2019, Women’s consumption of cosmetic products in China

Between logistics, conflict and symbolism

Dominique Desjeux, anthropologist, Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne, Paris University, France

Yang Xiao Min, PhD in Sociology from Paris Descartes University, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Professor and Vice-President of the Faculty of Western Languages and Cultures at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Guangzhou, China

Introduction to the internationalization of the cosmetics market in the 19th century from Europe

In 2010, American historian Geoffrey Jones recalled in his pioneering book, Beauty Imagined,[1] that since the 19th century, the two great cities for the world of beauty have been Paris and New York. Today Shanghai may be becoming the third one. Names like those of Eugène Rimmel, the son of a French perfumer who settled in London in 1834 and created perfumes and cosmetics, François Pascal Guerlain, born in Picardy, who opened a shop in Paris in 1828, or William Colgate, an English migrant who moved to New York in 1806, are still familiar to us today. Many were entrepreneurial migrants who came to Paris from elsewhere in France, such as Corsica’s François Coty, or who went abroad. Some were men, like Eugène Schueler, the founder of L’Oréal, some were women, like Elisabeth Arden, whose real name was Florence Nightingale Graham, and some were Jews, like Chaja Rubinstein. Later on, some entrepreneurs were to go to the United States to escape anti-Semitism, which particularly affected the cosmetics industry.

The mobility of the first entrepreneurs, combined with European military and commercial expansion around the world, explains in part why the beauty industry became global at the beginning of the 20th century. However, Geoffrey Jones (2010) points out that in 1980 there were practically no cosmetics in China, while in 2010, 30 years later, China represented the fifth-largest cosmetics market in the world, at $23.6 billion. China was behind France, Japan, the United States and Germany and ahead of Brazil. In 2018, China was the world’s largest cosmetics, market with $44 billion in sales. The market is dominated by the French company L’Oréal, which is said to generate 30% of its turnover via the Internet. It is a feminine and urban consumer market, linked to the middle class.

The beauty market, like any market, is the result of a social process of cooperation between actors, between men and women, but also among women. It is crossed by power relations between genders, generations, cultural affiliations, social classes and nations. The construction of this market involves both forms of conflict and cooperation between actors, varying according to the situations of daily life at the microsocial level and international power relations at the macrosocial level. The cosmetics market was to develop over 150 years, following a twofold movement of setting up the material conditions that would allow the production, circulation, sale and use of cosmetic products first in the public and collective space, then in the domestic space.

In France, for example, in agriculture, the establishment of an irrigation system in 1850 in Grasse, near Nice, would encourage the development of flower cultivation as a basis for perfumes. The construction of a railway between Grasse and Paris would enable the region and small local entrepreneurs to develop their markets at the national and then international level. The 19th century also saw the development of hair salons, which would encourage the spread of cosmetic products.

The middle of the 19th century was also the time when department stores developed such as Le Bon Marché, Les grands magasins du Louvre and Les grands magasins du Printemps in Paris, as well as Macy’s and Lord and Taylor in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago. This was the period when Baron Haussmann destroyed the old popular Paris and replaced it with the great boulevards, making it a showcase for the whole world. At the same time, French producers were diversifying their production areas thanks to the colonial expansion in Algeria, Madagascar or Vietnam, while the English diversified towards India and China, which would allow everyone to produce new flavors.

There is therefore an ambivalent link between the development of the cosmetics market associated with anti-Semitic, urban and colonial violence and the liberation of some of the women who had to fight against some of the men to obtain the right to wear make-up, as Alison J. Clark points out with respect to the United States in her book Tupperware.[2]Alison Clark also shows the importance of women’s and family social networks in the dissemination of Tupperware. These networks of family and friends can be found in many countries in the spread of make-up practices. This shows that on a microsocial or mesosocial[3]observation scale, women are actors with room for maneuver. Their behavior cannot be reduced to an explanation by male domination, as the feminist tradition or Pierre Bourdieu’s approach requires.[4] Paradoxically, the effect of male domination that can be observed with statistical methods on a macrosocial scale, particularly when working on gender inequalities, becomes more blurred at the microsocial and mesosocial levels. These scales are those at which we witness actors’ margins of freedom and the effects of the situation, at which women can win or lose and therefore are not always dominated losers. The consumption of cosmetics is at the heart of this paradox of domination and liberation that permeates the relationship between men and women, and among women.

