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Old 13th February 2011   #1
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Default Yang Guifei: Chinese Beauty

For many years, this forum has lamented the dearth of size celebration in Asia. Aside from a few notable exceptions, such as last year’s Hint Style model, the full-figured anime character from Hachi Koi, and recent discovery Zeng Jing, the East furnishes few icons of plus-size beauty. This is an even greater shame in light of the rich and opulent aesthetic of the Orient - so historic, exotic, and well-suited to feminine loveliness.

When we extend our gaze back to the glories of the Tang Dynasty in China, however, we discover, at last, a full-figured icon of Eastern beauty: Yang Guifei.

Remembered today as one of the celebrated Four Beauties of ancient China, Yang Guifei (variously rendered as 楊玉環, 杨玉环, 杨贵妃, or 楊貴妃 ) was the highest ranking imperial consort of Tang Emperor Xuanzong. Known for her plump, full figure – a featured greatly admired at the time - it was said she had a face that "put all flowers to shame."

The above painting depicts her with impossibly fair skin and a voluptuous hairstyle adorned with lavish pearls and flowers. There is visible weight in her rounded face; her features are doll-like and feminine. The hint of flesh visible around her neck is smooth, gently curving, and flawless, marred by no jutting bones or harsh angles. Even her hands appear femininely round and plump, adding to her overall beauty.

It was this embodiment of Oriental loveliness who enslaved the heart of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, who fell in love with her at first sight and raised her to the highest rank of imperial consort.

Many of history’s most famous beauties were known for their self-indulgence, and Yang Guifei was no exception. She was endlessly pampered and spoiled by Emperor Xuanzong; it is said that he conscripted 700 labourers to sew the finest fabrics to adorn her with. He spent lavish amounts of money to enlarge the luxurious hot springs in Huaqing, simply so that she could spend languorous hours being pampered while bathing.

And, naturally, this sense of opulence extended to her generous appetite. The sweet lychee fruit was her favourite treat, so Emperor Xuanzong organised relay horses to transport fresh lychees to the palace every week in order to satisfy her appetite. Unlike modern Hollywood starlets and models, who spend hours strenuously exercising their bodies into oblivion and barely allow themselves a proper meal, Yang Guifei was a creature of spoiled luxury. Her beauty allowed her to indulge in her appetite for sweet food and fine delicacies, and she knew that the more she delighted in such things, the greater her attractiveness would grow.

In the above image, Yang Guifei appears in a particularly lavish setting, shrouded in beautiful fabrics and adorned with gold, pearls, and flowers. Indeed, writers frequently associate her with flowers, a fitting metaphor for archetypal feminine beauty. Her delicate peaches-and-cream complexion contrasts wonderfully with her abundant dark tresses, and a hint of her full, plump arms can be seen ornamented with jewellery.

Her beauty and penchant for self-indulgence, however, are not the only admirable aspects of her character. Yang Guifei was also a great connoisseur of art and music. Many sources speak of her musical gifts of singing, dancing, and playing the lute, which enchanted the emperor and fuelled his love. One can picture her as a goddess of the arts, her music enslaving the souls of all who hear it, her sweet and feminine singing voice reminiscent of an ancient Chinese Chloë Agnew. Below is an image created by Hosoda Eishi, c.1800–20, showing Yang Guifei playing a flute, surrounded by gorgeous flowers.

A famous dance performed by Yang Guifei has been preserved – the "Rainbow Dance," which she performed together with the emperor. For this dance, it is said that she wore a gown "shimmering like sunlight," made of rare feathers brought as a tribute to the emperor. Needless to say, a dress made of feathers became the dream of every woman at the Tang court, once they saw Yang dancing, shrouded in such magical beauty.

Below is a video of a traditional Chinese dance inspired by Yang Guifei’s beauty and grace. The dancer is unfortunately very thin, but it is not hard to picture Yang’s full-figured physique moving with such fluidity and elegance, admired by all who see her. Languid, flowing movements such as these are natural to women with rich, lavish figures, and though the video’s performer executes the moves skillfully, her skinny frame cannot compare to the abundant curves of a goddess such as Yang Guifei.

