Interview with cultural critic and Beijing Normal University professor Zhang Ning
Southern Metropolitan Opinion reporter: Zhang Tianpan, Intern: Chen Yiqin.
Recently, when the top three candidates in the Chongqing division for “Miss International”, the finalist of the Hainan division for “Miss Universe” and the three finalists in Shandong district for “Miss Bikini” have been successively announced, the concerns were not the same as usually happens with such events: this time, it was not because the beauty contests offered appealing eye candy, but because they were “apalling to look at”. The winners were considered too ugly, and people questioned the fairness of the competition. Of course, as people’s hearts become colder to all sorts of beauty contests, such news begin to be seen as a kind of joke. But in fact, behind these beauty contests, there are many complex factors worthy of analysis; behind the matter of beauty contests, there is the general direction of the Chinese cultural sense of beauty. At the same time, especially when power and investment capitals intervene with the cultural field, that causes confusion and disarray leading to cultural alienation, and culture becomes a playing field for power and capitals. On this topic, we interviewed the famous cultural critic, professor Zhang Ning, from Beijing Normal University.
Cultural alienation is controlled by multiple powers.
Interviewer: What do you think about the recent phenomenon of beauty contests turning into “ugliness contests”?
Zhang Ning: When a beauty contest winner is not beautiful but ugly, our first reaction is to find it funny, very funny. At the same time, those ugly individuals have become the big winners in the beauty contests, increasing the confidence of those with ordinary looks. This society is still one where the women show while the men watches. If stars, models and other people that don’t look like those we’re used to seeing on advertisements and the runway are presented to us daily on television or other advertisements, we will reject it. Therefore, if we don’t get down to the social and cultural backgrounds of beauty pageants, examining it from the surface, the issue we’re discussing is one everyone can relate to. Like in the fairy tale of the ugly duckling, a lot of people laugh, ridicule and criticize. This is because these ‘ugly’ winners challenge the aesthetic constructs of consumer culture. In reality, the pageants organizers did not have this intention, their initial intention was to plug our ears and steal the bell, letting the ugly become the beautiful. However, what they didn’t realize was that everyone would noticed, and this is what we call “power rent seeking” within beauty pageants.
Interviewer：But many people think this is a really tricky thing, because a normal beauty contest should not yield results like this. We’re not talking about Sister Lotus and Sister Fong that became famous through Internet grassroots channels. It’s a beauty pageant stemming from traditional channels with titles such as “Miss Universe”, “Miss Asia” and “Miss International”.
Zhang Ning: What we just did is an empirical analysis, measuring the potential impact of this event at the level of the individual’s psychology.Now I’d like to analyze the social significance of the event. First of all, it is a already establish title that became a large event through mainstream media. Administration (government) power, power of capitals, power of discourse are three powers that cooperate to establish the significance of the title, something that grassroots hype through the internet could not achieve. If the grassroots of the society stand up and say that she is China’s most beautiful woman in Weibo (China’s twitter), she would be seen as a lunatic, not a beauty. What we’re discussing not is not a kind of grassroots self-hype, but an act of simulation by the intervention of different powers. The truth behind this behavior is that it has the support of power. Who would have the rights to the title “The most beautiful city in the province?” Undoubtedly, there’s support from a powerful organization. There have to be relationships among official, money and social circles, and they put behind the decision the power of the bureaucracy, capital, and opinion. The people involved in the pageant cannot generate power on their own, their status as ‘most beautiful’ is the result of external power, it’s a shell with no intrinsic beauty of its own.
利用公共资源为某一个东西冠名必须获得公众认可，比如说有没有网上投票，或者某种形式的民主评选、民主认可、公众认可的方式，但这件事中缺乏公共认可的形式，没有程序公正可言，所以没人认可它。They might have invited a few judges who already have a public profile to come and ‘supervise’. These supervisors, superficially, represent the public interest, public voice, public values, but they actually just appear in a personal capacity, and that personal capacity could easily be bought. 不公开透明地利用公共资源冠名在程序上不具备合法性，而且在呈现形式上又没有合理性，所以公众就哈哈大笑。But all the public can do is smile, because they have no way of intervening: the only ones who can intervene are public organisations, media groups or public agencies with access to public platforms and public funding, and a capacity to speak about public affairs.
Interviewer: Administrative powers, capitalist powers, why would they want to be involved in a beauty contest?