The development of the beauty market is global. It includes perfumes, hairdressing with L’Oréal, skin care, all the products that contribute to body care and its aestheticization through make-up. However, even if the market is global, the importance that consumers attach to a particular type of product varies according to cultures. Europeans spend much more on fragrances and skin care than Americans, who consume much more make-up products. On the other hand, the Chinese consume little make-up and very few perfumes, but many skin care products. This means that although beauty is a global market, there is still a diversity of local cultural practices. As anthropology often shows, these cleavages vary according to gender, generations, social stratifications and cultural differences, whether ethnic, religious or political-ideological.[5]


The gradual implementation of collective logistics was to be followed by the implementation of private logistics in the domestic space, in the form of systems of concrete objects. They would allow the use of cosmetics in the bedroom and then in the bathroom. They were organized around access to running water[6] and electricity, combined with the improvement of the quality of mirrors in the 19th century (Geoffrey J., 2010), the arrival of sinks or baths and make-up equipment. During this period, these improvements first affected the bourgeoisie and then the middle class, before reaching the working classes in the middle of the 20th century.

With regard to feminist approaches, the study of the use of beauty products in China was to show how the consumption of these products can be a means of liberating women from the norms imposed by some men. In relation to marketing approaches centered on pleasure and identity building, anthropology was to show that female consumption of cosmetic products also falls into three other dimensions: material, conflictual and symbolic. Women are considered here as actors who are neither dominated nor dominant, but who have room for maneuver and assets in the social game they face among women or with men.[7]

From the cultural revolution to mass aesthetic consumption: the permanence and ruptures of beauty in China.[1]

Before 1949, the practice of make-up, as well as body and hair care, related to a long Chinese cultural tradition. It was rather reserved for the bourgeois class, as in most Western countries. In the antique markets in China it is still possible to find small portable dressing tables that testify to the age of this practice.

The cultural revolution was to completely revolutionize all make-up and “bourgeois” aesthetic practices of the body. It was the “grey period”, 1966-1976, as my colleague Wu Yongqin refers to it, an era under strong material and social constraints. The Chinese were very poor. Survival took precedence over beauty. The color of beauty products had disappeared in favor of the dark color of clothes and the greyness of everyday life. 

On the other hand, in the messianic imagination of the cultural revolution represented on the political posters, the bright colors, blue, green, red and yellow that symbolize the alliance of the working class and peasants dominate. The faces are “proletarian” red in contrast to the “bourgeois” white of yesteryear. Red, the traditional symbol of happiness, represents the new emerging society. Beauty is not limited to individual aesthetics. It also has a political and collective dimension.

The similarity between the paintings of French “Saint-Sulpicien” art (a naive form of art that emphasizes haloes and skewed lights, stigmatized by the French novelist Léon Bloy at the end of the 19th century) and the posters of the Chinese Communist Party is striking. A political propaganda poster featuring in Stéphane Landsberger’s collection, used by Jean-Baptiste Pettier in an article published in 2010 on the politics of love and sex in China at the time of the cultural revolution[1], advocates late marriage in order to limit the number of Chinese children with this slogan: “to succeed in the revolution avoid marriage” (Wèi gémìng shíxíng miǎn hūn). Revolutionary beauty was rather repressive in relation to sexuality. At the same time, the revolution was an important moment of women’s liberation from their status as dominated in the traditional family system.[2]

During the “grey period”, the colors of everyday life, clothes or objects, were black, grey, white or dark blue. The shortages of the 1960s marked the generation of Chinese people who are now between 50 and 60 years old and some of whom are opposed to the make-up of their grandchildren. Make-up is a source of intergenerational conflicts in both China and France.[3] Beauty seduces as much as it divides.

At that time, body care practices were infrequent. They were collective and family-based. They were also most often unisex. The same product was used by men as well as women, grandparents, parents or children. The practices were marked by a shortage of products. The face was the most protected part, especially in winter. Hands were considered less important. Practically no investment was made into the rest of the bodies of men and women. A few state factories provided everyday products such as soap, facial cream and toothpaste in tubes. However, like sexuality, the presentation of facial and hair beauty was subject to very restrictive prohibitions.

