Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: beauty
Monday, 31 March 2014 00:00

My Eyelid (Is Not) My Identity

I have a nice colleague who once told me that she loved "Chinese eyes". I was as surprised as when I first heard from French tourists that Chinese have les yeux bridés. Whatever does that mean? Among Chinese, we think we either have double or mono eyelids, perceived to be hugely different. I was then shocked to read about the suggestion, from American and French presses, as well as from some English-monolingual writers of Asian origin who do not have much contact with Asian communities, that Asian women go through double eyelid surgery so that they can look more Westernized, or as a form of "internalized racism". That is a serious charge unknown to most Chinese people. It is not much help that the most vocal people to oppose this view tend to be connected to beauty industries. Even though statistically they know more Asian women who have gone through the procedure, their financial interest makes their opinion less credible. Since no one wants to be "spoken for" nowadays, I might as well say something about my eyelid and my identity. I will limit myself to the Chinese case whenever possible because I do not claim to know enough about all the Asian cultures.

Having double eyelids in no way makes a Chinese woman look Westernized. I have natural double eyelids and live in the "West", but no one has ever thought I bear any resemblance to a Westerner; on the other hand, I have met Vietnamese or Japanese who mistook me for one of their own. As far as I know, people have always preferred double eyelids in China, even during the decades of Mao Zedong's reign when no Western movies were allowed. Actresses in leading roles almost invariably have double eyelids, to the point that a few years ago, when a beautiful woman with single eyelids played the leading role in the film Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010), all my Chinese friends noticed the "momentous" change and wondered if mono eyelids were finally becoming fashionable. In fact, people as old as my father remember their parents also thought women with double eyelids were prettier. The pressure mainly comes from Chinese community itself. Double eyelid surgery is one of the most frequently performed procedures in China or Chinese communities elsewhere in the world. Contrary to some gruesome procedures, it is almost non-controversial. All of us know someone who has done it and people increasingly do not keep it a secret as the practice became more common. Since it is not rude among Chinese to give unsolicited advice, when a girl has mono eyelids, it is not unusual for some affectionate aunties (ayi) who are not really her aunts to tell her:

- You would be even more beautiful if you had double eyelids! It is really an easy surgery!

As someone who considers getting ear piercings (holes) too painful and settles for wearing only necklaces, I am the last one to advocate for plastic surgeries. I am glad to live now in a society where many people are or claim to be open-minded to different types of beauty, but we need to realize the challenge others face in their own cultural environment. It is easy to take the moral high ground and judge Chinese women who go through double eyelid surgery, but I can put myself in their place, because they can be my friends, my sisters and my daughters, and I know that my eyelid is not my identity.

Since my mother has double eyelids and my father single eyelids, it was through pure luck that I inherited the culturally more desirable feature. My younger sister, however, was born with monolids. Strangely, when she just woke up her eyelids would look double for a while, or when she rubbed her eyes, which she did more often than our parents liked. Maybe she had a hidden or very shallow crease. Then in her twenties, her eyelids became double even when she was not rubbing them or waking up. I noticed the change during a visit:

- Oh, they just became like this little by little! She said as if it were nothing.

Who would have believed that? But I did, and for many years. Then it dawned on me she might have done what many other women did.

- How...How did your eyelids become double? I tried to sound as casual as possible over the phone.
- I just got a surgery! It was so wonderful! She giggled like a little girl.

She already had a job, and an adoring husband. But so many women she knew were getting them, with stunning results. She chose the simple technique of "stitching threads", which leaves no scar, and with quick recovery time.

- Did it hurt?
- Not at all! And it took less time than a haircut!
- What...what did brother-in-law think?
- He was thrilled. I surprised him. He saw my double eyelids when he was walking upstairs, and liked them right away. Oh, it was the happiest day in my life!

It was the same old happiness, perhaps, as when Cinderella somehow got her party outfit. It did not occur to me to ask her if she internalized Western beauty standard, or if she betrayed our father's heritage. I knew the answer was no, and no.

The first time when I came upon an Asian woman (I could not tell her exact ethnicity) with single eyelids on a magazine cover either in France or in the U.S., I experienced a moment when "one hundred feelings mixed up simultaneously" (baigan jiaoji). Seeing a woman who would have had a hard time in a school dance in China look confident in her attractiveness revealed to me that perhaps in this world beauty might be somewhat relative and culturally constructed. It reminded me that it was beneficial to expand the range of our beauty tastes for the sake of our own and other people's pleasures. The realization made me feel bad for all the Chinese women with single eyelids who did not have the luck of being discovered and appreciated by Western lenses. But I also wondered if it could reflect a subtle form of orientalism: that is how Westerners think Asian women typically look.

