Women’s agency is illustrated in how they deploy their beauty as cultural capital. But they do so amid certain factors, which shape, facilitate, and even constrain such deployment.
In China, as shown by four famous Chinese women, the deployment of beauty lies at the intersection between individual agency and social, cultural, and even political structures: state power, education, the Chinese film industry, and cultural norms.
China’s film industry is one of the most heavily regulated institutions by the state, which must approve each movie that will be shown in the country, if not in Western art cinemas. As far as Chinese actors Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, and Fan Bingbing are concerned, the film industry has enabled, and benefited from, the deployment of their beauty. First, the movies promote them and project China, especially when these win global accolades or international awards. Second, they all trained in state-run institutions, and the government has had to intrude into their lives in different ways.
Gong Li has used her standing to criticize Chinese censorship in the film industry. An associate at Holland and Knight LLP, Mary Lynne Calkins, wrote in Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal that Gong Li is one of the few members of China’s film community who are secure enough to challenge state censorship without jeopardizing their ability to continue making movies and staying out of trouble with the government.
According to Calkins, Gong Li claimed to Hong Kong reporters in Beijing that the Chinese government’s conservatism had hurt the state of the film industry by restricting the range of topics that were allowed in movies. Even so, the state retains the power to shape her career.
Gong Li’s career exemplifies a “negotiation” or “adjustment” that Chinese celebrities take to survive in the business. China under President Xi Jinping has flexed state power even further, and Gong Li arguably understood that she should take a safe approach and conform to the government’s policies.
Singaporean entertainment writer Suzanne Sng wrote that Gong Li had to renounce her Singaporean citizenship. This was arguably due to the tax evasion scandal involving Fan Bingbing, which was more than a scare tactic aimed at outspoken directors and actors like Gong Li. Considering what happened to Fan Bingbing, Gong probably knew that her fame would not be able to shield her from state intrusion this time.
Nikkei Asia staff writer Tsukasa Hadanao wrote that Gong Li renounced her Singaporean citizenship in conformity with the state’s policy of targeting celebrities holding foreign or dual citizenship. Chinese scholar Hui M. Chan also noted that Gong Li was heavily scrutinized when she married Singaporean tycoon Ooi Hoe Seong because of the massive expectations for an artist of her caliber.
More significantly, the China Film Association, a sub-association of the Federation of the Literary and Art Circles of China, expelled her, though this expulsion only caused a minor dent in her career because she could continue making films outside China.
The power of the Chinese state was on full display in the case of Fan Bingbing, who was accused of tax evasion. She disappeared from public view for three months and was later ordered to pay $131 million in back taxes and penalties. She issued an apology on Weibo, where, according to Time magazine, she has nearly 63 million followers. Many of her films were put on hold and her endorsements were canceled. The probe of her finances incriminated many companies that were partnering with her.
Since her reappearance, Fan Bingbing has taken a relatively low profile. Given her fame, it is likely that she was able to negotiate her freedom and revive her career by using her economic capital. At the same time, she used a geopolitical issue to divert attention from her tax evasion scandal, stoke nationalist sentiments, and return to the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
On Nov. 17, 2018, Fan Bingbing published her first post since the apology on Weibo. It featured a map that had been posted by China’s Communist Youth League: a demarcated South China Sea with the Chinese flag on it (see screenshot). A senior news editor at Insider’s London Bureau, Alexandra Ma, translated the caption in Fan Bingbing’s post: “China cannot miss out on any inch.”
She established her beauty brand, “Fan Beauty Secret,” in July 2021 to mark her grand return to the film industry.
A policy analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies and Media Development in Hanoi, Linh Tong, observed that Fan Bingbing’s promotion of China’s claim to to almost the entire South China Sea (the nine-dash line) dovetails with that of many other A-listers in China, such as Zhang Jinlai, Huang Xiaoming, and Zhao Wei, who have been vocally supporting their government’s territorial claims.
Linh Tong said China had also utilized this strategy to institute a boycott of Philippine mangoes and bananas.
China’s education system influences Chinese women’s deployment of beauty, not least because Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi trained in state-run educational institutions, where they acquired and honed their skills, to say nothing of their inner beauty (talent, hard work, grace, etc.). But it is also a location that inculcates nationalism through education.
In Zhang Ziyi’s biography, it is mentioned that her school teacher taught her the value of discipline and seeking excellence in her craft to make her country proud. The Beijing dance program in which Zhang Ziyi took part is vital for national development.
It was discussed in the book, “Chinese Capitalisms: Historical Emergence and Political Implications” edited by Yin-Wah Chu, that children as young as 3 learn the principle of social obligation: They need to work very hard and win their matches against foreigners to bring honor to China and prove its strength and capability to the world.
The media play a role in changing and promoting beauty ideals. Fan Bingbing effectively used the media to encourage beauty routines and fashion, and to promote political messages showing her support for the CCP. At the same time, the media not only promote Chinese celebrities but also discipline them, not least by judging them and reinforcing certain standards, such as the preference for “natural beauty” and a bias against plastic or cosmetic surgery.
Celebrities in China are expected to set a moral example. Zhang Ziyi was aware that she could use her talent in dance and powerful presence, and she continued working hard and producing quality movies in order to help silence criticism about her alleged relationship with director Zhang Yimou. She learned how to handle the media from her teacher, and how to appeal to the domestic market.
This scenario demonstrates the need for a balancing act: A Chinese icon should not just be about beauty and talent.
Meanwhile, the “plain-looking” Hao Lulu changed her looks through plastic surgery and was heavily criticized for it. But despite a certain level of social disapproval for plastic surgery, the CCP tacitly endorsed it via a comprehensive coverage of her cosmetic procedure in state-media like the People’s Daily.
The surgery-enhanced Hao Lulu was not accepted by society in the end, and her case reveals that investing in outer beauty may work for an individual in the short term but disempowers her in the long run. Her popularity declined after the surgery, and news about her life became less frequent starting in 2004.
In all, the decision to pursue plastic surgery, despite the social opposition to it amid state approval, aptly illustrates the interplay between agency and “structure.” The deployment of beauty in China is guided by social norms, and a woman’s beauty has a particular influence on capital accumulation and its subsequent conversion into other forms of capital.
This article is extracted from the author’s 2023 Master of Arts in Asian Studies thesis, Mei Nu: Examining Chinese Women’s Deployment of Beauty in Four Biographical Texts, submitted to the Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman. —Ed.