A comic strip by Li Kunwu and P. Otie, published in 2011 in three volumes under the title A Chinese Life, humorously describes what was allowed, prescribed or forbidden for hairdressing during the Cultural Revolution: beautiful hair was short, black and colorless for both girls and boys. If it was curled, it was stigmatized as bourgeois. The “eight mustache” (in Chinese the character for eight, bā, has the following shape: 八) was forbidden, because it was reminiscent of the tutor who educated the children of the bourgeoisie. It therefore evoked a decadent practice. Japanese hairstyles were prohibited, as they represented a reminder of the invader. Flat, short hair was prescribed, and “explosive” hair was prohibited. Today, some of these hairstyles are very fashionable. In 2018, it is very common to see boys or girls with dyed hair on the streets of major Chinese cities as well as boys with haircuts that appear to be inspired by that of football players. Beauty is often a control mechanism in favor of social or ideological conformity. Beauty is one of the signs of the incorporation of social norms. It can also be a sign of transgression of the same conformity.

What was seen as beautiful in the 1960s was green. It was the sign of social and political distinction. It was the “noble” color, the color of the army uniforms. Having a green outfit, with a green cap topped with a red star, was the dream of some of the young Chinese people of the 1960s and 1970s.

40 years later, in different regions of China we can find color prints to the glory of Mao Zedong, especially in some bars frequented by the former Red Guards who are now between 50 and 60 years old and who sing the “red songs” (红歌, Hóng gē) in chorus, the revolutionary songs that the former leader of the Communist Party Bo Xilai wanted to revive before he was politically eliminated in 2012. The green uniform has also been reinterpreted by the new generation of young Chinese people who are getting married. It has become a fashionable garment. They are photographed as a couple, in red guard costumes, in photo studios in order to create their souvenir album of their wedding, as we observed in Harbin. Aesthetics is not far from nostalgia.

The 1980s were mainly the years of economic reform initiated by Deng Xiaoping. This was a transition period that lasted about fifteen years and saw the return of “flashy” colors. The colors left the propaganda posters to return to daily life, at least for the most privileged social groups. An unexpected parallel can be observed by comparing the timing of the American take-off towards mass consumption in the 1920s, that of Western Europe in the 1950s and that of China in the 1980s. In all three cases, the body care and make-up market was one of the first markets to develop. It is both an aesthetic market and a market of transgression. When women’s make-up emerged in China, France or the United States, with lipstick, nail polish, perm or eye make-up, these practices were often perceived as a sign of a woman of ill repute, or even a “prostitute”, for many men and women. The aestheticization of a woman’s body is not self-evident. Aestheticization is a transgression and a struggle, before becoming a social norm and a mechanism for conformity or social stigmatization. Consumption is experienced by some women as a moment of liberation.

Beauty salons were beginning to appear in China. The practice of school make-up for boys and girls was also reappearing. In some environments, it was possible for men to have dyed hair. However, until the late 1990s, in a city like Guangzhou, dyed hair for men was still a negative sign, a sign of a “bad boy”. The major international brands are beginning to take root. However, this return of color is still limited to the upper middle class in urban areas and among actresses or singers. Beauty is an analyzer of social stratifications.

From the mid-1990s onwards, a hybrid form of beauty emerged in China. Western make-up practices were for the most part reinterpreted by the traditional Chinese culture of the relationship to the body and in particular the importance it attaches to the inside of the body, which is not visible to the eyes. Today’s aesthetics is a return to yesterday’s aesthetics. Beautiful skin is white skin, unlike the tanned skin of farmers. As in 19th century France, white skin is the sign of social distinction. For the moment, Chinese culture seems less sensitive to make-up practices than Japanese or South Korean culture. However, in some large cities, in the upper middle class, it is possible to observe women with tanned skin, even if it is still very marginal today. Make-up reflects external beauty, the type that can “raise the face” of a woman’s husband, her client, her boss, or of the woman herself.[4] The beauty of the body is a device for presenting oneself and one’s network, a game relating to face.

However, hybridization can threaten the inner beauty of the body when make-up is perceived as chemical, as toxic, as in the West at the beginning of the 20th century, as Geoffrey Jones (2010, p. 63) points out. For some women, “inner health is more important than outer appearance”. This is why the Chinese women we interviewed use a cream called “separation” cream (Gélí shuāng, 隔离霜) whose main function is to prevent make-up from penetrating the skin and thus threatening the harmony of the body. It should be noted that in Chinese the term Gélí has a very strong meaning since it is applied to persons suspected of corruption and is separated from the population to prevent them from harming others. There is one thing which is unknown, for the moment: the origin of the name of this cream, does it come from a translation from French or American designating basic make-up creams or does it correspond to a Chinese meaning specific to it? In any case, it is a good example of intercultural mixing linked to beauty. Beauty is not neutral for health: it can also be dangerous.

