Ideal of feminine beauty evolved in ancient China

By SUN XIAO / 03-17-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: A detail of “Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses” attributed to Zhou Fang, a Tang Dynasty painter

Over the years, there have been many studies on the evolution of the idealized images of ancient Chinese women. In archives, Zhao Feiyan [empress to Emperor Cheng of Han, who was said to be so slender and agile in dance that she was like a flying swallow] is often depicted as “skinny, petite, and delicate,” while Yang Yuhuan [719–756, the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang during his later years, and known as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China] is portrayed as “fair, plump, and charming.” The two seem to have been widely recognized as representing the ideal of feminine beauty in the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, respectively. However, this “consensus” is inconsistent with historical facts, and the reasons are worth considering.
‘Slim for beauty’ in the Han era
Zhao Feiyan was often depicted as light as a swallow in ancient documents. After the great Song Dynasty scholar Su Shi wrote a poem contrasting Zhao Feiyan’s thin build with Yang Yuhuan’s full build, the idiom huanfei yanshou (lit. plump Yuhuan and slim Feiyan) soon became popular. It was said that during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), King Ling of Chu (r. 540–529 BCE) favored people with tiny waists. So, there was a saying: “The King of Chu loved a narrow waist, so many people at court starved themselves to death.” Liu Bang (r. 206–195 BCE), the founder of the Han Dynasty, was a native of Chu. In the early days of the Han Empire, most of the nobles at the court were also from the Chu state. The slim-waisted female images can also be seen in the stone reliefs and the unearthed terracotta dancing figures of the Han Dynasty. Therefore, the belief that the Han people preferred women to be slim has been further supported by historical texts and cultural relics, and people are deeply convinced of it. However, this inference is highly questionable.
The saying that King Ling of Chu favored people with a slim waist was originally a pre-Qin (before 221 BCE) anecdote, which referred to men with tiny waists rather than women. It was probably after the Han Dynasty that people began assuming that the Chu King adored women with narrow waists. When it came to the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties (220–589), a slim waist had been generally accepted as another name for beauty. Therefore, a tiny waist might not have represented women’s idealized build in Chu culture.
Although a narrow waist didn’t originally represent beauties in the Chu state, there were depictions of petite women in Chu culture. At that time, such a beauty standard was quite different from those of the Central Plain states in Northern China, where tall and fit women were more adored. The significant differences in beauty standards between the south and north in ancient China were based on the differences in average height between the north and the south, and the same is true today. The question is, did the Han Dynasty culture adopt the Chu fashion that preferred a more delicate figure? In the power struggle for supremacy over China, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu with help from his supporters who came from Liu’s hometown, Pei County, and neighboring Feng County [both in present day Jiangsu Province]. The Feng-Pei area belonged to the Chu territory before the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE). Though  influenced by the Chu culture, this area was still dominated by the Central Plain culture. Meanwhile, stone reliefs and unearthed terracotta dancing figures of the Han Dynasty don’t provide enough evidence to prove the Han Dynasty preferred a slim figure. Most terracotta dancing figures were slim, perhaps because a slender build is the basic requirement for a dancer.  
In summery, we cannot draw the conclusion that women with a slim build were adored in the Han Dynasty; nor can we prove it with unearthed materials. So, what was the beauty standard in the Han Dynasty? In fact, ancient texts have already answered this question. While portraying the Chu beauties as slim with tiny waists in his poem titled “Dazhao” (“Grand Requiem”), the Chu poet Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BCE) also stressed that these beauties were curvy and well-developed, which coincides with the Western Han poet Sima Xiangru’s illustration of beauties in his prose, and the Eastern Han (25–220) scholar Wang Can’s imagination of Zhao Feiyan. Regarding Zhao Feiyan’s figure, it makes sense that she was slim and agile since she often practiced singing and dancing. 