Sometimes our poor eyes can only perceive what our heart or mind want them to see. A longtime Chinese diplomat and Francophile, who had spent years in France, wrote a book in Chinese about his wonderful impressions living in the Hexagon (Impressions in France, Falanxi yinxiang): one of his greatest pleasures while traveling there was to ask directions to "slim and graceful blond women with blue eyes". You wonder how long he normally would need to wait. I know that French women don't get fat (that is the title of a popular book in the U.S.), but it is safe to think that his pleasure would have been reduced at least by half if it had depended on talking with blond women with blue eyes (jinfa biyan, the Chinese stereotype of Westerners) in France, because he would have had at least equal chance of running into women with different eye or hair colors. Believing that single eyelids constitute a distinctive feature of Chinese women is not much different from thinking that French women typically have blond hair and blue eyes: what about the other (roughly) half?

Once single eyelids were made the distinctive mark of Chinese women despite the fact that a significant proportion of them naturally have double eyelids, any attempts to modify them through make-up or surgery can be viewed as an identity issue. We can observe an obvious double standard: when a brunette dyes her hair blond, a blond dyes her hair red or black, a curly woman straightens her hair, fair-skinned people sunbath or use tanning beds risking cancer to obtain darker skin, those widespread practices are not perceived to involve their identity even though they alter their natural look. Sometimes well-meaning people interpret too much through racial lenses. Instead of going as far as those who accused them of psychological projection or cultural imperialism, I would rather think they simply overlooked some important facts. My late foot-bound grandmother, who had never seen a single Westerner in her entire life, told me that "whiteness of skin covers a hundred flaws", which happened to be a common saying in China. In case you still think she was somehow influenced by Western standard, an influential poem from the Book of Poetry, written several hundred years B.C., describes a great beauty as having skin as white as "frozen fat". I do not know why my ancestors of the time preferred fair skin, but it was probably not due to internalized racism.

It is not my intention here to discuss the pros and cons of plastic surgeries, or its place in the continuum of things we do to embellish our appearance based on beauty standards du jour. Employment discrimination based on irrelevant and ridiculous criteria such as eyelids should be illegal, but then in a market economy, if enough kings/customers in certain places make their business decisions according to the perceived beauty of the vendors, it will be difficult to enforce such a ban. At the very least, when a Chinese woman decides to get double eyelid surgery, please do not assume that she is having an identity crisis or she is denying her cultural heritage. She most likely just wants to look as beautiful as her own mother or supposedly luckier "sisters" who constitute her reference group. The tapestry of our identity cannot be reduced to the shape of our eyelids, or whatever we do with them.

 

Drawing by Bendu


Thursday, 24 May 2012 00:00

The Beautiful and the Sublime

Man is an aesthetic animal. He takes interest and pleasure in the contemplation and appreciation of other men, living beings, objects, thoughts, shows, music, landscapes that strike his imagination, his memory and all his senses. He makes such appreciation a driving force of his inner life, which becomes infused by greater meaning through the exercise of his aesthetic faculties. The fact of appreciating beauty, and to be able to take time so as to let oneself be transformed by the contemplation of it also provides one with spiritual nourishment and insights. The transforming power of beauty has been recognized and celebrated in many forms throughout ages and cultures; but it is rooted into the capacity to take time out for silence and attentiveness. Therefore beauty is a fragile power, the appreciation of which is to be nurtured from one generation to another. And we have also to recognize that beauty is not purely immemorial: some forms of beauty will speak more to our senses and our understanding according to the age and milieu we live in.

But what is “beauty’” after all? Greek philosophers, and many thinkers after them, have generally drawn some kind of distinction between two kinds of aesthetic emotions, which can be roughly labeled as the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” “Beautiful” somehow refers to an aesthetic pleasure provoked by the understanding and mastery of the thing with which we relate: we appreciate the beauty of a musical piece because we realize how skillfully it has been composed, and we can compare it with other works; we admire the craftsmanship in the painting, the jewelry or the vase that is offered to our appreciation; we celebrate the beauty of the face of the loved one according to some aesthetic standard (the Romantic, the Modern, the Classical…) that have become intelligible to us through education, and travels. This is why it is sometimes so difficult to appreciate artworks that come from a culture utterly alien to ours.