The material conditions of beauty after the cultural revolution: the establishment of a housing distribution and development system using running water, electrical energy and bathroom and bedroom equipment

The symbolic and social dimensions of beauty cannot emerge until a system of public and private logistics, and material objects, is put in place in the home. Without water, without electricity, without bathroom equipment, without make-up objects such as brushes, but also without the emergence of an urban middle class, the development of commercial uses of body care and make-up would be practically impossible. In China, this was implemented over a period of 30 years between 1980 and 2010, the equivalent of the 30 glorious years of Western Europe between 1945 and 1975.

It has developed through urbanization, the establishment of mobility infrastructures, electrical energy and running water equipment and the arrival, in the 2000s, of major brands such as Louis Vuitton, which are setting up in La Perle in Guangzhou, or Chanel in Hangzhou and elsewhere. At the same time, mass distribution is developing, such as Carrefour in Guangzhou, where brands such as L’Oréal can be found.

In most middle-class housing, the bathroom has evolved in 15 years from a room with a shower hose, sink, “Turkish” toilet and electric water heater to a place with a Jacuzzi shower, Western toilets and closets for putting make-up products and objects, but without a bathtub. Even today, the bathtub is a sign of luxury. It is always reserved for the upper classes, those with enough space to install it and high-end hotels. The layout of the dwelling, mainly the bathroom and bedroom, represents the strategic material dimension of the development of the female beauty market.

The extension of the make-up field was to be developed through the publication of advertorials, such as the one dedicated to the great star Gong Li in May 2012, then 45 years old. These articles allowed the middle class to identify with the beauty of the star and at the same time learn to use the different products that were still new to many Chinese women, not to mention the generation of women who due to the cultural revolution found themselves without any practical experience of make-up. The lack of intergenerational transmission on make-up practices explains, on the one hand, the importance of the Internet and blogs in the dissemination of make-up uses. However, even if make-up is regularly seen as a potential danger, its practice seems to be spreading thanks to “naked make-up” “Luǒ zhuāng, 裸桩” which is characterized by a transparent foundation and discreet colors. Invisibility represents the margin of maneuver for women who wish to wear make-up without transgressing social norms too much. When make-up is less visible, it is more socially acceptable in China.

The article on Gong Li is very educational. It explains how to start with a base that requires a dab of hazelnut on the skin, then continue with a foundation to even out the make-up. Next mascara can be used to curl the lashes, and then a line can be drawn with eyeliner before applying a blush to the eyelid with the finger, tapping it gently. Finally, to obtain “a naturally shimmering mouth”, lipstick must be applied. Compared to Japanese or South Korean make-up, this one seems relatively simple and light.

Gradually, make-up and skin care practices evolved in China[1]. They started from the upper social classes and spread to the urban middle classes. They were no longer limited to the face and hands, but would spread to all parts of the woman’s body: lips, cheeks, eyes, hair, skin, hands, nails, and feet. This means that more and more body parts would enter into the social presentation of face games. The neck became a strategic place because it was the sign of aging for some Chinese women, like the hand, which in China is considered the second face of a person.

Hair is also becoming more and more important. It is more often dyed, both for young girls and boys who want to stand out and for older women who want to hide their white hair, as well as for adult men and especially for politicians, who must have very black, well-combed hair to comply with the standard. In 2019, Xi Jingping, the Chinese president, introduced a break in the codes of the Chinese male ruling class by allowing white hair to be shown without the necessity to dye hair entirely black. Hair, hands with nails, and feet become (once again) strategic points in the presentation of beauty and social distinction for the upper middle class.

This is a far cry from the austerity of the period of the cultural revolution, when the main body care treatments were limited to the face and all aesthetic practices were prohibited. It seems that today the beauty of the body is expressed in a much more liberated way than in the 1960s, even if this beauty emerges under the constraints of social norms, as in all societies. Beauty is an ambivalent indicator of women’s liberation.[2]

In addition to bathroom equipment, education through magazines, the Internet and blogs that show make-up routines, with the help of stars, there is also the diversification of the system of concrete objects that condition the development of make-up.

These are the magazines that will be found in the living room of the bathroom; make-up items for the eyes, which are considered as the window of the soul by the Chinese, and face, small and large brushes, mascara and eye shadows; skin products, make-up removers, “whitening” or bleaching products, perfumes, lotions, creams; products for nails and feet, toothpaste for teeth, indoor cycling for body shape, not to mention showers, running water, and bath towels, i. e. all objects that make up the system and promote the “functioning” of make-up.

