Once rejected, China embraces beauty pageants

Story highlights

  • Once bemoaned by traditionalists, China has embraced beauty pageants
  • Even Chinese women's groups give grudging approval to the new wave of contests
  • More communities are sponsoring contests to boost the local economy
  • "China wants to win the most gold medals ... well, why not a Miss World"
In 1993, when the Miss World beauty pageant was commanding 1.8 billion viewers worldwide, the front page of the state-run Beijing Youth Daily published an article with a bright red headline reading, "Peking University women reject beauty pageants."
The article slammed beauty pageants as objectifying women and received widespread support from readers.
Nearly two decades later, concerns about the "unhealthy wind" of bikini-clad contestants, as traditionalists once bemoaned, has all but disappeared. China has a raft of pageants, talent contests and modeling competitions as societal and government attitudes change in the world's most populous nation.
Much as China seeks to build its naval might on the seas, Chinese society now has few qualms about women showing navels to gain glory among the footlights of international beauty pageants.
"China wants to win the most gold medals, the Nobel in everything and, well, why not a Miss World or Miss Universe competition as well," said Dr. Louise Edwards, director of the Modern China Studies program at the University of Hong Kong.
As pageants such as modeling contests and children's competitions proliferate, China has also spawned some less traditional types of pageants, including Miss Laowai China, a two-year-old competition to crown the most beautiful foreign woman in China; Miss Chinese Cosmos, where contestants are Chinese women living overseas; and Miss Pregnant, which needs little explanation.
Even Chinese women's groups -- once quick to decry events as objectifying women -- give somewhat grudging approval to the new wave of pageants. "All winners are models for women with inner and outer beauty," said a representative from the All-China Women's Federation, who asked not to be named.
But traditional concerns still remain. She added: "Some people consider it as a show that caters to men's aesthetic-functional needs."
Local governments, which see beauty pageants as a way to boost tourism and national prestige, have fed the boom.
"In the national government's five-year plans, developing cultural industry became a strategic policy which forced local governments to focus more on 'soft power' industries, so they used pageants as a platform to promote the local city image," said Peter Wang, secretary-general of the Miss Worl