Zhang Ning: We should distinguish between commercial beauty contests and the special beauty contests we are discussing. Commercial beauty contests allow participants to make profit through participation in the contest itself. For instance, TV stations attract the public’s attention by showing the most beautiful girls, and having them contend for the title of “most beautiful”. Ratings improve, and that’s an argument to incite advertisers to advertise during that period. So investors, broadcasters, advertisers and the girls who participate in the contest can all directly profit from the event. But this special form of beauty pageant does not allow most of the participants to directly benefit, the benefits come afterwards, 比如行政权力持有者参与其中，投资者、传播者为其服务，助其亲属或有关系的人当选“最美小姐”，但是他们无法直接获利，而是由行政权力持有者过后利用公共资源支付他们在此事当中的代价，as a kind of ‘deferred payment’. Whatever public resources are controlled by Executive powers may come in handy, with no cost to them personally, and without an expiry date, and so they make haste to ensure their power is converted in all sorts of forms. This is the process of rent-seeking from those in power, 是在文化领域中，在符号生产传播消费领域中的一种变异形式. This is also an important reason why everyone is resentful and asking questions.
The liberation and awakening of people is the liberation and awakening of the body.
Interviewer: Everyone was reminded of the ‘ugliness carnival’ seen on the web with Sister Furong and Sister Xifeng. Does this reflect what you said before about this being “an era of negative growth in the aesthetic realm?” Does this mark a kind of transformation in the sense of beauty?
Zhang Ning: History tends to forget about bodies. Kafka wrote this sentence: ‘The animal discovered its own body by coughing’; people are like that. We’re generally busy, and our bodies are broken up into identity symbols through the prevalent ideology of society and history, like the measured steps of the officials, or the small steps of the lady walking along the street. The body becomes a kind of status symbol.
The first body is a wild body, whoever runs faster, whoever is bigger, is king: it’s the law of the jungle. As civilisation emerges, the original body that obeyed the laws of the jungle is corrected and fettered, and the body is moralised for social order. Throughout ancient history, the body of Chinese people is basically a moralised body, and one type of body shape is obviously dominant. Another type is the ‘beautiful body’, for instance the young girl described like a flower, ‘skin like cream and hand like silky grass’. The classical aesthetics considers the union of man and heaven, and beauty is the integration of humans and nature. Moralised and aestheticised bodies of this kind have been inherited. An important goal of the ‘new culture’ movement in the forties and fifties was to ‘wake up the body’, some people even spoke of ‘a body for the nation’, talking about sleeping lion and dragon in deep sleep, as an attempt to ignore individual bodies. Human liberation and awakening is actually an awakening of the body and liberation of the senses. The primay sign of the body’s awakening is sensual liberation: I can see, I can hear, I can smell, I can touch, I can walk, I can run, and the basic functions of the senses are restored. The liberated world of the senses redefined the traditional aesthetics and ethics of the agrarian world. In that sense, it represents progress and enlightenment.
This process continued into the 80s. But in the 90s. there have been major changes: people found out that an awakened body, an enlightened body, a body restored to sensual pleasures, was of value. They found out that a beautiful body had commercial value. And from there came the idea of turning the beautiful body into a commodity. The West has already gone through this process: in Paris, Milan, London, New York or Tokyo, fashion shows display the most standard bodies, and among body “specimens” on display, the more standard they are, the more commercial value they have. But it’s not like our enlightenment movement repeated, that all awake, active and healthy bodies are beautiful. How does the beautiful body turn into a commodity? Through figures and data, such as height, proportions, measurements, etc. The beauty contest is actually a process of transforming the beautiful body into a commodity through statistics and stylization, in order to boost ratings and attract advertisers.
The commodification of the body leads to a hierarchisation of the bodies. 原先道德化的身体具有等级，为了破除这种等级，启蒙运动让身体恢复为自由活跃多元的身体。但是通过数据化、商品化，这种自由的美又重新等级化了，产生了新的等级。身体的等级化对普通人构成压抑，怎么办呢？身体技术由此产生，包括时装、化妆品、理疗、整容等。一个女性一生要花多少钱在这上面，她要拉近、缩小这个身体等级，她要在她这个等级里跳一步到那个等级里去。女性花钱，男性挣钱，所以全社会都在这里面买单，买这个消除身体等级的单。
Interviewer: In the early days of communist China, the canons of female beauty tended to be more masculine. To quote Mao Zedong, he said: “The sons and daughters of China have high aspirations, they don’t like red garments, but weapons.” Is this not a deviation from traditional canons of female beauty? And what caused it?
