Confucius and Mao would frown: China takes to beauty pageants
Confucius and Mao would frown: China takes to beauty pageants
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BEIJING (AFP) - Last year, police raided a beauty pageant in southern China, shooing a bathing suit-clad contestant off the stage and accusing organizers of breaking the law.
But this month Li Tao, a 25-year-old office worker, will see her pretty face splashed on TV screens across the country in a flashy contest of curves in the southern tropical resort of Sanya.
The event in which Li could be transformed from office lady to "Miss China" marks a turnaround in communist leaders' attitudes towards pageants.
Chinese authorities seem to have finally given in to market pressures to hold pageants after years of ambivalence over what to do with an outcrop of 20 years of economic opening they kickstarted.
"People really like beauty pageants. With higher living standards, they have higher spiritual pursuits. They want to see beautiful women. Politics can't suppress this," said Li, one of about 30 women who will compete in the first-ever Miss World (news - web sites) pageant to choose a Miss China.
The change in official attitude is a major victory for international titles such as Miss World and Miss Universe (news - web sites), which for years tried to persuade Beijing to their view that pageants were harmless.
And the Chinese market with 1.3 billion people could prove well worth the wait.
Word of the contests is beginning to raise eyebrows among women's groups.
"It's a step backwards for women in China," said Ding Juan, a researcher for the All China Women's Federation -- the most influential quasi-governmental women's group in China.
"It's hard enough as it is for women to compete in this male-dominated society. These contests will only give women the false impression that they don't need to gain knowledge and skills; all they need are good looks to make it in life."
But Ding admitted no one in her organization has voiced protest.
"What's the use? Money decides everything nowadays," she said.
Mass viewership could rake in a fortune for pageant organizers and sponsors, many of whom are the beauty supply manufacturers eager to gain a share of a growing market.
But Chinese leaders' change of mind did not come easy.
Modeling contests were tolerated because they were considered skills-based, but beauty contests were not allowed until this year.
Pageants simply did not fit the country's communist ideology, which
frowned upon bourgeois practices.
Prior to the communist takeover in 1949, pageants were held in brothels for clients' pleasure and by emperors to choose the prettiest women to serve them.
Later, Mao Zedong advocated women work alongside men in factories and wear drab, baggy clothes indistinguishable from men's.
The communist policy was reinforced with traditional values -- much of which was passed down by the sage Confucius, which placed a woman's role in the home, not on stage.
But in the end what convinced the government was money and a chance to showcase China abroad.
Eager to win tourists and investors, Chinese cities wanting to host the events lobbied the central government.
In April, Shandong province in the east became the first place in China where a government-approved beauty contest was held. The event selected a Miss China for the Miss Universe contest.
"We had to do a lot of work. Many leaders, especially the older ones initially opposed pageants," said top Shandong tourism department official Wang Rongguo.
"They thought beauty contests were a bad influence on society. Good girls, they believed, would not get on stage in a bikini and twist their buttocks here and there."
But after much lobbying, including a personal visit to China by Miss Universe president Paula Shugart, authorities granted permission, not only for the event, but for Shandong to bid to host a Miss Universe international contest in 2005.
If Shandong wins, contestants will parade around in skimpy outfits in Confucius' home in Qufu city.
To Miss Universe's Shugart, it was a matter of time before China joined the world's catwalk.
"We have a 53-year history in the rest of the world, but this is something very new to China," Shugart told AFP.
"China is the most populous country in the world. ... It is very important for China to be represented. ... I am fully confident the more people know about us, the more support for the pageant will grow."
Meanwhile, the government of Sanya city gave the go ahead for Miss World to hold its contest there in December.
This month a Miss China will be selected in a pageant in Sanya, who will represent China in December's Miss World Pageant.
Li was one of some 30 finalists selected from more than 1,000 women who participated in a rigorous selection process.
Central government officials, however, still seem reluctant to admit acceptance.
The State Tourism Administration and the foreign ministry, which issued letters to the Shandong government authorizing it to host Miss Universe pageants, have not returned repeated phone calls for comment.
"It's rather sensitive," said Sanya spokesman Zhou Xiong.
Ding of the All China Women's Federation said she feared Chinese girls would be pressured into meeting Western standards of beauty, as most contestants do not look like typical Chinese women.
"More women will feel the need to get plastic surgery to change their looks," she said, remarking on a growing industry to lengthen legs and widen eyes.
Contestants for the Sanya contest must be at least 1.65 meters (5ft 4ins) tall, taller than most girls on the streets. Even their noses are measured.
The behind-the-scenes debates are of little interest to Li.
Like most contestants, she is more concerned about the opportunities to go abroad or work in the entertainment industry winning pageants entail.
"Many of the girls, including myself, are very happy to have the chance to show our beauty," Li said.
"In my mother's generation, women got into trouble for that. My mom had to sew patches on her new clothes to make them look old. I definitely think this is an improvement in Chinese society."
Christ, I hate to hear this. India has been overrun in the last few years by beauty pagents which do nothing to help the deplorable situation of women in that country. Beauty contests in India are nothing more than cattle calls for men looking for beautiful brides. Rarely do contestants or pagent winners move onto other opportunities. I doubt China will be any different.