Powder puff in hand, lush lips beaming with balm, an immaculately dressed scholar slash celeb walks down the streets. Of ancient China. As the contempo male beauty market in the Middle Kingdom booms, the concern for the male appearance in China actually dates back millennia. Temper brings you a two-fold tale of tradition and regeneration. Part I: Ode to male beauty.
For Good Market Measure
A fair complexion, highlighting delicate features, “cute” vibes and sometimes leaning heavily towards the androgynous… China’s new male youth has embraced a new sense of experimentation, challenging views of what constitutes “masculine.” And their quest to obtain the perfect look packs a powerfully contoured consumer punch.
Alibaba’s Tmall shopping site calls this the “Male Beauty Era” in China. The total value of the personal-care items that men are purchasing on Tmall is soaring across all categories – even makeup. Makeup purchases on Tmall by men have doubled over the past year, with the guys actively seeking out premium brands. If there are products made especially for men, China’s male consumers want them, according to a 2022 report by East West Bank’s Reach Further business magazine.
Popular Gen-Z platforms such as Douyin (China’s TikTok) and Little Red Book (小红书| xiǎohóngshū in Chinese) are driving the Chinese male grooming trend, as is the popularity of South Korean pop culture, which emphasizes a less rugged version of masculinity. With more than 75% of Chinese men born after the 1990s developing skincare routines during their college years, the daily use of male beauty products in this demographic is quickly becoming the new normal.
These trends have seen Chinese men, particularly those under 30 living in the nation’s metropolises, spend increasing sums on their appearance and grooming habits. According to Euromonitor International, the Chinese men’s skincare market (excluding post-shaving products) is already three times the size of that in the U.S., and more than twice the size of the South Korean market. Valued at USD 1.9 billion in 2020, it will be worth USD 2.8 billion by 2025, according to London-based market research firm Mintel.
Good skin is considered incredibly important for men. In fact, the male skincare industry in China is huge, with an estimated worth of around RMB 16 billion (USD 2.5 billion). Over the last decade there has been an almost 20% increase in sales volume for male skincare products.
Again, there is a strong South Korean influence at play. Twentysomething Chinese pop idols, many of whom were trained as teenagers in South Korea’s pop factories, are popular for their soft, feminine features and delicate mannerisms. They show their fans how they adopt upscale skincare products into their daily routines with messages of confidence.
That’s just a sneak peek at the status quo in contempo China. Now, we were just wondering… What did the ultimate fella in ancient China look like? Needless to say, the “market” has changed significantly—after all, it’s only been two millennia–but does history speak to current male beauty trends in China?
The Handsome Dynastical Devil
Before the Wei Kingdom (220-265), the concept of men’s beauty had little to do with one’s outward appearance. Instead it was largely focused on the Confucian philosophy of being a 君子 (jūnzǐ), aka a man of nobility and honor.
But perceptions started to change when men, especially those who enjoyed a high social status, started applying foundation on their skin to make it look brighter and smoother. Some also used balm-based products to make their lips appear shiny.
According to records, the well-known scholar Cao Zhi during the Three Kingdoms (220-280) once refused to receive his visiting friend before washing his face and applying foundation. He Yan, a social celebrity and scholar during that era, was said to have carried his foundation (well, whitening powder plus puff) and lip gloss everywhere he went. Other grooming practices among Chinese aristocrats included burning imported incense to scent their clothes.
The reason for this shift in the perception of beauty, according to some historians, was due to continuous wars during the period from the third century to the late sixth century that caused people to realize the fragility of life.
One might argue that COVID-19 has had a similar effect in today’s spheres, with effective (science-driven) workouts or more organic diet regimens and daily self-care routine upgrades highly popular among Chinese millennial and Gen-Z urbanites. On that note, we recommend you check out Jing Daily’s Wellness Is the New Luxury after COVID-19 from 2020, which still holds up today as China has been struggling with COVID-19 resurgences throughout the first half of this year. When singer and actor Liu Genghong started live-streaming aerobic home workouts on Douyin in May, with many mainland urbanites in lockdown, their viral popularity proved how the old adage mens sana in corpore sano is very much alive and kicking. Ninety minutes of sweating gathered 4 million viewers/ participants. But we digress.
