Kyo, Cho. The Search for the Beautiful Woman: A Cultural History of Japanese and Chinese Beauty. Translated by Kyoko Iriye Selden. Lanham, Maryland, Rowan and Littlefield, 2012. Xiii + 287 pages. Hardcover, $49.95.
This is an English translation of a work written in Japanese for a Japanese readership. It is evident that the author, intercultural relations specialist Cho Kyo, appreciates the process of translation on many levels. His credits to individuals and institutions for their work on the translation are more than perfunctory. Typical of the East Asian manner, the author says of the primary translator "I was deeply touched by her thoughtfulness and politeness" (p. xii). The author's etiquette is matched by his scholarly thoroughness.
The histories of Japan and China are intimately intertwined. The modern Japanese are the ethnic descendants of Chinese who invaded the Japanese islands over two thousand years ago and pushed the decimated aboriginal population, the Ainu, into the far north of the archipelago. The foundations of Japanese culture, including the aesthetics of beauty, are Chinese. In 1839, European influence in East Asia reached an apogee with the British invasion known as the Opium Wars. From that point onward, the military, economic, political, and eventually the cultural power of the West has had enormous influence in Asia.
One historical difference that the present volume cites is that the standards of beauty in the West have remained quite constant from ancient Greece and Rome to the present, while the standards of beauty in China and Japan have changed dramatically. This affords scholars a dynamic tableau of data to apply to theories of what creates the cultural experience we call beauty. The Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, who married the abdicated King of England in 1937, is credited with saying "You cannot be too rich or too thin." This is an enduring feature of the inextricability of Western standards of beauty and social standing. The present volume chronicles and categorizes the many ways that high social standing and its economic foundations in wealth and power have structured the standards of beauty in East Asia. Historically, the subjects of Chinese and Japanese artistic renderings were almost entirely aristocrats, so it is their images that capture the standards of beauty of their day. Powerful individuals such as empresses and ladies of the imperial courts were seen as models for the contemporary...