The Sublime is an emotion awakened by a sense of mystery, by the sudden realization that we cannot master or understand how this particular thought, artwork or landscape has come to the light of the day. The emotion we experience has not been produced by the pleasure of recognizing aesthetic canons that we have learnt to master and appreciate, but rather by the overwhelming impression that the object we contemplate produces on our senses. The “Sublime” has to do with shock and sometimes with terror, with the struggle between life and death, with the primal forces that work within our inner being and around us. Somehow, “Beauty’ is deeply human, while the “Sublime’ confronts us to what is beyond and behind us: the Animal from which we come from, and the Divine in which we aspire to be transformed.

The whole spectrum of our aesthetic emotion speaks of the different strata that compose our humaneness – the strive for reason, and the one to go beyond or behind reason; the pride we take in being humans entrusted with the task of dominating nature; our potent and unconscious recollection of the fact that we come from the breast of the very nature that we colonize, and our aspiration towards the Divine who made us what we are and still who calls us to trespass the boundary of our selves.

 

Drawing by Bendu

 


Wednesday, 23 October 2013 10:36

Lonely Venus

She is beautiful and resides comfortably in a magnificent palace, but feels terribly lonely and constantly slighted. Each and every day, visitors from all corners of the world keep pouring in. The room where she stays is always packed with people who quickly pass by her as if she were invisible, because they are there to see her sister, Venus de Milo. When they can gaze at the most famous and the most beautiful of all Venuses, why would they waste their precious little time on anything less than that?

The contrast can be ego-shattering. Venus de Milo attracts so many admirers that she cannot help but looking somewhat fed up. She also suspects that some of them are there not due to their discerning appreciation but because of her widespread reputation. They push and squeeze to get near her even though there is not a remote chance anyone would ever get a moment alone with her. It is even difficult to move around to view her from various angles. Some raise their camera way up high so that they can take a picture of her from afar, while others manage to get close enough to take a picture with her amid the crowd, with a proud smile on their face, as if they were saying to the world: "Look at me! I am with her!"

I decide to spend some quiet time with Venus Cesi (do not kick yourself if you do not know her name; she is really not that famous), allured by her slightly downcast melancholic look and her modest silhouette, as if I wanted to assuage her self-consciousness and vulnerability. As I linger in the empty space in front of her, a few people become mildly curious and granted her a passing glimpse.

- She is just as beautiful, and she has all her limbs! A man said to his companion while hurrying away.

Venus Cesi would much prefer a moment of his silent attentiveness to his witty and indifferent compliment. She does not aspire to be as beautiful as her famous sister, but feels beautiful in a different way, shaped and molded lovingly by her creator. She has noticed the shifting standards of beauty over time and senses that her proportions may not appear as desirable now as they once did.

A few chitchatting women were thrilled to discover a quiet spot to take their own picture. They stood by Venus Cesi and put on their perfect fake smile facing the camera, as if they were telling the world: "I am in the Louvre! Look how pretty I am!"

Venus Cesi cringed. She is in no way trying to compete with Venus de Milo for the number of admirers, but she resents that people who are already in the same room do not at least take a good look at her to determine for themselves if she appeals more or less to their taste. If they only look at one Venus, how can they feel that she is the most beautiful one? Venus Cesi does not know that busy and important people only have time for the best. She is tired of being displayed in the world's best art museum, where her marginalized existence is almost always mortifyingly ignored in the company of her more famous siblings. She would rather live in the ruins of a port town with flowering wild grasses, where warm sunlight and sea breezes would caress her cold shoulder, and leisurely passersby would accord her a moment of their genuine attention. Some young men might even have a fancy for her, or some maidens would confide to her their joys and sorrows.

Not far away stands Athena, divinely serein with a pinch of irony. Because of the silly tale about her being born from her father's head, people seldom notice she is no less beautiful than Venus. Like Venus Cesi, she does not command a crowd around her either. Not that she cares anymore. The only mistake she has ever made in her entire immortal life was to have entered that ridiculous beauty contest which led to the Trojan War. How could she have subjected herself to the judgment of an impulsive young man with a questionable motive? She has since observed the vanity and peril of human obsession with superlatives, the never-ending race to become number one in each and every category: the most beautiful woman, the tallest building, the richest person, the most expensive wine, the most powerful country, the most devastating weapon, the fastest pie eater... If the lonely Venus can grow out of her silent suffering, she might even become friend with Athena, who is no longer her rival.