For the upper classes, the presentation of beauty affects almost every part of the body from the head to the feet. This extension is reaching the middle classes. It seems that for many Chinese women, body and skin care is more important than make-up. However, when they wear make-up in the evening, they enact a whole ritual of the end of the day: removing make-up, cleansing the face, toning the skin, applying milk, essences and cream for the night, at least for those who are the most expert. Facial massages, in the evening and morning, are similar to body massages. They are looking to circulate Qi. It is a modern body care practice that is reinterpreted through the Chinese tradition of relating to the body and re-circulating Qi. It is a good example of a hybridization practice applied to the head. Beauty is also a matter of cultural hybridization.

The conflicting dimensions of beauty in China: the effects of life cycle and evolution of the “matrimonial market”.

Beauty is related to the life cycle and generation effects. During childhood and primary school, make-up for Chinese urban middle-class girls is rather forbidden, except for school shows. The latter is collective make-up for boys and girls. It is very pronounced, unlike the often light make-up of adult women. This practice, as we have seen, reappeared after the cultural revolution.

During adolescence and in secondary school, it is strictly forbidden to wear make-up. As in childhood, the make-up allowed is that related to school shows. However, we observe that teenage girls are beginning to wear make-up outside school, not without conflict with some parents or grandparents who have experienced the make-up-free period of the cultural revolution.

During young adulthood, those who go to university are allowed to wear make-up. This is a relatively recent development, dating between 5 and 10 years depending on the city. Among girls the peer group is very important. Many people discuss the topic in groups or on the Internet. Blogs, Internet, and SMS are important media for discussing the beneficial or harmful effects of make-up products. Make-up and body care are currently a source of tension between parents and children. For example, a mother may want her daughter to use body care to increase her chances of finding a husband, but her daughter may object. Or a girl may want to wear make-up, but her parents are not in favor of it.

After high school or university, young people enter the world of work. The use of make-up varies according to the profession, the type of company and the standards of the professional peer group. A job interview can trigger the practice of make-up. In some Chinese companies, make-up is not particularly popular.

Another make-up trigger is the period when looking for a young man to marry. Make-up products can in turn be used as gifts by the fiancé. The wedding day is an important day for make-up practices, especially since the costumes worn on that day will be “immortalized” by tens or hundreds of photos and stored in a photo album that can be very expensive, costing several thousand Yuans, or hundreds of dollars. When the woman is pregnant, in some Chinese families, she is forbidden to wear make-up or risk threatening the child’s health. Preserving the child’s health is all the more precious because the child is an only child.

The beauty and cosmetics market is embedded in the one-child policy, due to an unfavorable sex ratio for men: since 2000-2004, 124 boys have been born for 105 girls instead of 105 normally. 25 million young men may not be able to find wives. This shortage of women leads to a high inflation of the dowry demanded by the mother-in-law, i.e. the daughter’s mother. In the 1970s, the dowry consisted of a bicycle, a sewing machine and a watch[1]. Today, when we go to public gardens where parents present their son or daughter on cards affixed to media which are visible to all, such as classified ads, we see that the dowry asked of the future husband’s family consists of a demand for a high salary, an apartment and a car, as we have observed in Chengdu and Shenzhen. Dowry inflation has followed the decline in women’s numbers. At the time of marriage, the position of women is more favorable than that of men in economic terms.

However, women’s bodies represent an “asset” that can devalue quite quickly with age, from the point of view of some Chinese men, especially the richest. However, since the 2000s a new phenomenon has emerged, that of the increase in divorces. Between 2010 and 2014, they increased from 2.6 million to 3.6 million, according to Chine Magazine of 16 September 2015. In 2018, the number of divorces reached 4.3 million, according to the People’s Daily of August 17, 2018.

With the development of divorce, the beauty of the body becomes a more strategic asset for the woman because of the risk of separation from her husband she may find herself alone and older in the “matrimonial market”. She must therefore invest in body care and make-up products to maintain her value, in order to stay with her husband or preserve the asset of her body. It is as if the make-up market is growing at the same time as the matrimonial market, i.e. by following the progression of divorces. The body is seen as a social asset which make-up makes it possible to preserve. It is an asset that can be devalued very quickly. This devaluation poses an identity problem, i.e. one of positive self-image for women. The identity question itself refers to the question of power relations between men and women within the couple and the family. It is an uncertain relationship that may or may not turn against women, and make-up can play a role in reducing this uncertainty with respect to men.

