This is the modern face of China. The whole
nation looks to Shanghai for a vision of their future – modern, rich, and luxurious. The oriental superpower is undergoing a radical
transformation. The economic miracle has fundamentally changed the country; China is becoming a consumer
society. And according to Chinese sociologists, the beauty craze is its most striking effect. A glance at this chemist leaves no doubt about
what’s desirable in modern China: white skin is chic. Whitening beauty creams outnumber
non-whitening varieties everywhere you look. With the opening up to capitalism there came
a flood of foreign films, books, magazines. This made a huge impact. It changed our ideas
and values. This is why many young women want to look
like Western celebrities. 30 years ago this would have been unthinkable. No one could
afford cosmetic surgery. No clinics offered cosmetic surgery for reasons other than accidents. So just what should a woman in China look
like? What now counts as desirable? And why have these ideals of beauty changed? In a
former factory on the outskirts of Beijing, Photographer Zheng Chen believes he has some
of the answers to these questions. This is a woman from the Tang dynasty. Under
the Emperor, being curvy was considered beautiful. A wide face, long eyebrows, small mouth… Until recently, communist ideals valued natural
beauty. Women didn’t use make up. The natural, realistic look was ‘in’. Today other things are considered beautiful.
Big eyes, small mouth, high nasal bridge, pointy chin and of course, one’s meant to
be skinny. Unusually tall with white skin and an oval
face, model Ai Xiao Qi has more than a hint of a Western appearance; and she makes good
money on it. At just 19, she is already a well-known model. But she’s still not totally
happy. I want to look even more Western. My job demands
this. Especially when you’re a model, when you’re standing in front of cameras, your
face must have a strong profile. Cheng Zhen does what he can to help out: computer
software allows him to pick up where nature has left off. I make the skin cleaner, then change the face
shape, I make it smaller and longer. This makes people look younger and cuter. Then I take care of the eyes and nose, and
other details. According to Xiao Qi, cosmetic surgery is
out of the question… at least for the time being. Asian models with Western faces adorn the
showrooms of European luxury goods stores throughout Shanghai. Do you like this woman, her mouth, her face?
Do you think she looks good? I like her. She’s sexy. But why? She’s very pretty, she’s almost ideal… Her face shape is very three-dimensional.
Especially her cheekbones and pointy chin. What do you think is so beautiful about European
facial features? The European face is three-dimensional. The
eyes have got a good shape, a high nasal bridge. European women also have full lips. Us Chinese on the other hand have very flat
faces. It doesn’t look good in pictures. That’s why many Chinese women would prefer to look
more European. These four friends initially claim they wouldn’t
go under the knife for the sake of beauty. But they’re not being completely honest. Do you like my new chin? Yes, very pretty. The surgery did you good. Another girl from the group has recently had
an eye surgery. She also keeps quiet about it. Somehow, they find it all a little embarrassing. The girls are
typical of a new affluent, young demographic.
So they have a good handle on the latest tastes in cosmetic beauty. Small face, big eyes, high nasal bridge, white
skin. That’s pretty. I would look better with a smaller face. But
women are never satisfied. A good appearance helps at interviews. But
ultimately your achievements matter most at work. But apparently, this isn’t always the case.
This recording clearly suggests cosmetic beauty can seriously help your employment prospects. What looks like a fashion show is in fact
a serious application process, organised by an official employment agency. Beauty promises success to women in China,
both personally and professionally. I went to the States. I studied at Colombia
University in New York… This wealthy bachelor is in search of a beautiful
dream wife, and he’s come to the right place. This marriage market has been organised by
an exclusive dating agency, designed for rich men to meet beautiful young women. In China,
as in the West, financial concerns often come to the fore when it comes to choosing a partner. A
recent study questioned tens of thousands
of couples and singles from the across the country. 4 out of 10 women will only marry
a man who earns at least 1,000 euro a month. 7 out of 10 insist he must own a flat. Ms Fei manages the Peking office of a nationwide
marriage agency. Only the cleverest and prettiest women stand a chance here, and many applicants
are rejected. In contrast, male customers must meet only one condition: they must have
plenty of money We are very exclusive here. The men who come
here must have an excellent financial base. 10 million yuan is the minimum requirement. Once they’ve signed up, the male clients of
this exclusive and expensive agency expect to be able to ‘order’ a dream wife. This customer for example is 55 years old
and wants a woman aged between 27 and 35. He has clear aesthetic expectations. Her face
should be oval and have pretty facial features, such as young skin colour. He wants her to
have voluptuous breasts, and she should be between 5’4 and 5’6. Not many are able fulfil such high expectations.
The average height of Chinese women is just below 5’2″ tall. This is why some opt for
drastic measures. In this operating theatre, one of the most
extreme cosmetic procedures imaginable is being undertaken. This treatment has in fact
been banned in China, but some surgeries will still perform the operation for a five-figure
payment. First, the bones of the leg are sawn in two. Then, holes are drilled through the
calves. Long metal pins are hammered into the legs, before a brace is attached that
will stretch the legs as the bones grow back. Due to the high risks involved, leg extensions
are illegal in China; the procedure may lead to muscular atrophy, nerve damage and arthritis.
Nevertheless the demand for these risky cosmetic treatments remains high – some clinics are
performing as many as 300 procedures a year. Leg extensions may seem drastic, but they
aren’t the only cosmetic procedure to come with risks. The victims of the beauty craze are well documented
on some Chinese websites. Wang Bei was an up and coming pop star. She
wanted to narrow her jawbone. She died during this routine surgery, aged 24. This is an
extreme case, but there are many things that can go wrong in China’s beauty clinics. According
to some estimates, 200,000 faces are being deformed every year. This woman is one of the many victims – even
if it is barely visible today. Qi Lixia comes from a village hundreds of kilometers away
from Beijing. 4 years ago, the tour guide decided to have nose surgery. After the first
surgery failed, deforming her nose, she needed three further, painful interventions to correct
the botched job. When I complained after the surgery, the doctors
tried to re-assure me. They said the nose looked good. But it was completely deformed. She refuses to share pictures from that period.
Instead, she will only show photos of her face after the first corrective surgery. Qi
Lixia spent 3000 euros to make her nose look natural again. That’s as much as an annual
salary in China, and she had to pay for it all by herself. Any suggestion of compensation
was firmly rebuffed by her surgeons. Lawyer Zhang Gang represents many cosmetic
surgery victims, and says Qi Lixia’s case is not unusual. Many go to private beauty salons and clinics
without a medical license. The relevant documents are missing, there’s no treatment contract,
no official accounts. No medical records. Nothing. When something goes wrong, when the
result isn’t good, it’s almost impossible to demand your rights. Such warnings generally go unheeded. Cosmetic
surgery is booming. There’s a 20% increase in the size of the chinese market each year.
With 4 million operations and 3 billion Euros in sales last year, the Chinese cosmetic surgery
market is now second in size only to the US. China has bid socialism farewell long ago.
China is like an apple – red from the outside only. In China, capitalism is more brutal
than in the West. This discussion doesn’t concern Qi Lixia.
She’s now happy with her appearance. Her fear and pain seem to be forgotten. She tells us
she’d be happy to have further operations. Many customers want to have a good-looking
tour guide. Looking good helps me in my job. Before my colleagues were in a better situation
contract-wise. Now this has changed. The
beauty industry is big business. And as it
becomes more accepted as the norm in China, the message to young girls is clear: it is
what’s on the outside that counts.