It is also wonderful to see the dance performed in such overtly feminine clothing. The ethereal, flowing pink fabric and garlands of flowers are charming, and one can imagine that Yang Guifei would have revelled in such exquisite attire.

Tragically, Yang Guifei came to an untimely end, executed by rebels who blamed her and her family for the downward spiral of the emperor’s rule. It is not hard to parallel this with our modern age, a time when those who resent beauty seek to eradicate it, for political and ideological reasons. During the Tang Dynasty, corrupt officials and rebels hated the feminine beauty of Yang Guifei and tried to destroy it; likewise, in today’s world, jealous and bitter media and fashion insiders resent traditional feminine beauty and endeavour to eliminate it through weight propaganda and starvation.

Though Yang Guifei’s downfall was tragic, the forces of resentment failed to eliminate her memory from the world. Even today, nearly 1300 years after her death, Yang’s legendary beauty still inspires works of art. The statue pictured below stands near the very same pools at Huaqing in which Yang spent her days bathing. It is unfortunately contemporary, rather than a historical work, therefore shows a thinner build than Yang Guifei would have possessed. Regardless, there is still something admirable about the notion of a historical icon of full-figured beauty continuing to inspire works of art, much like a Helen of Troy or Aphrodite for the Chinese.

The statue exhibits wide, feminine hips and round thighs, and most agreeably of all, the face displays visible weight and a curve under the chin. Also, note the ornate hairstyle. This voluminous updo seems to be the most common hairstyle with which Yang Guifei is portrayed, a symbol of traditional Oriental elegance and beauty, fitting for a goddess such as her.

The sculpture stands in a gorgeous setting, surrounded by trees, flowers, traditional Chinese buildings, and the famous hot springs. Many times on this forum, it has been noted that nature is the perfect match for plus-size beauty – one natural ideal complementing another. It is fascinating to reflect that over a thousand years ago, Yang herself bathed in the very same pools in which her statue is located today.

Though sculpted by a contemporary artist likely inclined toward modern aesthetics, the statue exhibits plentiful traits of soft femininity. Yang Guifei’s beauty transcends the barrenness of our present-day culture and continues to inspire gorgeous works of art. Indeed, many Chinese and English sources still praise her plump figure and delicate peaches-and-cream complexion. The fact that this historical icon continues to garner admiration in contemporary culture surely says something about the timelessness of her beauty, as well as the enduring desire for more symbols of full-figured femininity in both the Eastern and Western worlds.

In Yang Guifei, we have finally found a historical icon of full-figured womanhood in the Asian world. The rich opulence of the Orient is an ideal environment for plus-size beauty, and Yang Guifei perfectly embodies the archetypal feminine goddess, with her doll-like face, plump figure, indulgent appetite, and love of the arts.

This is the sort of beauty that one hopes will be restored in the Eastern world, if the people are able to rediscover their rich cultural heritage and the purer, more natural values of the past.
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Old 14th February 2011   #2
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Default Re: Yang Guifei: Chinese Beauty

Thank you for such a compelling and intriguing essay, Tamika. I had never heard of Yang Guifei before. I was delighted to discover that the Far East has a historic goddess of plus-size beauty to call its own.

This is one of the most sensual passages that I have ever read on this forum:
Originally Posted by Tamika
Naturally, this sense of opulence extended to her generous appetite. The sweet lychee fruit was her favourite treat, so Emperor Xuanzong organised relay horses to transport fresh lychees to the palace every week in order to satisfy her appetite. Unlike modern Hollywood starlets and models, who spend hours strenuously exercising their bodies into oblivion and barely allow themselves a proper meal, Yang Guifei was a creature of spoiled luxury. Her beauty allowed her to indulge in her appetite for sweet food and fine delicacies, and she knew that the more she delighted in such things, the greater her attractiveness would grow.

