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Alterations of idealized beauty in China, Japan

by Hiroaki Sato

THE SEARCH FOR THE BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: A Cultural History of Japanese and Chinese Beauty, by Cho Kyo (Zhang Jing), translated by Kyoko Selden. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, 287 pp., $49.95 (hardcover)

China has a phrase, “the four beautiful women,” Cho Kyo (Zhang Jing), the Shanghai-born scholar who teaches comparative culture and literature at Meiji University, tells us. It usually refers to Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan and Yang Guifei — all imperial consorts from the fifth century B.C. to the eighth century, except for Diao Chan, who may not have existed.

But there is another difference among the four. The first three are mostly legendary, so you might say all that’s told about them is fantasy. In contrast, the fourth, Yang Guifei, was a historical figure real enough for three great Tang poets to write about her.

Du Fu sang of Yang’s “clear eyes and lustrous teeth.” Li Bai compared her to “Flying Swallow,” a beauty in an earlier century. And most famously, Bai Juyi wrote “Song of Lasting Regret” to say she smiled so dazzlingly, when she did, all the “three thousand” beauties in the imperial harem turned pale.

Du Fu’s “clear eyes and lustrous teeth” became synonymous with a beautiful woman; so did Bai Juyi’s description of her “eyebrows as slim and curved as moth feelers,” although the moth-feeler metaphor appears to have long become a set phrase for a beauty by then. Li Bai, for one, had used it.

A beautiful woman’s eyebrows were also compared to the willow, and her face to a lotus flower. Bai Juyi used both to describe Yang Guifei.

For that matter, Li Bai’s “flying swallow” is said to have offended the object of his compliment, spawning the speculation that Yang was on the plump side — a point to note if only because another attribute of a beautiful woman in China was the “willow waist.”

At any rate, Bai Juyi’s poem went on to greatly influence the Japanese imagination. “Song of Lasting Regret” told a tragic love story: how Emperor Xuanzong’s indulgence in Yang led to a rebellion that forced him to kill her, and how that resulted in his inconsolable remorse and yearning.

Lady Murasaki used the poem as the theme of the first chapter of her court romance, “The Tale of Genji.” Its military counterpart, “The Tale of the Heike,” alluded to it in its closing chapter.

The 14th-century military tale, “The Taiheiki,” refers to Yang Guifei six times (yes, someone counted!), once in a pyrotechnic display of the narrator’s knowledge of other Chinese beauties.

Not that Japan did not have its own beautiful women. The most famous of them, the ninth-century poet Ono no Komachi, became, like Yang Guifei, a synonym of a beautiful woman. But as an embodiment of an idealized beauty, Komachi was far outclassed by Yang in Japanese literature.

There is no surprise in this. China was practically the only advanced cultural model for Japan to follow, from the start to the mid-19th century, even as there was no way for China to follow Japan. The intercultural relationship between China and Japan had to be lopsided.

There were some heinous twists, however. Around the ninth century the Chinese decided that women must have small feet to be demure and attractive. That produced foot-binding. The Japanese decided that self-respecting women should not have lustrous teeth. That led to tooth-blackening.

Less heinous maybe, but the Japanese also decided natural eyebrows were unseemly on post-pubescent women. So women started shaving their eyebrows, painting their larger, decorative replacements at a higher position.

The upshot: Even as the Chinese prized “lustrous teeth” in women, the Japanese regarded them as low-class and ugly. It is because of this that modern Japanese readers rejoice when they come across a short story from the 13th century, known as “The Princess Who Loves Worms.”

“She never plucked her eyebrows. She didn’t apply teeth blackening, saying ‘It’s bothersome, unclean.’ Smiling with teeth utterly white, she loved these worms morning evening.” Worms here are caterpillars. A young aristocrat who approaches her finds her “brilliantly noble,” yet is repelled when he sees her eyebrows look like “hairy wigglers.”

That was an anomaly. Japanese writers lived with Chinese metaphors for beautiful women, such as moth feelers and willow, for so long that they couldn’t change course when European culture flooded their land in the latter part of the 19th century.

For example, in 1885, Tokai Sanshi, who had studied at the University of Pennsylvania, started an international political novel. Yet he did not just name an Irish beauty Guren (Scarlet Lotus), but wrote she moved with “polished lotus steps.” As Cho Kyo points out in disbelief, “lotus steps” had to do with the effects of bound feet.

Still, it did not take long for both Chinese and Japanese to make an about-face. Earlier they had regarded Caucasians as looking beastly or else alienating. But, as superior European civilizations flooded East Asia, they quickly abandoned their own ideals for the beautiful woman in favor of those in the West. The reversal persists to this day.

“The Search for the Beautiful Woman” is a scholarly, enjoyable historical exploration of the beautiful woman in two neighboring Asian cultures. Kyoko Selden, recently deceased, must be commended for clarifying layered references in Chinese, Japanese, English and other languages in her translation.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.