Zhang Ning:The 50s were set on eliminating gender differences, eager to achieve equality among bodies; attitude towards the female body is consistent with historical utopian imagination: that everyone is absolutely equal, not by finding a way for distant things to coexist, but by finding a way to eliminate all differences. For instance what you said about not liking red garments, but weapons, for instance saying “men and women are similar in all”. For instance “women hold up half the sky”, etc. etc. In work places, there were male youth commandos, and there were ‘iron girl’ squads, competing with each other. Until the early 80s, many women found the curves in their bodies evil. This was effectively a new form of moral suppression, the moral of the new body. Not only should the body’s sexuality be eliminated, but the dress should be masculine, and the whole body because masculine from inside out. The clearest specimen of this masculinisation are the heorines of revolutionary operas. They have no husband or lover, because having a husband or lover means having a private life, and in the revolution, private life is eliminated, therefore love is also eliminated.
Classically, there are two ways of “castrating” the body. One is actual castration, as in male castration, another is to rewrite the function of a body organ, as in foot-binding on women, which changes the foot’s daily purpose into an aesthetic purpose. But during the cultural revolution, “castration” occurred through the performance, talk and imagination of eliminating all sexual differences. In artistic and literary works, this took the form of emphasising class over affection, love, friendship, and through this narrative, let people forget the body again. This kind of oblivion of traditional morality, logically speaking, is a remoralisation of the body.But real personal beauty became a new sin in the 50s and 60s, and because it is, you had to forget about your body, and ensure your body is like everybody else’s.
The eighties are the decade of the body reawakening. It started with perms, and continued with wearing dresses; that is simultaneously using clothes to attract other people’s attention and a re-awakening of one’s own body. The 80s are a new age of enlightenment, and this is connected with the May 4th movement. In the 90s, the first beauty contests were held in Guangdong, Fujian and Shanghai, the first areas where the reform and opening took place, but the beauty contests have cooled down since these early years, beauty contests have become an old-fashioned thing. Young women now, unlike their older sister or aunt’s generation, are not so focus on the dress itself; they also dress up, but not so crazily, not so out of the ordinary, the way they dress up is very natural, it’s called “fresh little thing” style. The so-called “fresh young thing” style is about the natural growth of the body, and dress being connected with one’s own identity, environment, income, and other conditions – even downplaying them a bit; for instance, not to buy branded clothes, but buy clothes from UNIQLO or similar shops, and wear a simple T-shirt or a linen skirt.
The rationale behind the existence of ugliness.
Interviewer: The aesthetic transformation we see now, with the election of Sister Furong, sister Xifeng, sister “Hold-wang”, etc, does it reflect a rebellion against the more classical, ‘traditionalist’ sense of beauty?
Zhang Ning: We’ve actually returned to a more normal state. This generation does have feelings for beauty and the level of beauty, but they don’t talk of it as a core element, everyone is more concerned with freedom and social justice. This generation has many concerns, and beauty is only one of them. For that reason, aesthetic questions do not become an important event, they have just become one small concern among many. However, we can’t say that we’re not talking about it: standards of beauty, standards for the body, beyond the macro level, also exist at the micro level. If you don’t care, some people care, and even so, political and capitalist powers care, advertisers and marketing people care. There are different narratives for people of different age groups, and these are played on repeat, strengthening these standards. Advertising enters your brain, impacts on your brain processes, and thus the body is rewritten.
Interviewer: Is this ugliness an expression of aesthetic diversity in a normalised society, or is it a temporary form of entertainment, even a morbid manifestation?