Athena

Photos by Jin Lu


Tuesday, 07 June 2011 18:49

Beauty in Cruelty


At the end of April of this year, the Dark Eyes Lab launched their new collaborative production ‘A Crash Course in Modern Theatre: Theatre of Cruelty, Absurd Theatre and Anti-Theatre’, a part of which was the stunning Beauty 2011, which was put under the label of Theatre of Cruelty, a play that was first performed in 2000 by the Oz Theatre Company and was performed several times until the dissolution of the company in 2004. This is the first time it has been performed since then.

I'm not sure exactly why, but I started liking the Dark Eyes Performance Lab a while ago, perhaps it was because, without dialogue or scripts, it is the actions and expressions of the actors which allow the audience to experience their performance in a very physical way. In a similar way to Charlie Chaplin's silent movies, they use exaggerated movement and expressions to make the audience laugh, but we don't really question why we are laughing. Are we laughing at the pain of others? Is the nature of laughter cruel in itself? In Modern Times Chaplin falls onto a conveyor belt of a production line, he rolls back and forth comically. But is it funny? In the world after the Industrial Revolution, humanity is pushed towards standardization, humanity becomes but a screw holding together the machinery of the production line, the symbolic,the symbolism of the big gears lead to his insane behaviour. When the mask of humour drops, the cruel reality is revealed.

When I was watching Beauty 2011, some of the audience was laughing out loud, this laughter is just the same as the laughter at Chaplin's silent films, rending and piercing, which reveals its latent cruelty. The first actor to come out on stage chewed a steamed bun with an ecstatic expression on his face, the steamed bun looked (fragrant and sweet), as if the flavour came out more and more with every chew, enough to make you hungry for a taste. After undergoing a series of rituals, the other actor is at last ready to receive the sacred steamed bun, one mouthful at a time, enjoying the feeling of her mouth being stuffed full of it. However, her mouth, full to overflowing makes it hard for her to swallow, completely stopping up her mouth, with not a sliver of space remaining. She still forces a smile as she is force-fed more steamed buns. If in the pursuit of beautiful things we manage to chase down our prey, is it not akin to that crazy scene of excess; Wanting to vomit, but not wanting to waste the hard-earned steam bun? Even having regurgitated it and spat it out, the impulse to pick it back up and stuff it back into her mouth overpowers. The scene repeated ad infinitum, attains the nuance of cruelty. How is it cruel? The cruel is something that goes beyond physical pain, a kind of extreme psychological torture. In an interview with director Zheng Zhizhong, he said: "In 2004 when I was putting my actors through the Yuquan special training program, I already thought that their bodies did not have the tension required. They had to hold 1.8 litre milk bottles in both hands, and raise them above their heads; this kind of training program trained their bodies to have more endurance." The weight of 1.8 litre milk bottles to an untrained body seems cruel; it requires one to overcome psychological barriers. Like the psychological wall people report running into at a certain stage of a marathon, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. When the will and the body become at odds with each other it is also has a nuance of cruelty. In Beauty 2011, the will of the actor drives them to keep swallowing the steamed buns, but their body is unable to take any more. If the actors had not gone through the Yuquan special training program, perhaps their performance would not have attained the desired goal.

Rather than analysing to what extent Beauty 2011 conforms to Artaud's concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, it would almost be better to take Beauty 2011 as an embodiment of Artaud's condition: a condition in which the will is split from the body. This split shrouded Artaud for the whole of his life, inside his mind roamed free, but this resulted in the imprisonment of his body in a mental asylum, which made the split between the two only more pronounced. Although Artaud only ever suggested the concept of a Theatre of Cruelty, and that it has never been put into practice in performance, I think that Artaud in himself was an instance of this theatre, any attempt to represent the Theatre of Cruelty on stage signals the return of the unremitting spectre that is Artaud.

Article by Ida Yang, translated by Conor Stuart

Taiwanese director Zheng Zhizhong discusses his recent performance of "Beauty 2011" in a recent three-part introduction to Modern Theatre.


Tuesday, 03 May 2011 18:55

The Beauty of Decay

Hubert has been living in Taipei for seven years. Every week, he spends in average six hours to stride along the streets of the city looking for the perfect snapshot which will yield the atmosphere that he feels and perceives himself. He is also a long time contributor of eRenlai where he has already published several photos. Here, he explains us why Taipei attracts him so deeply while showing us the hidden beauty of the city.


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