"A creature of spoiled luxury." The wording is so evocative and decadent. Tamika's description vividly conveys the seductive personality of Yang Guifei herself.

I can't imagine a more fabulous editorial layout than if Zeng Jing, the gorgeous Chinese plus-size model whom Tamika mentions in her post, were to do a photoshoot as Yang Guifei, garbed in some of her luxurious dresses (including the feather dress). One image could even show her bathing in the "luxurious hot springs in Huaqing," with servants attending to her every whim and the emperor himself eagerly bringing lychee fruit for her to eat.

Last edited by HSG : 14th February 2011 at 04:31. Reason: Hyperlinked name in Hannah's post
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Old 21st February 2011   #3
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Join Date: January 2011
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Default Re: Yang Guifei: Chinese Beauty

This essay is very beautifully written, worthy of its subject.

I adore this passage in particular:

Originally Posted by Tamika
Many of history’s most famous beauties were known for their self-indulgence, and Yang Guifei was no exception. She was endlessly pampered and spoiled by Emperor Xuanzong; it is said that he conscripted 700 labourers to sew the finest fabrics to adorn her with. He spent lavish amounts of money to enlarge the luxurious hot springs in Huaqing, simply so that she could spend languorous hours being pampered while bathing.

It sounds like something out of a European fairy-tale, yet it is completely historically true, right down to the physical existence of the hot springs. The thought of the most full-figured, most well-fed of the emperor's consorts being acclaimed as the most gorgeous woman in the empire and having the emperor himself at her beckon call, eager to satisfy her every greedy whim, giving her the life of unmatched luxury that she's intoxicating to think about. There is something excitingly regal about the idea of a plus-size beauty having servants waiting on her, sewing luxurious dresses for her to wear, labouring for her, while she just relaxes, and bathes, and's a vision of paradise on earth.
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Old 13th September 2011   #4
Join Date: July 2005
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Default Re: Yang Guifei: Chinese Beauty

We are deeply grateful to Tamika for her well-researched, informative, and entertaining post about one of the most celebrated beauties of world history, Yang Guifei.

In reading about this Chinese enchantress (whose name is also variously transliterated as Yang Gui Fei, Yang Kwei-Fei, Yang Yuhuan, and Lady Yang), one is struck by the similarity of her tale to that of the lovely, tragic Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. For all of their physical robustness, both queens had charmingly girlish, feminine qualities. Both were given to lavish self-indulgence. Both became plump due to their insatiable appetites. Both were alluringly vain and seductively spoiled. Both ensnared the souls of kings, and, through the irresistible power of their beauty and their exciting feminine greed, compelled those kings to neglect their royal duties and to devote the resources of their nations towards satisfying their limitless desires. The care of the kingdoms of France and China became less important to these love-slaved monarchs than the pleasuring of their curvaceous consorts.

Though source material from the Tang Dynasty is understandably scarce, given its antiquity (A.D. 618-907), Yang Guifei's full-figured appearance is a matter of historic record. The following passage, freely translated from The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, a narrative poem about the love affair between Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei by Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi (白居易), notes her fleshy appearance:

So wrote the Emperor
of plump Kwei Fei, whose blood
his generals poured in dust, whose love
cost him and China everything.

A recent big-budget televised re-enactment of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow offers the following description of one of its scenes, based on Bai Juyi's text:

With a group of court ladies on her side, Concubine Yang wears a thin chiffon blouse which barely covers her soft bosoms. Through a thin curtain of waterfall, the charming figures of Yang and the court girls form a picture of bathing ladies in hot spring. The Concubine leaves a gentle trace of dancing figure on the transparent falling curtain of water. She is as plump as pear blossoms in drizzle and as nice as the green boughs glittering with pearls of dew.

(What a pity that the actress selected for this production entirely lacks the "plump" qualities that Bai Juyi's poem records.)

Further contemporary sources identify Yang Guifei as the definitive embodiment of the feminine beauty of her era:

The following verses in The Book of Songs described the aesthetic standard for women.

She was plump and tall,
In her embroidered robe, with a single garment over it.