The ideal female body shape did change somewhat during the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties, especially in the Southern Dynasties (420–589), when the upper-class literati adored women who appeared delicate and fragile, as “a pliant willow swaying in the wind.” The exaggeration that Zhao Feiyan could even dance in the palm of one’s hand originated from Jin Dynasty (266–420) texts. The desirable female body shape of the Wei, Jin era has been testified by the terracotta figures and grotto statues unearthed in recent years. The graceful and slim figure of a female Buddhist donor painted in Cave 285 at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, which dates to the Western Wei period (535–557), well illustrates the painter’s understanding of the feminine beauty ideal.
‘Plump for beauty’ in the Tang era
The view that the Tang adored women with a full build also originated from Su Shi’s poem. It seems difficult to find evidence of “plump for beauty” in the Tang Dynasty from ancient texts. In fact, people in the early Tang era still followed the Wei, Jin aesthetic criterion, which preferred women to be slender.
The reason why people believe that the Tang adored slightly overweight women is as follows. In Tang Dynasty paintings, women were often portrayed with round faces and voluptuous figures. Among the Tang terracotta figurines unearthed in recent years, many are characterized by plump figures. Another reason lies in the general understanding of Yang Yuhuan’s image. 
From an archaeological perspective, the female images found in the Tang Dynasty tombs can be roughly divided into five categories: (1) rigid and thin; (2) fairly tall and well-proportioned; (3) curvy and plump; (4) stout and chubby; (5) frail and skinny. Study shows that the first two types mostly appeared before the reign of Wu Zetian [the only legitimate female sovereign in the history of China, ruling from 690 to 705]. The third was more common between the reign of Wu Zetian and the Kaiyuan Era (713–741). The fourth was popular from the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) to the reign of Emperor Daizong (r. 762–779), and the fifth was often seen in the late Tang Dynasty. Perhaps due to the reign of Wu Zetian, idealized feminine beauty featuring a plump build started to emerge during the Tang era. The plump fashion continued for quite a period of time even after the reign of Wu Zetian. 
Today’s explanations for “plump for beauty” in the Tang Dynasty mostly rely on the views of Chen Yinke [a renowned Chinese historian, 1890–1969]: the Tang imperial family had a northern nomad pedigree. Nomads travelled from place to place, and preferred to be big and strong. Hence, it was natural for the Tang people to adore plump figures. However, such a view cannot explain why the early Tang Dynasty still preferred slim figures. In fact, the “plump for beauty” fashion had much to do with Wu Zetian’s reign. After Wu rose to power, with their social status being greatly improved, women were liberated in many aspects.
The Song stereotypes
The view that the ideal female body shape shifted from “slim” in the Han to “plump” in the Tang was actually formed during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Just as the Han Dynasty, the Song were also dominated by Confucianism. The Song literati adored fragile beauty, and they believed that people in the Han era had the same taste. However, the Song culture had neither the Han’s grandeur nor the Tang’s tolerance. The Song had always been under the threat of nomads, and were unable to eradicate these threats, so people at that time were intolerant of nomadic cultures. The Song artists often portrayed women with narrow shoulders, thin waists, and a sense of frailty. Scholar-officials’ sense of superiority was greatly satiated by portraying women’s delicate and fragile beauty.
When discussing the evolution of idealized feminine beauty in ancient China, the physical differences of people between north and south China are worth noting. Generally speaking, southerners are thinner and shorter than northerners, which definitely affects their aesthetic criterion. Additionally, people’s aesthetic views vary, and each individual’s standards of beauty can be quite different. Physical differences in the body shape of ancient people over time should also be considered. Anthropologists find that from 6,000 years ago to 300 or 400 years ago, the average height of ancient Chinese adult males was 1.65-1.67 meters, and the average height of ancient adult women was 1.54-1.56 meters, with people in the Qin and Han period tending to be slightly taller, and the Song slightly shorter.
“Slim for beauty” in the Han and “plump for beauty” in the Tang was the imagination of the Song people. Interestingly, the Song preference for “slim and frail” was similar to that of the Jin Dynasty. As in the late Song, the country fell into fragmentation situation during the Wei and Jin periods. It seems that under the same historical background, scholar-officials of both the Wei and Jin eras and the Song Dynasty tended to boost their egos in the same way.
Sun Xiao is the director of the National Centre of Chinese Traditional Culture.