Some women do not wear make-up when they are outside of work, in particular at home, because they are afraid of tensions with their mother-in-law, who will think that if her daughter-in-law wears make-up it is because she is looking for a man other than her son. Some women wear make-up to make their husbands’ face look better during a business dinner, for example. Other women will wear make-up before a professional negotiation because they feel more confident when they wear make-up. With age, some women will stop wearing make-up, especially those of the generation that experienced the cultural revolution. Other women will start dyeing their white hair to mask the signs of aging. It is likely that urbanization, increased life expectancy and lifestyle changes relative to couples are profoundly changing body care, make-up and beauty practices for Chinese middle-class women.

All this shows that conflict between men and women and between women is at the heart of the diffusion and use of cosmetic products, whether in relation to social or male norms, generational tensions between grandparents, parents and young people, tensions between families at the time of marriage or within couples at the time of divorce. It is even possible that in the coming years there will emerge in China an underground conflict between men and women aiming to restore men’s first place in the traditional family system. This conflict contributes to the sexual division of tasks and territories between men and women in the domestic space, and in this sense it contributes to the identity construction of the different actors, whether in a heterosexual or gay mode.

The Chinese symbolism of beauty: flow, ambivalence and context

Traditional Chinese culture has continued to live underground despite the cultural revolution. This invisible permanence explains today’s aesthetic mix. The sense of beauty and the body is organized around three main dimensions, ambivalence, movement and context. In symbolic terms, beauty is not a state, but a movement. Beauty is flow.

The first element is ambivalence, or the alternation of positive and negative. It is based on the famous couple of yīn and yáng阴阳, which are found in the conception of beauty in China that distinguishes inner beauty from outer beauty. The second element is the perpetual movement which very often refers to the 气, to the energy, to the breath, which circulates in the body and the proper functioning of which determines the health and beauty of the skin. The third element goes far beyond the field of aesthetics, because it refers to the importance of the situation, the context, and therefore the course of things, the shì (势: the third element Lì力, which is found at the bottom of this character, signifies power and the ability to act) as the basis for any interpretation of meaning[1]. In the case of beauty, the meaning of make-up can refer as much to the negative image of a bad girl as to the positive image of a professional woman who performs well in front of her client.

As our 2007 survey with Yang Xiaomin on mineral make-up in Chinese culture in South China in Guangzhou shows, in the imagination beauty relates to a flow that is the result of a transmutation of natural energy into human beauty: the mountain produces the mineral that is transported by water which in turn will serve to nourish the body and will give it beauty.

Minerals themselves (Kuàng wùzhí, 矿物质) are ambivalent: they are perceived as a positive and negative natural material. Minerals are spontaneously associated with the theme of nature and energy, especially jade (Yù玉), which is supposed to have specific powers. For example, if a woman buys a jade bracelet and the bracelet belonged to a woman who had nightmares, it is possible that she may also have nightmares. The mineral is as much a transmitter of energy and beauty as it is of misfortunes.

The idea of nature is associated with that of origin (Lái yuán来源). The natural origin is transmitted to the mineral product which, by passing through the mountain water, will transmit this energy to people. Minerals are a source of health. In the Chinese imagination, there is therefore a chain of transmission of the quality of nature to the mineral and then from the mineral to the person, and thus to his inner beauty and then to his outer beauty.

Beauty is not only ambivalent, as nature is ambivalent, positive and negative, but is also dynamic, a perpetual movement. It is constantly being renewed. This dynamic of the body linked to Qi, energy is particularly expressed through the conception of traditional Chinese medicine which, put simply, is organized around four movements that make up the system.[2]

First of all, the positive elements must be introduced into the body, especially the foods that are symbolically classified into “hot” and “cold” foods[3]. If the body is too hot, cold foods must be eaten, and vice versa[4].

Then, it is necessary to circulate in the body the energy and blood that condition the beauty of the skin so that it is both white and slightly pink, with pink being the sign of good health. Sports activities, such as Qi Kong for older people, also help to circulate energy inside the body.  Massage of the body, and especially on acupuncture points, is one of the traditional methods of re-circulation of Qi. Acupuncture is also one of the traditional techniques for re-circulating Qi.

It is also necessary to remove toxins through perspiration, for example, or suction cups.

Finally, it is necessary to prevent negative elements for the body from entering, such as with the separation cream or with the prohibitions on make-up during pregnancy, for example. During pregnancy many Chinese women are not allowed to wear make-up. Through this dynamic that involves bringing in, circulating, bringing out and then preventing from re-entering, it is clear that beauty is very much linked to the body and that it is not a state, but a flow.

