Though male makeup actually plays a significant part in China’s long history, today’s digital society has seen a surge of a new modern men glamsquad (aka 小鲜肉| “little fresh meat”) upping the stakes in the quest for and promotion of male cosmetics. From brush to rush, it’s free reign for all.
As the rigid reigns of gender seem to be loosening in China, male makeup on the face of things — hardy har har — appears to no longer that big a taboo. Jumping onto Taobao to order your monthly fix of BB cream or eyebrow pencil is swiftly becoming a regular occurrence for this millennial Chinese generation.
China’s New male Youth has embraced a new sense of experimentation, challenging the traditional views of what is “masculine.” Packing a powerfully contoured consumer punch as they go.
High Temper time to take it back to where it all began, as Emily Aspinall discovers how male make-up in the Middle Kingdom came to be. And where the next stroke of the Kabuki brush will lead.
A Brief History of Male Makeup in China
The debate has been heating up lately surrounding the trendy and flawless-looking men plastered across the advertising boards of China — who are now also walking the streets. However, a country with a long history and years’ worth of literature can provide us some insight into contemporary China and the popularization of male beauty.
All those years ago, the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) saw the first use of white face powder to lighten the skin, as it became popular amongst men… It seems it has always been important to correct one’s complexion. The white skin fascination is very much still prevalent in the East as it was back in those days.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the most beautiful version of a man was a delicate, gentle and kind mannered one. In Chinese literature masterpiece “The Dream of Red Chamber” (written towards the end of Qing Dynasty), the lead male character’s eyebrows are described as being the “shape of fine willow leaves” and he always has blushed cheeks. Also, let us not forget the national treasure, the Beijing opera (京剧 orin Chinese), which sees men in full faces of carefully designed makeup, each color, and stroke bearing a deeper meaning. It seems that as a male looking after your skin, taking care in and enhancing your appearance has always been completely “normal.”
Mother Nature’s Very Own
In modern society, our makeup is produced and perfectly formulated in a chemistry lab. Today, the Chinese market runs far and wide in terms of products for every skin tone, texture, and formulae. One thing is for sure, in ancient China they couldn’t find pre-made cosmetics, of course, it came from the soil, aka Mother Nature Herself. In an age of no beauty bloggers or fashion KOLs to aspire to, Chinese people had to use their own terrain to enhance their looks.
Chinese men in the Roaring Twenties 2.0 are growing increasingly conscious about their appearance because of the growth in exposure to digital media. In today’s online age, it’s becoming ever more popular for male beauty bloggers to share their skills online. Whether in the form of follow-along tutorials, sponsored reviews or blogging, their digital ongoings cater to the needs for male skincare and beauty products which have evolved from a simple facial cleanser to a rigorous beauty regime including lotion, toner, cream, facial masks.
The Hard Data of Hardcore Skincare
We turn to Daxue Consulting for the hard data as the agency in July 2020 reported, “One report released in June of 2018 by Vipshop.com(唯品会) and JD.com(京东) showed that the Chinese skincare market has reached ten-billion-RMB. It is estimated that the total value in male skincare will reach RMB15.4 billion. The data collected on Vipshop.com in 2019 found that 96 percent of males purchased cosmetics.
The first group is L’Oreal(欧莱雅), Nivea(妮维雅) and Mentholatum(曼秀雷敦), with a scale of more than 500 million.
The second group army includes Goff(高夫), Biotherm(碧欧泉), Garnier (卡尼尔) and Olay Men(欧莱雅男士).”
Marketing To China in July 2020 reported that “the total value of the personal-care items that men are purchasing on Tmall is soaring across all categories, even makeup. Male beauty and skincare in China is expected to garner over US$166 billionby 2022, with a CAGR of 5.4% between 2016 and 2022. ”
China Digital and the Made-Up Men
Take Chinese-born Lan Haoyi (known as Lan Pu Lan online) as a successful example, he is just one of the hundreds of male bloggers blurring the lines between entertainment and advertising. With 1.4 million followers, foreign beauty brands like Aesop are sponsoring for him to use and promote their products in his tutorials, shot at home in his Beijing bed-sit. China’s best-selling lipstick salesperson, too, is a man: Li Jiaqi, also known as the “Lipstick Brother.” The man once sold 15,000 lipsticks in just five minutes by using Taobao live streaming. To men, to women, to whomever was watching.
Despite the still-often-nasty comments from those hiding behind their keyboard, the increased online representation for us indicates makeup is no longer a “feminine” or even “masculine” thing, it simply just a tool. For everyone to access.
The flawless skin and softly spoken voices of China youth boybands like The TF Boys have perhaps paved the way online vloggers to take male beauty to the next online platform. It’s worth noting that the “little fresh meat” digital powerplay did not invent the androgynous look as it was South Korea’s K-Pop scene that in fact pushed the boundaries of male beauty and redefined the concept of masculinity across the area. K-Pop groups like BTS have popularized male beauty across Asia. Similarly, in Japan, a genderless, androgynous style is popular amongst men, including nail polish and colored contact lenses.
This new culture is all about self-expression. But comes from humble beginnings.
All evidence points to a new era of Chinese male beauty and a redefinition of male beauty standards. Nevertheless, the rituals of skin whitening, rouging and bronzing have been part of Chinese history for a long while.
Whether it’s today or thousands of years ago, male makeup continues to have its place in the Middle Kingdom and its recent surge in popularity is helping stiff gender attitudes shift.
And gain free reign.
Featured Image: Actor Chen Kun as photographed by Chen Man for Harper’s Bazaar China, 2019. Copyright belongs to Chen Man, all rights reserved
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