- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

BEIJING Carefully, a salesman daubed the woman's bald spot with a cylinder of "Super Million Hair." Minutes later, with the help of a froth of "enhancement fibers," Huang Bing had what looked like a full head of jet-black hair.

"Does it look all right?" the 43-year-old insurance agent asked a gathered crowd, gently patting her new synthetic 'do. Everyone murmured approval.

Miss Huang was one of thousands who streamed into Beijing's exhibition center early this month during the China International Hair and Beauty Festival, an over-the-top splash of goods from makeup and hair potions to steam spas the size of jet skis.

The four-day event offered a sharply focused snapshot of China's women, and the pressures and products offered by a fast-changing world.

"Before, Chinese people only cared about beauty from the neck up. Now you have to worry about your body, your skin, your hands, your legs, your toes," said Miss Huang.

Onlookers watched openmouthed as freckles disappeared and tattoos appeared. Some shoved their way toward full-body massages, facials and haircuts; others inhaled aromatherapy and perfume samples. Cleavage-enhancing bras and breast-augmenting gel pads drew stares.

"Our culture is opening up, and we're opening up, too," said Liu Wei, 21, a design student with fuchsia sunglasses and blond-streaked hair. "It's vogue to be fashionable."

The evidence is everywhere.

Across Beijing, billboards trumpet beauty products, particularly those that make Chinese skin look whiter. Later this month, an international fashion show hits Tiananmen Square, where the countenance of the decidedly anti-glamorous Mao Tse-tung still hangs. And Cosmopolitan magazine's Shanghai show next month is being called Asia's most comprehensive fashion exhibition ever.

China's increasingly frantic pursuit of beauty signifies "Westernization, globalization and modernization for Asian women in society," said Cristina Pieraccini, a professor at the State University of New York in Oswego, N.Y., who specializes in how the media affect women and children.

Wang Ping, the Minnesota-based author of "Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China," suggests the increased focus on beauty is "the effort from the masses to build and consolidate a positive image of China."

"Fashion is a little tyrant who likes to coerce people to conform to its whimsical standard, and people often bow to it with much willingness and delight," Miss Wang said. "The Chinese are no exception. The question is, whose standard is it?"

For more than 1,000 years, the Chinese standard was a maiden with bound feet who was slender and fragile what Miss Wang calls "the willowy gait and lotus steps."

After the 1949 Communist takeover, and especially during Mao's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the norm changed. Women were recruited for all jobs. Clothes became unisex as most donned army uniforms or shapeless blue Mao suits and cotton shoes.

In the 1980s, as China engaged the international community, Hong Kong and Japan provided inspiration for women's body images. Now, with the growth of China's economy and national pride, "the Chinese fashion trend is bound to seek more diversity and individuality," Miss Wang said.

Also part of the Beijing festival, which ran Aug. 7-10, was a national hairdressing competition. Stylists took to the stage to snip, fluff, tease, curl and spritz their way through eight categories.

Models ran the gamut, from mannequin heads to flawlessly made-up women with jewel-colored hair and gowns. Two giant screens highlighted the action, which was accompanied by music, including the "Hawaii Five-O" theme.

"Every year, we get busier and busier," said Hua Yukun, a member of the China Hair and Beauty Association, the festival's sponsor. "People are more interested in looking good."

Pan Muzi, who specializes in makeovers, said business is getting better.

"While makeovers have been very popular in the West for a long time, the Chinese are just starting to be aware of things like that. Women, especially, are starting to feel more pressure to look better," said Mrs. Pan.

But Zhao Ye, a 23-year-old saleswoman, sees things differently. What's pressure to Mrs. Pan is progress to Miss Zhao.

"Women now have a higher standing in society. They don't need to look beautiful just to attract a man," said Miss Zhao, who was buying three fashion magazines. "They look beautiful for themselves, to make themselves feel good."

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