Zhang Ning: When they see sister Furong, sister Xifeng, sister “Hold live”, everyone’s first reaction is to laugh. Laughter is a manifestation of the human sense of superiority: when people see a dog rolling on the floor or a monkey imitating human actions, everyone laughs, because one they are very much like people, but two, they are not people. But the reason that ugliness is popular is that, through the mediation of the web, it offers a point of focus for human weakness, and provides a trigger point for ordinary people to feel superior. This is a subconscious phenomenon, it is not immediately visible, and so everybody’s first reaction is laughter. Sister Furong, Xifeng, sister ‘Hold’ have become celebrities because many people need them, they hold the role of clowns in a circus. Why is popular culture such a large part of the cultural market around the world? Because these products are focused on the middle and lower middle sections of society, like ‘Rain Man’, ‘Forrest Gump’, whose protagonists are average people, and so looking at their success is inspirational, it offers viewers a sense of new possibilities. Among the images we like to see on the internet, there are those which give people confidence – in fact, they can be inspirational – and so there is a rationale to their existence.
In a good period, aesthetic differences should be preserved.
Interviewer: Can we consider what society consider the popular canon of beauty? And if that is the case, what is the different between that and the official, elite canon of beauty?
Zhang Ning：The concept of beauty is a very complex concept, what you find beautiful I won’t necessarily find beautiful, what young people now find beautiful, many of us don’t find beautiful, there are differences. In a good historical period, aesthetic differences should be preserved. More developed regions are more sensitive, and people’s pursuits there are more original. But ugliness is an equalitarian thing: it’s not that the ordinary citizen entirely likes ugly, they also like good and beautiful, but they fear things that are too beautiful, they put pressure on them. In short, the more aesthetic differences there are among the public, the better a period is.
Official aesthetics have determined standards. For instance, with voices, they like folk people singing, but they don’t like the accents of Hong Kong and Taiwan broadcasters. For instance, their ‘standard face’ is more balanced, brave-looking, with eyebrows like a sword. They spread these aesthetic standards through popular media channels, particularly TV, and offer what they have approved. Why was the ‘supergirls’ show so popular this year, and yet someone wanted to cut it off? Because there’s a difference and conflict between the type of beauty that it promotes, and official aesthetic standards. Official organisations are rather afraid of diversity, the costs of managing diversity are high. But with high management costs comes increased freedom for the people. A good government increases the cost of management in order to increase freedom for the people; a bad government reduces people’s freedom in order to reduce management cost. Physical differences, diversity, aesthetic differences are a sign of the times and the result of it is increased management costs, and increased freedom for the people.
When we talk about the body, beautiful is good, ugly is good, standards are good, no standards are good: there has to be diversity, we can’t just say that one type is good, and one type bad: but that way of thinking and the traditional official way of thinking are the same. So the most important thing for us now is to train the younger generation to accept cultural diversity, or at least the ability to respect diverse aesthetic standards. But Chinese people still need to study that for many years. From the Reform and Opening till now, there have been many positive changes, but also many problems. Among these, a big problem is the capacity to accept different points of view, different attitudes, including different body shapes, different aesthetic standards, and allow for these different standards to coexist peacefully. In the case we’re talking about today, of ugly women selected, questioning the fairness of the procedure is right, but we can’t say there’s just one standard of beauty either. For instance, when a black model walked on the Paris fashion catwalk for the first time, people didn’t accept it at first. And there’s the case of Lu Yan: many people in China consider she doesn’t fit the standards, and find her not beautiful, but when she appeared in the Paris fashion scene, she became a supermodel.
Interviewer: What do you think about the current popular trend of talking about “the most beautiful teacher”, “the most beautiful driver”? Their title is generally given by spontaneous popular decision, but officials quickly accept this decision, does it mean that popular and official sense of beauty fit to an extent?
Zhang Ning: No, it is a case of officials using public opinion. This is because the typical methods of dissemination method is poor. Instead, community channels, community media often derive better results. Thus, officials use the extensive reach of community media to quickly incorporate it (the trends). However, not all the community popularized “most beautiful XX” are accepted, it is selective. For example, someone passing by a window happened to have caught a falling child, we would say she’s the “most beautiful mother”, the officials acknowledges this, because she was just doing a good deed. These good deeds can happen in any historical time and space. The “most beautiful teacher” can also happen in any given time and period, the title was also present in the past, and it was accepted, because this is a pure ethical event, with no conscious stereotyping. Once an issue has been tainted with the subjective or stereotype of that historical context, time and space, the it will no longer be accepted. In fact, this title of “most beautiful” is not physical beauty but a beauty that is more on an ethical and moral grounds.
#6 in a series of interviews on ‘Spiritual care and cultural transformation’, published in Southern Metropolitan Paper’s Weekly Review on August 12, 2012.
Source: 1510, 13 Auguest 2012
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