THE DREAM OF WOMEN'S BODIES
While Huang Chujiu had at best sporadic and limited advertising success with nationalism, he popularized advertising more consistently by using pictures of women to promote Ailuo Brain Tonic, Human Elixir, and several other products. To produce these portraits, he recruited two Chinese commercial artists, Zheng Mantuo (1888–1961) and Hang Zhiying (1900–1947), who eventually became widely known in early-twentieth-century China for their calendar posters of women, especially nudes.
Unveiling Nudes. In 1914 Huang took his first and perhaps biggest step toward successfully commodifying women when he discovered Zheng, then an unknown twenty-six-year-old portrait painter. At the time, Zheng was painting portraits of classical Chinese beauties (shinu hua), and after migrating to Shanghai from Hangzhou only a few months earlier, he was hoping to sell his paintings by putting them on display at Zhang Garden in the heart of Shanghai's commercial district on Nanjing Road.
When Huang saw Zheng's paintings, he immediately recognized the potential for advertising. He was particularly impressed by Zheng's rendering of classical Chinese beauties through the use of a new technique, light-colored brushwork known as rub-and-paint (cabi dancai). Apparently Zheng had invented this technique on the basis of his experience working at the Erwoxuan Photography Studio in Hangzhou in 1913, and he used it to make his female subjects lifelike (xuxurusheng) and comely— "seemingly available at a viewer's beck and call," as art critic Zhang Yanfeng has recently observed. Zheng thus differed from the most prominent Chinese artists then painting advertisements in China. His training was in painting portraits, whereas theirs was in painting New Year's pictures (nian hua) and drawing magazine illustrations, and his experience with photography made him more attentive to gradations of light and shade than they were.
Upon seeing Zheng's paintings, Huang hired him on the spot and put him to work transforming the image of Chinese women in advertisements. Almost immediately
And yet, as early as 1914, while other Chinese artists and photographers continued to obscure women's bodies in heavy clothing, Zheng Mantuo began painting seminudes for Huang Chujiu's business, and Huang wasted no time publishing them in calendar posters advertising his medicine. For Zheng's very first calendar poster, he chose a familiar subject, Yang Guifei (719–56), royal consort to the Xuanzong emperor during the Tang dynasty, who had long been regarded as one of the four leading Chinese classical beauties, and he placed her in a hot springs as other Chinese painters had done before him. But unlike previous portraitists—even ones emphasizing Yang Guifei's seductiveness and the Xuanzong emperor's salaciousness—Zheng revealed the contours of Yang Guifei's body by showing her wearing a transparent silk bathrobe. Under the title Yang Guifei Emerging from Her Bath (Guifei chuyu), this painting appeared on the calendar poster that Huang's business distributed to its wholesalers, retailers, and customers for the year 1915.
For painting Yang Guifei's head, Zheng had numerous models available to him. He was able to consult paintings of Chinese classical beauties, which continued as in the past to be a popular subject with Chinese artists. In addition he could look at the heads of Chinese classical beauties in advertisements that had been published and distributed by foreign-and Chinese-owned businesses in the first years of the twentieth century before Zheng joined Huang's staff. Without seeing a copy of Yang Guifei Emerging from Her Bath, it is not possible to say precisely what model Zheng chose for Yang Guifei's head, but in light of his other early calendar posters of women, it seems likely that he endowed her with the stereotypical facial features of a classical Chinese beauty: almond-shaped eyes (xing yan), eyebrows like moth antennae (e mei), cherry lips (ying chun), an egg-shaped face (e dan lian), and hair piled high with a bun on top.
For Yang Guifei's semiclothed body, Zheng could consult no comparable models of Chinese women in paintings and advertisements. So he modeled her body after the bodies of nude Western women as they appeared in magazines imported from the West. Before moving to Shanghai, Zheng had studied English at Hangzhou's Yuying Academy (Yuying xueyuan), and in Shanghai he used his reading knowledge to track down English-language magazines containing photographs of nudes. By copying a Western woman's nude body, adding Yang Guifei's head, and adjusting for scale, he produced the first painting showing a woman's body to be published as an advertisement in China.
With the publication of this and subsequent calendar posters, Zheng Mantuo's work was soon in great demand. Huang Chujiu tried to retain Zheng, and, by the standards of the time, Huang spent heavily on advertising, paying an annual salary of 2,400 yuan each to his leading commercial artist, his best writer of advertising copy, and his advertising manager. Despite Huang's tempting offers, Zheng soon left the Great China-France Drug Store, opened his own studio, and began to accept commissions. His minimum price for a basic design was 500 yuan. He offered his clients the opportunity to suggest additions and revisions, and he charged 100 yuan for each change that they required. Even billing at these high rates, Zheng was overwhelmed with orders, receiving so many that he had the luxury of holding over late requests for calendar posters from one year until the next.
