“Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China” by Louise Edwards

Detail: "An agile woman citizen", (Dan Duyu 1922) Detail: "An agile woman citizen", (Dan Duyu 1922)

One of the sloppier—and disturbingly frequent—critical lapses on either end of the ideological spectrum is to confuse modernization with Westernization. Some 20 years ago, Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern sweepingly linked Eileen Chang’s novels, Ruan Lingyu’s films, jazz music in the dance halls, and graphic design in advertising and popular magazines not as local knock-offs of Paris and New York but rather a distinctly cohesive expression of an unprecedented cosmopolitan Chinese sensibility.

Louise Edwards approaches China’s early 20th century in much the same mindset, but where Lee surveyed the landscape through a wide-angle lens, Edwards puts her subject under a microscope. Her Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China offers a rare in-depth reading of a genre of commercial illustration known as the One Hundred Beauties, a dynastic guide to traditional attitudes and behavior (often picturing such legendary figures as Cai Wenji and Hua Mulan) that was later co-opted and transformed by artists in early Republican China as both a document of and commentary on the changing times.

Being on the cultural front lines as imports both material and ideological made their way into China, these artists knew well the risks of being derided as “neither Chinese nor Western”. And yet, their work did much to create a category in between. As Edwards writes:


[Within] the first decades of the 20th century, the rigid ideal that “being modern meant being foreign” gave way to a modern Chineseness. In a gradual process of incorporating the novel and the foreign into everyday Chinese life, a new national Chinese material culture was built.


Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China, ouise Edwards (University of Washington Press, May 2020)
Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China, Louise Edwards (University of Washington Press, May 2020)

With today’s hindsight, many observers would no doubt recognize the women pictured here as dowdier ancestors of the Calendar Girls, those iconic cheongsom-clad symbols of post-dynastic, pre-communist Shanghai. Edwards, though, back-dates her perspective, focusing only on the antecedents. Her broad sampling taken from 900 images either published or republished between 1913 and 1923 carefully illuminates the way artists introduced modern ideals by systematically adapting—and often subverting—earlier depictions of traditional Confucian values.

Edwards begins with the illustration on the cover, a tantalizingly bare-armed athlete in a knee-length skirt swinging on gymnastic rings across a wall. Taken from Dan Danyu’s 1922 collection One Hundred Beauties in the Latest Fashion, the image arguably refuted traditional Chinese womanhood as thoroughly as readers could comprehend at the time. Juxtaposing Dan’s drawing with Qiu Shouping’s rendering of the imperial concubine Yaoniang, Edwards unveils two starkly contrasting figures: one dancing for her lord, her feet bound into invisibility; the other active and independent, her clearly defined feet shod in functional slippers.

Though most of these images take pains to focus on women’s unbound feet—one drawing has its subject ice skating—the artists seemed equally occupied by women’s hands. “Delicate hands” were usually veiled in long sleeves in dynastic times; by contrast, the naturalistic appendages portrayed after 1900 were not just clearly visible but doing something of practical value. A telling contrast comes from Qiu Shouping’s 1887 drawing of a filial wife at the spinning wheel, her hands veiled as if apologizing for the need for manual labor, with Ding Song’s seamstresses from 1916 and 1917, where both their hands and the product of their labor are clearly in the foreground.


Where images of women in earlier eras were mostly concubines, servants or peasants—nearly always in a domestic setting—by the early 20th century an entire range of occupations (hospital workers, bank accountants) and public activities (driving a car, piloting a plane) had been aestheticized for the times.

The “bathing beauty” esthetic in Qiu Shouping’s portrayal of the filial Cao E at the start of her ill-fated search for her drowning father is carefully tweaked by Dan Duyu’s bathing-suited beauty from 1922, for whom Edwards explains, “Water is simply another space in which the modern Chinese woman dares to venture—she will not drown.”

Few scenes highlight the change in sensibilities more than the music chamber, with Shanghai’s embrace of European classical music forever altering the national soundtrack. Where Qiu Shouping has the concubine Lü Zhu playing her bamboo flute for a doting man, Ding Song gives us a pianist in a pantsuit and Dan Duyu offers a violinist in a floral scoop-back dress, both clearly playing from Western musical scores purely for their own enjoyment.

Although the drawings and descriptions sometimes blur from one to the next, Edwards deftly decodes her examples, exhuming not only their original message but also the dynastic notions they were meant to supplant. At her best, she succeeds in making even some of the less prepossessing illustrations seem just as revolutionary as they were to readers in their time.

Ken Smith is an award-winning critic and journalist. He covers music and cultural developments on five continents for a wide range of media.