 CE), often hailed as China’s golden age, shifted focus on faces. Women with round faces, slender eyes, and cherry-like small mouths epitomized beauty. This era also embraced plumpness as an indicator of wealth and well-being, and, as often, the indicator of wealth and well-being finally became the beauty standards.

One court lady in the Tang Dynasty drawing "Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk"
One court lady in the Tang Dynasty drawing "Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk"

In contemporary China, big eyes dominate beauty ideals. The double eyelids, once rare, are now highly sought after. Makeup techniques and even surgeries like blepharoplasty enhance eye size and shape. A tall nose and small face are desirable, often achieved through cosmetic procedures. Some girls would also pursue a sharp jawline, often called a V-shaped face. They can use various beauty products, procedures, and surgeries to achieve this face outline.

A beautiful lady in the modern Chinese beauty standards
A Chinese lady with sharp jawline and big eyes

However, the fixation on achieving a V-shaped face has raised concerns about promoting unattainable beauty standards. Some critics say that social media and beauty filters contribute to warped perceptions, presenting a face shape that is impossible to achieve in real life​​.

Skin Tone

Historically, pale ivory skin symbolized wealth and affluence in ancient China. It indicated a life of leisure away from laborious work in the sun. This association of fair skin with higher social status made the Asia-Pacific region become the largest market for skin-whitening products. Today, the white skin tone is still one of the most significant Chinese beauty standards.

Body Shape

Body image ideals have also fluctuated over time. In the Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE – 476 BCE), a slim waist was highly prized. This beauty standard led to extreme measures such as starvation or waist binding. It would sometimes cause health issues like anorexia nervosa.

Xia Ji, a famous beautiful lady in the Spring and Autumn period
Xia Ji, a famous beautiful lady in the Spring and Autumn period

However, during the Tang Dynasty, fuller figures became the mainstream. This preference for plumpness was seen as an indicator of a prosperous and comfortable lifestyle in the golden age of ancient China.

Another court lady in the Tang Dynasty drawing "Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk"
Another court lady in the Tang Dynasty drawing "Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk"

In modern times, the ideal Chinese female body becomes tall, curvy, and slim again. It is influenced by global beauty standards, showing a shift towards a more universally recognized form of beauty.

The famous Chinese actress Gong Li
The famous Chinese actress Gong Li. This photo showed her wonderful body outline.


China has a long-standing preference for dark, shiny, and sleek hair. In ancient times, Confucian values dictated that hair was a gift from parents. Cutting it was considered disrespectful to one’s family. Unmarried young women typically wore their hair down, while married women tied it up, signifying their changed status.

The Tang Dynasty, known for cultural reform and advancement, saw women enjoying greater freedom. Women typically arranged their hair in loops or tied it up above their heads, often with elaborate decorations. In the Qing Dynasty (1644 CE – 1911 CE), the final dynasty before the communist takeover, there were larger back decorations in women’s hair. Hairstyles for brides during this period varied from low buns to complex braided updos, often embellished with luxurious hair accessories.

Princess Wang Mintong in Qing Dynasty
Princess Wang Mintong in Qing Dynasty

Contemporary Chinese beauty standards for hair, as depicted in advertising and media, also emphasize long, shiny, and sleek hair. You can see this ideal in many Chinese shampoo commercials. At the same time, the favor is becoming more and more diverse because of global influences.

Foot Binding

This is an ancient and disappearing practice intertwined with Chinese beauty standards. Originating around the 10th century, it involved breaking and tightly binding young girls’ feet to alter their shape and size. This painful custom, aimed at creating “lotus feet,” became a mark of feminine beauty in late imperial China. Initially a practice among the elite, it spread across social classes, peaking in the 19th century when almost 100% of upper-class Han Chinese women had bound feet.

The practice likely began with Emperor Li Yu’s concubine, Yao Niang, who bound her feet to perform a graceful dance. By the late Song Dynasty, bound feet were so popular that men celebrated them in rituals like the “toast to the golden lotus.” However, the practice also sparked criticism for causing immense suffering and limiting women’s mobility.

The crazily small foot bound
The crazily small foot bound

In the late 19th century, foot binding began to decline thanks to reformers. Their efforts and changing societal attitudes led to foot binding’s gradual demise in the early 20th century. By the 21st century, only a few elderly Chinese women with bound feet remained, marking the end of this tradition​.

Chinese Beauty Standards For Male

Facial Features

In ancient China, physical beauty was initially less important than a man’s moral character. Traits like broad foreheads, long eyebrows, and a strong physique were seen as moral indicators during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE). By the Han Dynasty, strong eyebrows, large eyes, and full lips were prized.

However, in the Wei Kingdom (220-265 CE), high-status men began to pursue a more delicate appearance. They started using foundation for brighter, smoother skin and balms for shiny lips, marking a shift toward physical aesthetics in Chinese male beauty standards.

In modern China, these standards have evolved to favor a high-bridged nose and big eyes.

The famous Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu
The famous Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu

Body Shape

As we said before, male beauty standards in ancient China initially focused more on inner qualities rather than physical appearance. A pivotal shift occurred during the Tang Dynasty. This era admired strong, fit bodies in men. Skills like horse riding, archery, swordsmanship, and martial arts were particularly prized, indicating a preference for physically capable and robust men.

Later, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, there was a re-emphasis on inner beauty with the resurgence of Neo-Confucianism. The ideal male physique became more gentle. Men with high academic backgrounds or rich knowledge were favored, contrasting the more robust ideals of the Tang Dynasty.

Some of these ancient Chinese beauty standards remain in modern China. Nowadays, the ideal male body shape in China aligns with being thin, gentle, yet manly. The term “Chuan Yi Xian Shou Tuo Yi You Rou,” meaning “looks thin with clothes on but actually strong with clothes off,” underscores the ongoing male beauty standards in China.

A Chinese man in different dressing styles
A Chinese man in different dressing styles that show different body outline

The Intersection of Culture, History, and Beauty Standards in China

Chinese beauty standards reflect the country’s cultural tapestry and historical evolution.

In ancient times, beauty standards were closely tied to social status and moral values. Pale skin symbolized a life without labor under sunshine, while bound feet marked refinement. These practices highlighted the societal emphasis on class distinctions and the role of women in ancient China.

After that, the Tang Dynasty’s preference for plumper and curvy figures reflected a prosperous society. As the economy and culture flourished, beauty standards evolved to celebrate these societal changes. This period’s emphasis on physical beauty, seen through elaborate hairstyles and fuller body shapes, showcased a society reveling in its golden age.

In contrast, modern Chinese beauty standards are heavily influenced by global trends and technological advancements. The desire for big eyes, tall noses, and V-shaped faces reflects a cosmopolitan society increasingly connected to and influenced by global beauty norms. The widespread use of beauty filters and cosmetic surgeries signals a society grappling with modernity and globalization.

In summary, Chinese beauty standards are a living history of China itself. As China continues to evolve, so will its beauty ideals. There will be more new chapters in the ongoing story of this ancient yet ever-changing civilization.

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