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Buying Beauty

Cosmetic Surgery in China


Publication Year: 2013

Chinese women are now pursuing cosmetic surgery as a way to increase their “beauty capital” and create new opportunities for social and professional success. Building on rich ethnographic data, this book shares the perspectives of women who have undergone cosmetic surgery and illuminates the motivations behind their decision. Wen Hua explores turbulent economic, sociocultural, and political change in China since the 1980s and its production of immense mental and corporeal anxieties.

Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

This book is a revision of my doctoral dissertation, which was presented to the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2010. My first heartfelt thanks go to my advisor, Gordon Mathews, for his guidance during every stage of the dissertation as well as manuscript writing. This book would not be...

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pp. 1-22

During a casual conversation in December 2004, a German friend of mine asked me: “Did you see the BBC news reporting on China’s Miss Artificial Beauty Pageant? It says that a lady over sixty and a transsexual are in the competition. It’s really unbelievable! What’s going on in China?” I was speechless at his question. People outside China can hardly figure out how an ideologically “socialist” country

Part I: Cultural Background of Cosmetic Surgery

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1. The Cultural History of Plastic Surgery in China

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pp. 25-50

Over a century ago, a German pathologist, Rudolph Virchow (1848), made his famous statement that “Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine on a grand scale.” In this chapter, I use Virchow’s critical perspective to approach the cultural history of a medical specialty, plastic surgery, in China. To...

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2. China’s First “Artificial Beauty”

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pp. 51-7

In 2003 and 2004, a newly coined Chinese term—renzao meinü—became popular around the country. The term literally means “artificial beauty,” a woman who has enhanced her appearance through cosmetic surgery. When the Beijing Language and Culture University announced Ten Catchwords in Chinese mainstream newspapers...

Part II. “Beauty Capital” in Social Transition

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pp. 73-89

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3. “Being Good-Looking is Capital”

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pp. 75-98

Since China launched its economic reform and started opening up in the late 1970s, women have become vulnerable to the impact of economic restructuring on employment. This chapter focuses on the impact of economic transition and social transformation on women’s choices of cosmetic surgery. People sometimes assume that cosmetic surgery is a privilege of movie stars, the elite...

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4. From the “Iron Rice Bowl” to the “Rice Bowl of Youth”

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pp. 99-122

Women in general are primary consumers of cosmetic surgery, but we should never assume that they are a singular group. Women who seek cosmetic surgery are positioned differently in the power-laden social hierarchy. Through the ethnographic cases of a laid-off woman, an uppermiddle- class woman, and a rural...

Part III. The Beauty Economy and “Beauty Diplomacy”

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pp. 123-139

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5. The Commodification of the Body

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pp. 125-146

This chapter focuses on the commodification of the female appearance in China’s flourishing beauty industry. I first discuss the crucial role of the commercially motivated media in creating an “ideal beauty” and the endless desire to purchase it, and in normalizing cosmetic surgery. Based on two case studies, I discuss how the...

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6. China’s Beauty Economy and Beauty Ideology

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pp. 147-164

When the quest for beauty and the option of cosmetic surgery has become a matter of consumer choice, is the state power of controlling the body superseded by the capitalist market in post-Mao China? Does this phenomenon indicate a triumph of the capitalist market over Chinese communist ideology in controlling individuals’ personal lives and bodies? I doubt it. Consumer...

Part IV. Globalization and the Changing Image of Beauty

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pp. 165-181

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7. From Barbie Doll to the Korean Wave

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pp. 167-186

In this chapter, I examine the increasing Western as well as Korean influence on China in the standards of beauty through the perspective of globalization. Globalization refers to “an intensely interconnected world—one where the rapid flows of capital, people, goods, images, and ideologies draw more and more of the globe into webs of interconnection” (Inda and Rosaldo 2002: 4). I first discuss how...

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8. Between the Local and the Global

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pp. 187-204

When commenting on the increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery in China, Jesús (2005) writes, “We’ve had the globalisation of manufacture, sales and economies. Now, especially in China, we are about to experience the globalisation of beauty: one face suits all.” There is no doubt that globalization, which integrates the whole world into one big marketplace, has indeed penetrated economic...

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pp. 205-214

How often have we heard the saying that “beauty is only skin deep”? Well, maybe it is time to rethink it. A purpose of this book is to decode meanings embodied in a seemingly “frivolous” and “trivial” beauty practice—cosmetic surgery—in the context of China. As has been discussed in the preceding chapters, beauty and the pursuit of it through cosmetic surgery is more than skin deep. The practice of surgical...


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pp. 215-222


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pp. 223-242


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pp. 243-253

[Image Plates]

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pp. 270-281

E-ISBN-13: 9789882208506
Print-ISBN-13: 9789888139811

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 28 b/w
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1