Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 27, 2014
Aida Yuen Wong, ed. Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012. 196 pp.; 21 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (9789888083909)

Within modern East Asian art and visual culture the politics of beauty have revolved around two notable archetypes: the “Modern Woman” and the “Traditional Woman.” The Modern Woman—also known as the “modern girl” or “new woman”—was identifiable by her bobbed haircut and flapper dress and embodied the flamboyant lifestyle of the self-motivated working girl. The Modern Woman challenged social mores by publicly asserting her sexuality, intelligence, and individualism. In contrast, the Traditional Woman, or “good wife, wise mother,” was based on a Confucian model of womanhood in which moral education and homemaking skills, rather than wage employment, cultural and intellectual pursuits, or political activities, were used to define her position within the domestic sphere.

These competing models of modern femininity form the basis of Aida Yuen Wong’s edited volume, Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, which seeks to build upon scholarly publications focusing specifically on East Asian women in the visual field (with the exception of film). As Wong writes in the introduction, since the works of Marsha Weidner, Patricia Fister, and Fumiko Yamamoto two decades ago, there have been two notable contributions, Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (edited by Joshua S. Mostow, Maribeth Graybill, and Norman Bryson, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003) and Performing Nation: Gender Politics in Literature, Theater, and the Visual Arts of Japan and China, 1880–1940 (edited by Doris Croissant, Catherine Vance Yeh, and Joshua S. Mostow, Leiden: Brill, 2008), devoted to pushing gender research “beyond the White Euroamerican zone” while attempting “to understand East Asian phenomena cross-culturally” (6). This collection of eight essays successfully expands upon previous scholarship by taking a more comprehensive approach to understanding not only how the Modern Woman and the Traditional Woman were visually represented in Japan, China, and Korea during the early twentieth century, but how varying definitions and depictions of these two archetypes of beauty transformed the political and social landscape of modern East Asia.

Drawing upon a range of media formats such as photography, painting, calendar posters, fashion, and architecture to name a few, the book is organized into eight chapters—three on Japan, three on China, and two on colonial Korea. This wide range of visual material offers readers several points of entry into a conversation that attempts to complicate the competing dialectics of traditional vs. modern, East vs. West, and individual vs. nation state that frame the development of East Asia’s modern socio-political and cultural identity. For instance, Karen Fraser’s essay, “Beauty Battle: Politics and Portraiture in Late Meiji Japan” (chapter 1) examines the critical role of new technologies such as photography and newsprint in creating a platform for the promotion of feminine beauty as a propaganda tool. Organized in 1907 by the Jiji shimpō newspaper, the first open-admission beauty contest requested the submission of photographs from young middle-class women across the country to compete for the title of “the most beautiful woman in Japan.” This request for submissions was in response to the Chicago Daily Tribune’s call for newspapers around the world to recruit beauties for an international competition. As a result, the public display of “ordinary” women shifted the visual imagery of beauty away from traditional models limited to the realm of geisha and entertainers into a modern context in which portraiture not only became a new visual genre but a source of both regional and national pride. Fraser persuasively argues that the beauty contest encouraged Japanese women, “good daughters from good families” (14), to push the limits of decorum and publicly subvert the established norms of feminine behavior that attempted to restrict women to the private space of the home. Thus, Fraser contends, by co-opting private images for public display, feminine beauty became a symbol of Japan’s national progress on the world stage as well as a new means of serving the nation.

Beauty as propaganda was not isolated to Japanese nationalism. As Hung-yok Ip and Yisoon Kim argue, it was used as a political tool in both Communist China and colonial Korea, respectively. In “Fashioning Appearances: Feminine Beauty in Chinese Communist Revolutionary Culture” (chapter 4), Ip convincingly argues for a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of womanhood under Communism by demonstrating how “self-beautification” and “self-adornment” became an important means of disguise. Through an exploration of the contradictions in Communist female iconography, Ip illustrates how the aesthetics of beauty took many forms. In spite of the pre-Cultural Revolution-era party view that “the Modern Woman not only should be politically active, nationalistic, and educated but should also show her independence and dignity by refusing to adorn herself” (65), female beauty was in fact reappropriated as a tool of resistance. In opposition to the promotion of austere androgyny in female dress and physical appearance, the endorsement of meirenji or “beauty tactic,” which justified the exploitation of feminine beauty to destroy evil and fight for the righteous cause, encouraged women to use their sexuality and charm to defeat their enemies. By harnessing the power of self-beautification and self-adornment into political effectiveness, Communist women were able to use their beauty as an effective means of serving the party.

Feminine beauty as a tool of resistance was also promoted in colonial Korea. As Kim explains in “Female Images in 1930s Korea: Virtuous Women and Good Mothers” (chapter 6), however, the images of female beauty that were celebrated adhered to the “good wife, wise mother” model of femininity. Traits that characterized the ideal colonial woman such as innocence, obedience, diligence, and self-sacrifice were visualized through imagery of breastfeeding mothers and housewives performing needlework. This type of iconography—prevalent in numerous paintings from Joseon Art exhibitions during the 1930s—symbolized traditional ideals of chastity, virtue, and maternal devotion. The image of the “good housewife” became the cornerstone for Korean nationalists in their fight against colonial oppression and depended upon the willingness of Korean women to stay home and raise good sons and daughters. Yet, as Kim adeptly observes, very few of the images that reinforced this role were created by women, and in many ways these paintings served to reify Japan’s imperialist ideology.