However, it is possible to model the key elements of traditional Chinese beauty in a more static way, as does CosmoBride magazine in its August 2013 issue, one of which is devoted to Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. She is dressed in a wedding dress. She “gracefully and gently embodies a classic beauty”, which means having black hair, a pale white, oval face, and a V-shaped lower face, slightly pronounced lipstick, a slim waist, slim and prominent hands, and finally jewelry such as the necklace, earrings and watch that are there to show the signs of the modern woman and social success[5].

The symbolic dimension therefore contributes to the construction of Chinese female identities by incorporating both the energetic elements linked to Qi 气, the ambivalence of hot and cold, cold being particularly associated with female identity, and the cosmetic elements that highlight the features of the body considered female in Chinese culture.


This journey through Chinese beauty has shown us a dynamic beauty, in perpetual motion, according to body parts, social classes, generations or life cycles. Since the cultural revolution, the modern body has evolved. It has become eroticized, as can be seen in some advertisements, although the traditional “unrealistic” expression of the naked human body[1] is still used in advertisements today to educate and explain body care. In group activities in China, there has been a greater ease in expressing more personal and sometimes erotic forms of emotion in the last five or ten years. The beauty of the body in China is expressed through the search for harmony between the body and its natural and social ecosystem. This is why the practice of make-up is embedded in the traditional conception of the body and beauty.

Beauty is not limited to aesthetics or a short-term effect. It relates to a complex and ambivalent harmony between nature, the body, food, physical practices and morality in the sense of virtue. To be virtuous is to have “an attitude which is perfectly appropriate for the situation”, in the sense of Tao or Dào (道: the left-hand component of the dao character means movement and the right-hand component means origin[2]). There also seems to be a link between wealth and virtue. For some Chinese people, a rich man is a virtuous man, unexpectedly converging with the book of Job, which in Jewish and Protestant tradition is based on the same symbolism: wealth is the sign of virtue.

However, we have seen that the practices related to body care and make-up almost disappeared during the cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976, except for actors in plays. They reappeared under the impetus of Western companies from 1980 and especially from 1995 onwards, first in the upper classes and now in the middle class. They still seem to be poorly developed in the working classes and a large part of the peasantry. Does this mean that Chinese beauty is becoming Western?

In reality, it is a hybrid form of beauty that has embedded Western make-up in traditional Chinese body practices. These practices relate to the circulation of energy and harmony that is always in tension between the body, beauty and its natural and social ecosystem. Make-up has become part of the Chinese face game, as a presentation of beauty according to gender, status and age. It is also beauty under tension, especially between generations, between parents and grandparents, but also within the couple. Beauty is a vehicle of analysis today of the new roles emerging between men and women, as shown in Mou Xiao Ya’s novel, Do Chinese women need men? A homosexual form of beauty is also emerging, which is more discreet and limited to large cities[3].

Chinese beauty is entirely symptomatic of the globalization of the beauty market, of the diversity of meanings attributed to the different uses related to make-up, hair care, skin care and the more or less strategic presentation of different parts of the body. It is also symptomatic of the ambivalence of beauty as both a means of control and a means of liberation for women. It is also an analyzer of the tectonics of intergenerational cleavages. It is both a condition for socialization and a source of social tensions. It participates in the construction of identity through life cycles. It is as much a matter of private life, of intimate space as of public, political and ideological space. As a hybrid beauty, it symbolizes the way in which Chinese culture has been able to reinterpret the codes of Western beauty by subtly embedding them in the Chinese face strategies. It is an analyzer of the hybridization of the senses, the diversity of uses and the social issues of the use of the body. Beauty is a “total social fact”, to use the expression of Marcel Mauss, one of the great French specialists in technologies of the body at the beginning of the 20th century.[4]

Paris, May 3, 2019

 [1] Cf. François Julien, 2000, De l’Essence ou du nu, Seuil

[2] Cf. Cyrille Javary, Les trois sagesses chinoises, Albin-Michel, 2012

 [3] In 2012 a report appeared in Chinese which recounts the difficult life of women who marry husbands who are homosexual but have not declared their homosexuality for fear of social rejection ( 中国同妻生存调查报告 Zhōngguó tóng qī shēngcún diàochá bàogào Report of the survey on the survival of Chinese women.) In China, homosexuality is still socially prohibited. It is only possible in large cities, as one gay interviewee explained to us during one of the surveys on the use of cosmetic products. In China, even today, being gay is a strong social transgression, even though homosexuality has not been considered a mental illness since 2001.