She was plump and tall,
When she halted in the cultivated suburbs.

How great is that luxuriant look,
A rosy cheek like peach or plum!

Lady Yang, or Yang Guifei . . . was deemed the most beautiful woman in the Tang Dynasty, and she promoted the aesthetics that revered plumpness. A typical beauty in the Tang Dynasty must have "a face fair as a hibiscus and eyebrows thin as willow." Naturally, she must also be as "plump and voluptuous as Lady Yang."

In fact, Yang Guifei's beauty so centrally defines the very idea of full-figured feminine beauty that she is referenced in a Chinese idiom: yanshou huanfei (燕瘦环肥). The last character of the idiom, 肥, which refers to Yang Guifei's beauty, has variously been translated as "plump," "f**," or even "ob***," likely depending on the aesthetic preferences of the translator.

The paintings of the Tang Dynasty corroborate contemporary literary references to the fullness of Yang Guifei's physique, as this page records:

Tang-Dynasty paintings indicate that -- like other beauties of the time -- Yang Guifei was a plump woman.

However, although Tang Dynasty illustrations of Yang Guifei clearly exist, identifying them from the countless online depictions of this Chinese beauty is almost impossible, given the dearth of clear sourcing on the Web and the difficulties inherent in the Chinese language.

The illustrations that are likeliest to be original are those which exhibit the simplest technique, such as this depiction of Yang Guifei with a mandolin. The waist is non-representational, as is the case with Egyptian statuary, but even so, the fullness of the face and the generous bust is evident.

Click to enlarge

It is unknown whether the following sculpture, conclusively dated to the Tang Dynasy c.713-755 A.D., depicts Yang Guifei herself or a representative beauty of the period, but the plump face exhibits the well-fed appearance that the courtesan established as the cultural ideal of her time.

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A fleshy roundness of the visage also characterizes the following Tang Dynasty figurine.

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Interestingly, the Japanese have an apocryphal tradition whereby Yōkihi (as Yang Guifei is known to them) was not assassinated at all, but fled to Japan, where she lived for many more years. The following sculpture of Yōkihi, showing her plump, round-faced beauty, is from the Sennyuji Temple in Japan.

Click to enlarge

The facial fullness of Yang Guifei (centre) is also evident in this historic watercolour, possibly of Tang ancestry.

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The following extremely sensual painting, depicting the emperor offering his beloved a flower while she admires her beauty in a mirror, shows soft, sensually full arms and thighs, especially by East Asian standards.

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Many early depictions of Yang Guifei focus on her practice of bathing in the Huaqing Hot Springs. In an example of a cross-cultural trope, these constitute an Oriental equivalent of the Susannah and Bathsheba motifs that permeate Western art. The following image, undoubtedly later than the Tang period, shows her in diaphanous raiment similar to that of the goddesses in Botticelli's Primavera,

Click to enlarge

while this painting, possibly of authentic Tang date, depicts her unclothed and exhibiting more openly lascivious qualities.

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The following images are likely far later than Tang Dynasty originals, but they effectively display the soft sensuality of Yang Guifei. Observe the plump roundness of her arms, her pale skin, and her generous bust, barely contained by her low-cut gown. (Even in the Far East, the strapless, sleeveless style is recognized as ideal for showcasing plus-size beauty.)

Click to enlarge

In this sketch, Yang Guifei accentuates her hips like a present-day plus-size model adopting an S-curve pose, while her buxom richness overflows her daringly low-positioned dress.

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A clearly contemporary work, the following depiction of Yang Guifei leaning against a servant shows her seductively baring her shoulders--which are alluringly soft, and without a trace of a visible clavicle--and exhibiting buxom contours beneath her dress.

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In addition to its numerous literary treatments, Yang Guifei's story has been immortalized in innumerable works of film and television. Alas, Chinese cinema suffers the same defect that blights Hollywood when it comes to creating period pieces: rather than acknowledging the plus-size beauty ideal, it generally casts actresses with an anachronistically anorexic look. The production from which the following still was taken, in which Yang Guifei is portrayed by a very full-figured actress, is a rare exception.

