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March 8, 2014
Table of Contents
1 Introduction
Shanghai woman


Shanghai woman is an English language|English expression for a prostitute, but it has a far more complex and interesting history than most such expressions. It was, when used in this way, a colonialism|colonial and racist term that deliberately did not recognize the extremely long courtesan tradition of performers, artists, acrobats, and even diplomats, who wielded real power in China, in all previous dynasties. See Shanghai courtesan.

During British Empire colonial occupation of Shanghai and Hong Kong, many Royal Navy sailors were stationed there. It was an "open city" that by the 1930s included Tsarist Russians, European Jews, and traders of all kinds. People from all over China came there fleeing situations elsewhere. Due in part to the Chinese Exclusion Act, many destitute women were forced into prostitution, and worse.

Intense cultural exchange began in earnest, with sometimes surprising effects:
around this time, modern advertising appeared in China for the first time. These ads inevitably included a picture of a smartly-dressed sexy woman often called a Shanghai lady. These strongly resembled the fetching, eyes-on, sexually charged, theatrical portraits of the original courtesan class, and as such, they were often interpreted as being representations of actual women living elegant lives. Especially by rural Chinese girls, who were often sold into slavery, moved to cities, and trained as entertainers of various kinds, including frequently prostitutes. One of the most popular radio songs of the time featured a rich young mistress, who gets up late, cannot eat rice but only candy, dances until morning, eats dinner, and spends all day sleeping. It was a classic "bad girl" image that contrasted with the obedient image of the Confucian woman. The bad image was eventually reformed and refined and compromised by commercial forces into a new image of more modern beauty: stylish, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, rich, and above all, totally urban.

In some ways, she was a "liberated courtesan", and remniscent of the Dragon Lady, the Dowager Empress. Indeed, she often had a Chinese dragon|dragon on her qipao dress, which usually featured a comparatively high slit - that style had originated in Shanghai too.

As in other countries such as France, women modified their boxy traditional dresses into more form-fitting garments to mimic that seen in the images.
The qipao became a cheongsam.
Some sociologists and historians are quite certain that this trend began in China.

Later, in the 1950s, in part to challenge this image, the ideal Communist Party of China|Communist woman would be exhorted and developed theatrically by Mao Zedong and other Communist philosophers to represent other traits thought desirable for propaganda purposes. The Peking Opera in particular was a place where this image was projected, peasant images celebrated, and so on. A similar but less successful form of propaganda was applied in the Soviet Union|USSR.

His aphorism "Women hold up half the sky", unisexual dress, and asexual image including happy muscular peasants and girl soldiers were in many ways a reaction to the image that had prospered under capitalism.

Popular characters such as Suzie Wong had by then carried the Shanghai image to the United States via Hollywood, but it was by then extinct in China.
During the Vietnam War an almost-identical style and stereotype persisted among American troops stationed there, where Culture of France|French and Culture of China|Chinese and Vietnam|Vietnamese cultures encountered each other in the cities. Musicals like Miss Saigon still celebrate this image.

Today, the popular image of the extremely active female martial artist or warrior woman, especially of Chinese origin, continues the tradition of portraying women as dynamic and robust fantasy figures. In the Western world, this image seems quite new. However, in China it is very old, and indeed, quite traditional.

See also: Four Beauties, Anna Mae Wong, Chinese acrobat

  • "Shanghai Ladies" picture archive


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Shanghai woman".

Last Modified:   2005-04-13

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