This reification of Japanese imperialist ideology also took the form of paintings that portray Korean women as the “exotic” and “primitive” other. Kaoru Kojima’s “Japanese Images of Asian Women in ‘Traditional’ Clothes in the Age of Empire” (chapter 7) analyzes the visual strategies used by Japanese artists to establish cultural superiority over other Asian nations in the name of empire building. In particular Kojima focuses on the works of three (male) Japanese artists who after having studied abroad in Europe turned their internalized Western gaze upon Korean female subjects. The result, Kojima argues, is a fetishization of the colonized female body and an idealization of exotic and primitive feminine beauty based within fantasy and not reality. This visual depiction is particularly evident in the portrayals of gisaeng (Korean geisha) and rural peasant women.

During a time when conservatism and progressiveness coexisted, the iconography of the virtuous woman was in clear competition with that of the “modern girl.” Francesca Dal Lago’s “How ‘Modern’ was the Modern Woman? Crossed Legs and Modernity in 1930s Shanghai Calendar Posters, Pictorial Magazines, and Cartoons” (chapter 3) and Yeon Shim Chung’s “The Modern Girl (Modeon Geol) as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea” (chapter 5) effectively examine the ways in which the image of the Modern Woman was portrayed at the crossroads of commercialism and feminism. For instance, Dal Lago’s essay discusses the physical representation of the “modern girl” with specific reference to the cross-legged posture ever present in Shanghai calendar posters, magazine advertisements, and cartoons. Dal Lago suggests that this body language could be read both as “a signifier of modernity and of sexual availability” (46) and drew not only upon traditional Qing dynasty imagery but also Western advertisements found in Harper’s Bazaar to create the archetypal cross-legged yuefenpai beauty whose hybrid character was associated with the exoticism and free-market capitalism of modern life.

Using a case-study format, Chung complicates the image of modern feminine identity through an examination of the life of oil painter Na Hye-seok (1896–1948). Na’s ambiguous status as a “Korean Nora” found her caught between the changing tradition and new morality of colonial Korea. Na identified with the self-motivated, intellectually and professionally inclined “new woman,” which was ultimately embodied in the flamboyant lifestyle and imagery of the “modern girl.” As a result, Chung argues that Na’s only surviving self-portrait reflects a provocative statement of female beauty and subjectivity that attempted to convey the artist’s identity as a “feminist painter and New Woman—not a simple victim of modern womanhood or new fashion styles” (88). Unfortunately, with only one extant example of Na’s self-portraiture, it remains somewhat difficult to ascertain the full extent to which Na challenged traditional definitions of beauty through her artistic work.

Lisa Claypool’s essay, “Painting Manuals and Gendered Modernity in Republican-era Shanghai” (chapter 2), examines the formation of shinü or “gentlewoman” genre in Chinese painting manuals from the late Imperial and early Republican era and the ways in which traditional painting styles combined female types associated with the “good wife, wise mother” model of femininity. Claypool suggests that the publication of these painting manuals and the promotion of shinü were in response to the oversaturation of Modern Woman iconography pervading Chinese print culture during the early twentieth century. Claypool’s nuanced analysis of female typology found in the Hall of the Three Rarities, the Mustard Seed Garden painting manuals, and the manual entitled Compendium of New Style Art, Classified Pictures lays bare the debate about the place of women in modern society and how traditional imagery was used to define feminine beauty as “legible models of exemplary behavior” (43) within the gendered ideological discourse of the time.

In the book’s final essay, “The Gender of Beauty in Architectural and Interior Design Discourse in Modern Japan” (chapter 8), Sarah Teasley focuses on the construction of feminine beauty through a gendered approach to design. Teasley’s thoughtful analysis of the opposition between architectural design (associated with men) and interior design (associated with women) ultimately reveals that the creation and application of beauty was based primarily upon the ways in which new gender roles were defined by specific practices and spaces. In contrast to architectural texts, which were geared toward teaching men how to design structural forms—thus promoting the study of architecture, carpentry, building trades, and so on—decoration guides were directed toward women and emphasized the creation of beautiful domestic interiors as specifically a female responsibility, ultimately perpetuating an association of design and beauty with marriage and motherhood. Thus, the strict designation of the home as a feminine space designed and occupied by the housewife underscores Teasley’s claim that gender roles in Japan were established through a relationship between space and practice.

Visualizing Beauty’s great variety of content makes it a perfect text for a course on modern East Asian art or gender in East Asian art. The only minor drawback to Visualizing Beauty is the size and quality of the image reproductions. With eight essays covering a broad range of media, it would have been nice to see larger, higher-resolution image reproductions of the works under discussion.

Yet what ultimately makes Visualizing Beauty so successful is each author’s ability to illuminate a unifying set of beliefs shared among China, Korea, and Japan regarding the evolution of gender ideologies during the first half of the twentieth century. Through an analysis of the diverse, complex, and somewhat subversive ways in which the aesthetics of beauty have shaped discourses of gender and ideology, the collection reveals that the concept of beauty was in a constant state of flux between the Confucian model of Traditional Woman and the progressive model of Modern Woman.

Erin Schoneveld
Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Haverford College

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