Keeping Up with Fashions. After Zheng left Huang's business, Huang began to pay commissions to a younger man, Hang Zhiying, who eventually surpassed Zheng as China's most influential painter of women in advertisements. During the second decade of the twentieth century, as a teenager working in the advertising department at the Commercial Press in Shanghai, Hang had learned Zheng's techniques by literally stealing from him—sneaking into Zheng's office at the Commercial Press and making off with original copies of his drawings. Then in 1925 Hang left this job, founded his own business, and began to introduce innovations. His new techniques were adapted mainly from the work of Walt Disney (whose cartoons were shown in Shanghai's movie theaters beginning in the late 1920s). Like Disney, Hang named his business after himself (calling it Zhiying Studio), trained students there (serving as master for scores of apprentices before his death in 1947), and organized teams of artists to work collectively on each painting. In his business's hierarchy, he held the top position and signed his name (allowing no other) on all of the paintings that were done; below him were two immediate subordinates, Li Mubai (1913–91) and Jin Xuechen (1904–); below them were seven or eight other paid artists; and at the bottom of the organizational structure were unpaid apprentices. According to available evidence, all of these artists were men. Indeed, all identifiable Chinese calendar painters working for Hang or anyone else were men.
Hang differed from Zheng in his portrayals of Chinese women's heads and bodies. On their faces, he put broad smiles—smiles so broad that he bared their
In his portraits of women's bodies, Hang also introduced innovations. Initially he followed Zheng Mantuo's example in showing classical Chinese beauties sometimes draped in traditional costumes that left their figures seemingly formless and sometimes clad in transparent bathrobes that made them seminude. But later he showed women in two types of modern fashions, one Western and one Chinese. When dressing them in Western clothes, he exposed their unbound feet and breasts by showing them in tight-fitting shorts, bathing suits, unbuttoned blouses, untied halters, and evening gowns with plunging necklines. When dressing them in modern Chinese style, he clothed them in the qipao, a Chinese adaptation of a Manchu costume that had a high collar, slits up the sides, and buttons running from the neck across the chest, under the right arm, and down the right side. Whereas earlier painters, including Zheng Mantuo, had shown Manchu and Chinese women in qipao that were waist-length jackets with long sleeves and were worn with loose-fitting long skirts or pants, Hang pictured Chinese women in qi-pao that were sleeveless floor-length dresses which clung tightly from the waist up and fell open at the slit, exposing the women's legs from the thigh down. Whether dressing women in Western or Chinese costumes, he and his all-male staff of artists apparently painted them for men, placing them almost invariably in frontal positions and compliant poses and showing them gazing out from calendar posters as though eyeing male spectators.
Hang became renowned for his portraits of nudes and seminudes, and he received orders for calendar posters from lots of entrepreneurs besides Huang Chu-jiu. These orders came from Chinese-owned businesses—generally based in Shanghai, south China, and Southeast Asia, not in the northeast, north or north-west—and from foreign-owned businesses. Even the British-American Tobacco Company, proud possessor of the biggest advertising department of any business in China, eventually commissioned Hang to supply fully half of all its advertising paintings in China. Each year during the late 1920s and 1930s, Hang's Zhiying Studio produced more than eighty advertising paintings and earned over 240,000 yuan.
Popularizing Women's Bodies. Why were Huang's calendar posters of women's bodies his most popular advertisements of all? As emphasized by Lu Xun in the
If the bold analysis by the historian Mark Elvin is any indication, then Huang had available to him no conceptions of the human body as an aesthetic object except those discovered by members of the Chinese elite through contact with the West in the early twentieth century. Prior to the late nineteenth century, Elvin has argued, Chinese elites traditionally viewed the "body-person" (shen) as nothing more than "a pegdoll, a carrier of attributes," and, accordingly, they dressed in loose-fitting clothes and had "almost nothing corresponding to ‘fashion.’" This "overall Chinese syndrome" in pre-twentieth-century attitudes toward the human body is traceable, according to Elvin, to a "fundamental historical difference between Chinese thought and Western thought. Chinese traditionally assumed that there was a deep gulf between the morally proper and the morally improper…. There was no accepted dialogue, either philosophical or artistic, between the correctupright (zhehng [zheng]) and the depravedoblique (xier [xie]), or between the public-impartial (gong) and the private-personally based (si)." Thus, "virtue" remained uncompromising, unrealistic, and sterile, and "vice" remained human and vital but irredeemable, instead of enriching each other by their interaction, as seems to have happened in the classical, medieval, and early-modern West.
Only after this Western "dialogue" reached China in the early twentieth century, Elvin has asserted, did Chinese begin to view the unclothed human body as an aesthetic object, and only then did Chinese artists begin to depict clothed women in postures that made viewers conscious of bodies beneath the clothing.
While concentrating mainly on the Chinese elite's conceptions of the body, Elvin has also concluded that the elite's exposure to Western images of the body did not decisively change popular Chinese attitudes. The Western "dialogue" between the "correct" and the "depraved" appealed only to the elite in China's largest cities and "was felt by most Chinese to be a deadly allurement… and also a source of general social anomie, precisely because it weakened the barriers between the ‘correct’ and the ‘depraved’ aspects of life. They lacked the cultural resources needed for the easy handling of this powerful, if peculiar, Western aberration."
When applied to the case described here, Elvin's thesis is helpful only insofar as it highlights Western influence on the Chinese commercial artists who painted
This conclusion and the conclusions to the first two parts of this essay all have characterized Huang Chujiu as a pivotal figure taking ideas and images from the Chinese elite and popularizing them in Chinese society. Up to this point, his success at popularization has been inferred from the sales of his products and the satisfaction that he expressed with his advertising. But in efforts at popularization, how far did he and other sellers of "new medicine" reach? Was their advertising popular only with the elite in restricted localities or more widely throughout China and Chinese society? Clues to the answers lie in the extent to which medical advertisements were distributed in China.