Back to the days of yore. In China’s dynastical days, women would openly display their approval of male beauty. Whenever Pan An (247-300), considered one of the most handsome men in Chinese history, ventured outside, women would throw flowers and fruits into his carriage as a sign of their admiration and awe. Fangirling avant-la-lettre.
During the Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-581), soft and more “effeminate” men dwarfed their sturdier counterparts for more than 300 years.
Aside from Pan An and his swooningly juicy features, of which we have no accurate description–just FYI, another man made hearts beat faster and palms sweat during this period was Wei Jie, famous in Chinese history for his appearance. He was described as pretty, soft, and delicate.
His death at the age of only 27 was recorded in The Book of Jin, the fifth volume of The Twenty-Four Histories aka the Chinese official historical books covering a period from 3000 B.C. to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as dying from “being looked at too much.” The book noted that large crowds of people would gather wherever Wei traveled to catch a glimpse of his fine features.
Dying from “being looked at too much” indeed sounds absurd. Yet his beauty was even mentioned in the Zī Zhì Tōng Jiàn (资治通鉴), a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography covering 16 dynasties and spanning almost 1,400 years compiled by the historian, politician and writer Sima Guang in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The constant scrutiny caused Wei to be so depressed that he eventually died from it. We dare say there might be some parallels with the contemporary South Korean K-pop scene and its incredibly harsh beauty standards here. But that’s for another Temper tantrum.
A Song of Male Beauty
One poem in The Book of Songs, one of China’s “Five Classics” traditionally said to have been compiled by Confucius, studied and memorized by scholars in China and neighboring countries over two millennia, encapsulates the Chinese definition of beauty. It uses green bamboo to describe the perfect man–one who stands tall, straight and robust.
But it actually wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that handsome men with strong and fit bodies entered the picture.
Tang people preferred magnificent, glorious and supersized things, like big and strong horses or peonies with large petals. As for men, the Tang women liked theirs fit and strong.
Men’s physical abilities received special attention during this era. Those proficient in horse riding, archery, swordsmanship and martial arts were showered with praise – the flowers and fruits had gone out of style by that point.
Later, in the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Prince Charming turned out to be thin, gentle with delicate features (think Stray Kids’ Felix, in keeping with the modern-day K-pop vibes) and good manners again. The combination of said characteristics was the most enticing piece of meat on the menu.
In the Chinese classic The Dream of Red Chamber, finished in the Qing Dynasty, protagonist Jia Baoyu was described as having a beautiful fairy-like face, his cheeks painted “with the brilliance of the moon and color of spring flowers.” His brows also have the shape of fine willow leaves. A handsome man born into great wealth, Jia was the prime example of a soft and well-mannered man, sexually appealing to both men and women in the book. Dreamy, indeed. And we dare say we’re seeing some of these physical qualities in today’s male beauty blueprint. Artists like Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo (pictured above) are considered two of the most handsome idols China has to offer right now.
Women want to be with them, men want to be them.
Despite official pushback, the latest example thereof being the Communist Party of China publishing plans in 2021 to counter the “feminization” of the country’s men, the rigid reins of gender continue to loosen in contempo China. Androgynous looks, a more feminine aesthetic appeal, “gentle yet manly,” “innocent but sexy” make up the common narrative now invoked in the construction of masculinity in the Middle Kingdom. And sifting through the historical accounts, it appears this current face of male beauty in China mirrors that of the past.
It’s the regeneration of tradition.
Keep those faces tuned for Part II, where we will do a deep-dive into China’s contempo male body standards perpetuated by celebrity and online culture.
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