Who was China's beauty queen at the turn of the millennium 2,000 years ago? Alas, we picked the wrong year! But we weren't far off. Zhao Feiyan, considered one of the four greatest Chinese beauties of all time, had only committed suicide the year before, and another of the fabulous four, Wang Zhaojun, was still around but had already turned 50.
What kind of women were considered beautiful in China 2,000 years ago? What kind of power and responsibilities did they hold in the home and in the larger society? What did they aspire to? And how did their lifestyles affect those of Chinese women to come in later periods?
It is very difficult to arrive at clear-cut answers that would apply to the entire span of the Han dynasty which, after all, lasted more than four centuries, but the wife of the Marquis Yi of Zeng offers a lot of thought-provoking clues. Her body was unearthed in the 1970s from a 2,000-year-old tomb in Changsha, Hunan Province.
The most impressive thing about the marchioness is that after all this time her skin remains supple and her facial features are clearly distinguishable. When a reproduction of her was on display in Taipei recently, people flocked from near and far to get a glimpse of this "timeless beauty." One of the most interesting things about her marvelously preserved body is her big feet, for they prove that not every woman in ancient China necessarily had her feet bound.
If the marchioness went shopping for shoes today, she would need at least a size 37 for her 23-centimeter feet. The three pairs of shoes laid out in a neat little row in her tomb are each 26 centimeters long. Opinions differ as to when Chinese women began binding their feet, but in any case, there can be no doubt that this practice grew up in a society that looked upon weakness in women as something beautiful. The marchioness proves that not everyone in the Han dynasty period subscribed to the idea that weak and submissive women were the most desirable.