Goodbye Mao Cap, Hello Tiara - Beauty Pageantry Sweeps China

Never mind Confucius, which way to the swimsuit competition?

HER grandfather honored the venerable traditions of Confucius. Her father, a police official, followed the teachings of Marx. But she will have none of that. Beauty queen Lu Hung wants only glitz and glory.

"As a student of Chinese language, I thought that for the rest of my life I would never be able to rise to fame. So I became a fashion model because it's glamorous and mysterious," recalls the Chinese literature graduate.

"My generation is the lucky one. My grandfather and father had to live within the limits of a kind of ideology. But I'm lucky because I'm living in a world where things are changing. I am the new generation," says the tall, sinuous 25-year-old clad in tight jeans and denim jacket.

As elders shake their heads and Communist die-hards frown, dozens of young Chinese women turn away from drab lives to join a growing parade of would-be beauty queens and, hopefully, gain a moment of glory.

As market-style economic changes have loosened past rigidities, beauty pageants have become the rage in many dreary provincial towns, especially on the fast-growing east coast. Until last year, such displays of bourgeois frivolity and feminine ostentation were not condoned. Then on a landmark trip to south China, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping told Chinese it was alright to get rich.

Now, as Western-style commercialism spreads, beauty contests offer promotion opportunities for Chinese and overseas businesses and a chance for glamour and wealth for many Chinese women.

Last year, China had 40 to 50 pageants, the newspaper China News estimates, awarding an array of titles from Miss Air Hostess and Miss International Coconut Festival to Miss Famous Model of China and Miss Etiquette.

Many contests are held under the auspices of local Communist Party organizations more interested in money than ideology. But in a nod to disapproving party doyens, such contests still cannot be called beauty pageants, which connotes the commercial exploitation of women. Officially, they are called advertising model contests.

Still, internal party grumbling did not stop the Communist Youth League in Jinan, the drab capital of Shandong Province, from sanctioning the pageant held late last year, sponsored by a local winery and a Hong Kong manufacturer.

Opposition also came from local elders steeped in the conservative philosophy of Confucius, Shandong's most famous native son. Anxious not to stir further local sensitivities, the contestants did not disclose their measurements and rejected one suggestion to parade in bikinis.

"Confucius would be spinning in his grave, for he could hardly imagine that ... 2000 years after his death, Shandong was having a beauty pageant," China Women's News, a national newspaper, said at the time. "Confucian teaching has been that a woman is not supposed to show herself. In the past, women of Shandong province had their feet bound and ... never went out of the family."

Wang Xiaoling, a ballet dancer who just two decades ago played in such revolutionary operas as "The White-Haired Girl" and "Women's Red Army," was designated to train 40 contestants, pared down from 100 applicants who included teachers, models, and women from poor villages.

Twenty women participated in the finals. Mrs. Wang admits the final production, which was televised, was a bit awkward and rough around the edges. "Before the pageant, officials hesitated.... Their mindset is a bit feudalistic, and it takes a while for them to accept anything that is novel," she says. "But times have changed. So people have to change too."

Miss Lu, the contestant, paid only a minimal registration fee but spent a hefty $100 on costumes. As second runner up, she received $500. But she's peeved with her third place finish, contending she got edged out because the winner knew the judges.

"I didn't have any guanxi," she bemoans, using the Chinese word for connections. "There were underhanded dealings."

Still, the contest helped launch her career and her own modeling agency, and she says more pageants may be in the offing. What would the late Communist supreme leader Mao Zedong say about beauty contests in his austere Marxist China? "Mao would have to change his ideas also," says Lu.

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