Click to enlarge

The stills from the following film, however, suggest a work that struck a reasonable compromise between timeless beauty and present-day sensibilities. The actress appears visibly soft and fleshy, with a well-fed look, particularly in the attractive weight in her face. The image showing her reclining on the plump cushions in the Tang palace is extremely sensual.

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The actress deftly conveys the unique mixture of girlish innocence and budding seductiveness which the historic literature attributes to Yang Guifei.

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Keen-eyed stylists might consider which elements of this period wardrobe might be adapted or incorporated into wearable, present-day looks.

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The following image (apparently from the same film, but via a different source) shows an intoxicatingly sensual scene--an example of the emperor feeding his famously self-indulgent beloved. The intimacy and passion that such a vignette suggests is utterly overwhelming.

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Contemporary portrayals acknowledge Yang Guifei's love of dance as much as they depict her penchant for indolence. The two qualities are not contradictory, and in fact, this blend of feminine lassitude and a voluptuous enjoyment of dance links Yang Guifei with another Western full-figured beauty, Emma, Lady Hamilton.

Click to enlarge

Despite the brainwashing effects of the rootless modern media (which is slowly colonizing Chinese culture as surely as it colonized Old World culture, following the catastrophe of World War II), Yang Guifei remains a touchstone for a different type of beauty, a reference point for a legitimate manner of feminine attractiveness that contradicts the media's thin-centric mantra. When the loathsome, diminishment-pushing magazine Self launched a Chinese edition in 2007, an article about the premiere issue noted that

a set of cards came with the magazine as a 'free gift' wrapped in a plastic case. Three of the cards are reproduced [below]. Most interesting perhaps is the plump girl, whose slogan reads: "A little fat is okay. Yang Guifei was like that, and she made the Tang Dynasty Emperor sick with love.

Even in modern-day China, the memory of Yang Guifei legitimizes feminine fullness as a persuasive vision of beauty. And sure enough, the "plump girl" in question is adorable, with round facial features and attractive fleshiness at the neck.

Click to enlarge

As the above example suggests, although Yang Guifei is a historical figure and a topic of scholarly interest, she remains alive in Chinese popular culture as an embodiment of a fleshy kind of sensuality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the following image, which shows a "Yang Guifei" cell-phone wallpaper, with a buxom model in a gorgeous dress who is specified as a present-day equivalent of the Yang Guifei type.

Click to enlarge

And finally, in the most striking example of Yang Guifei's ongoing cultural relevance, the following image shows the legendary courtesan rendered in the distinctive anime style that pervades East Asian animation. Her figure is not quite plus-size by the Tang Dynasty measure, but compared to the truly anorexic mould of most female bodies in anime, she is much fuller-figured. The artist blends traditional and contemporary elements in a fascinating manner, right down to the decolletage-baring dress, and convincingly evokes the spirit of Yang Guifei, if not quite the full, fleshy reality.

Click to enlarge

* * *

From its inception, the Judgment of Paris has celebrated the timeless beauty ideal which dominated Western culture from the dawn of classical antiquity to the early part of the twentieth century, when hostile, alien elements staged a slow-motion, cultural coup.

However, although full-figured femininity never dominated the Far East as it did the West, it clearly had a place in Chinese cultural history. And in fact, Yang Guifei, who defined this plus-size ideal, retains a greater cultural currency in present-day Oriental consciousness than any comparable Old World beauty does in the Occident.

This makes the ongoing dearth of gorgeous and genuinely full-figured plus-size models of Far Eastern descent all the more galling. The lone example that comes to mind, the gorgeous Chinese plus-size model Zeng Jing, is a dead ringer for Tang-era depictions of Yang Guifei, and possesses comparably opulent allure. What a pity that the opportunities for full-figured models in China are currently so limited.

Let us hope that "the once-and-future aesthetic" soon includes many more East Asian representatives.

(Click images to view larger.)

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