 [4] Mauss Marcel, «Les techniques du corps», Journal de Psychologie, XXXII, n° 3-4, March 15 – April 15, 1936. Communication presented to the Société de Psychologie on May 17, 1934, (1968, Sociologie et anthropologie, PUF, pp. 365-386)

 [1] Cf. François Jullien, 1992, La Propension des choses, Pour une histoire de l’efficacité en Chine, Seuil; Cf. Cyrille J. –D. Javary, 2014, La souplesse du dragon. Les fondamentaux de la culture chinoise, Albin-Michel.

 [2] See Wang Lei, 2015, Pratique et sens des soins du corps en Chine. Le cas des cosmétiques, l’Harmattan

 [3] See Yang Xiaomin, 2006, La fonction sociale des restaurants en Chine, l’Harmattan, pp. 60 et seq. on “hot” and “cold” foods

[4] Cf. Desjeux Dominique, Ma Jingjing, “The Enigma of Innovation. Changing Practices of Nonalcoholic Beverage Consumption in China”, in McCabe Maryann, Briody Elisabeth K. (eds), 2018, Cultural Change From a Business Anthropology Perspective, Lexington Books, pp. 165-185

 [5] http://french.china.org.cn/culture/txt/2013-07/18/content_29463129.htm

 [1] Desjeux Dominique, 2017, « Les représentations ambivalentes de la mobilité et du progrès en Chine entre 1950 et 2015 », in Christophe Gay et Sylvie Landriève (eds.), Mobilité en Chine, 50 ans d’accélération vue par les Chinois, Forum vies mobiles, pp. 7-24

 [1] See Wang Lei, 2015, Pratique et sens des soins du corps en Chine. Le cas des cosmétiques, l’Harmattan.

 [2] On the emergence of a form of female liberation, cf. the novel of Mou Xiaoya, 2013, Les femmes chinoises ont-elles besoin des hommes ? L’Harmattan

 [1] Propaganda poster from Stefan Landsberger’s collection.

http://gss.revues.org/docannexe/image/1381/img-1.jpg in Référence électronique

Jean-Baptiste Pettier, 2010, put online on 18 May 2010, consulted on 20 February 2014.

URL: http://gss.revues.org/1381; DOI: 10.4000/gss.1381

 [2] Broyelle Claudie, 1973, La moitié du ciel. Le mouvement de libération des femmes aujourd’hui en Chine Denoël Gonthier

 [3] Cf. Desjeux Dominique, 2006, La consommation, chapter VI, « Fidélité et infidélités aux biens et aux marques en fonction des étapes du cycle de vie (le cas du maquillage en France) », PUF, pp112-118

 [4] On face games, see Zheng Lihua, 1995, Les chinois de Paris et leurs jeux de faces, l’Harmattan.

 [1] In collaboration with Professor Zheng Lihua, teacher in the faculty of language and culture at the Guandong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou; Wang Lei, PhD in sociology from Paris Descartes University, Sorbonne Paris Cité, lecturer at the University of Shenzhen; Ma Jingjing, PhD in Sociology from Paris Descartes University, Sorbonne Paris Cité, independent sociologist; Hu Shen, PhD in sociology from Paris University 13; and my colleagues from the French Department of the University of Heilongjiang, Harbin, Yang Yang, Liu Xiaofei, of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, Wu Yongqin, Shi Yeting, as well as the anthropologist Patti Sunderland for the survey in the United States. The surveys were conducted between 1997 and 2019 under several contracts funded by the companies Beaufour Ipsen International, L’Oréal and Chanel. We would like to thank them for this. The surveys represent more than 200 interviews and observations in Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenzhen.

[1] Jones Geoffrey, 2010, Beauty Imagined. A History Of The Global Beauty Industry, Oxford University Press

[2] Clarke Alison J., 1999, Tupperware. The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, Smithsonian Institution

[3] On observation scales, see Desjeux, Dominique, 2018, The anthropological perspective of the world. The inductive method illustrated, Peter Lang (chapter 7)

[4] Bourdieu Pierre, La domination masculine, 1998; Eng. Masculine Domination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001

 [5] Cf. Balandier Georges, 1974, Anthropo-logiques, PUF

 [6] Goubert Jean-Pierre, 1986, La conquête de l’eau. L’avènement de la santé à l’âge industriel. Éditions Robert Laffont.

 [7] On the mesosocial strategic approach in terms of actors’ games, see Michel Crozier, 1964, Le phénomène bureaucratique, Eng: The bureaucratic phenomenon, University of Chicago Press

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