The girl’s name is Xu Weihan and her Facebook page has over 60,000 likes.
Xu’s media notoriety is another manifestation of some phenomena I already described in previous posts.
First of all, her ‘cute’ looks correspond to a popular beauty ideal: girls have to be child-like, feminine, gentle and innocent; on the other hand, they have to be pretty and sexually attractive.
Secondly, this ‘Lolita-like’ appearance is used in the context of a competitive market economy, in which beauty attracts customers and publicity. Therefore, the right behaviour and looks mean, simply put, money. Another example of this phenomenon are Taiwan’s famous booth girls (see video below). This is a conscious marketing (and self-marketing) strategy, which deliberately deploys female bodies as means to promote products.
Thirdly, it shows how girls can internalize and use sexual categories created by a patriarchal social environment to their own advantage. To put it plainly, women can use standards created by men in order to emancipate themselves. While this characteristic of Taiwanese society may appear as the result of ‘Westernisation’, in reality it is a blend of traditional and modern ways of life.
Sexuality has always been an important part of Chinese (and Taiwanese) society. It was not only a matter of hedonism. Sexuality was and is tied to social prestige. As Susan Mann writes about 19th century China,
Nearly 100 percent of females married; up to 20 percent of males never did. Marriage in respectable families of means was arranged, usually by parents, and a married son ideally lived with his parents in a joint household that included his wife, his married brothers, and all of their children. His sisters would be “married out” into another patriline. Wealthy parents had many advantages in this marriage market. They could marry off their children earlier, attracting desirable young brides with fancy bridal gifts and presents and supplying elaborate dowries for their daughters. The wealthy could afford to add concubines to the family, especially when a wife did not give birth to a son (Susan L. Mann: Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History, 2012).
Why did so many men fail to find a wife and remained childless? The answer is simple. Wealthy men were a good match and could afford to have one or more wives as well as concubines. Poor men, on the contrary, had less chances on the marriage market. Marriage was, as a matter of fact, a business-like transaction between two families, and money was an important prerequisite for marriage (as it is today).
Poor parents preferred to marry off their daughters to rich men or give them away as concubines (as happened to the grandmother of Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans). As Patricia Buckley Ebrey explains,
Poor families were affected as the suppliers of daughters. They were always aware that if they could not afford to marry their daughters off, they could sell them to rich men (Patricia Buckley Ebrey: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2009, p. 245).
Being unmarried and childless was not only a personal issue. It was perceived by society as a proof that a man had failed in life. An unmarried man was both an unfilial son and a social outcast. This constellation explains, to this day, why marriage in Taiwan and China is such a tough, and often brutal, business.
Women had to conform to the social ideal of a good wife or a good concubine. Or, at least, they had to do so on the surface, until they had better chances to improve their social status or their personal standing in the family.
Appearance (both in terms of beauty and of demeanour) was a fundamental criterion for society to determine if a woman would be a good wife or concubine. That is why foot-binding was an important benchmark of femininity. An excerpt from The Dream Recollections of Tao’an, by late-Ming scholar Zhang Dai, reveals the combination of economic, social and aesthetic elements of gender relations,
Upwards of a hundred people in Yangzhou earn a living in the “thin horse” business. If someone shows an interest in taking a concubine, a team of a broker, a drudge, and a scout stick to him like flies. Early in the morning, the teams gather to wait outside the doors of potential customers, who usually give their business to the first team to arrive. Any teams coming late have to wait for the next opportunity. The winning team then leads their customer to the broker’s house. The customer is then served tea and seated to wait for the women. The broker leads out each of them, who do what the matchmaker tells them to do. After each of her short commands , the woman bows to the customer, walks forward, turns toward the light so the customer can see her face clearly, draws back her sleeves to show him her hands, glances shyly at him to show her eyes, says her age so he can hear her voice, and finally lifts her skirt to reveal whether her feet are bound. An experienced customer could figure out the size of her feet by listening to the noise she made as she entered the room. If her skirt made noise when she walked in, she had to have a pair of big feet under her skirt. As one woman finishes, another comes out, each house having at least five or six. If the customer finds a woman to his liking, he puts a gold hairpin in her hair at the temple, a procedure called “inserting the ornament.” If no one satisfies him, he gives a few hundred cash to the broker or the servants. If the first broker gets tired, others will willingly take his place. Even if a customer has the stamina to keep looking for four or five days, he cannot finish visiting all the houses (quoted in: Ebrey 2009, p. 246).
To go back to the original example, Xu Weihan’s popularity demonstrates how the same principle applies to a modern context. No longer tied to the rigid Confucian family structure, she is a working woman, but one who can use female beauty standards set by society in order to perform her job and hopefully move up the social ladder. Her appearance as well as her behaviour (her facial expression, her pursing her lips, her smile, the lifting of her hands, etc.) are part of a performance whose objective is, ultimately, to do business.