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Qi zhi: A non-Western concept of beauty is the buzz in Shanghai

By 27 June 2009 2 Comments

“What makes a woman attractive?”

I recently had the opportunity to ask this seemingly simple question to 20 strangers on the streets of Shanghai, and while the answers went in various directions, ranging from physique to a woman’s punctuality, by far the most interesting answer, and also the one most foreign to me, was the concept of having “qi zhi.”

Eleven out of the 20 respondents listed “qi zhi” in their top three picks for what makes a woman attractive, with eight out of the eleven listing the concept at number one. The rest answered that it was the second most important requirement.

Yet from the convoluted reactions I received when I asked exactly what  “qi zhi” meant, it appears there is no simple or direct translation into any concept that we might be familiar with in America. In fact, people resorted to lengthy explanations and extensive metaphors to explain the idea to a visitor.

It is how a woman carries herself when she enters a room, some said. It is the “feeling” you get about a person when you first see them. It’s based on looks, perceived attitude, stride, and everything else one can assume based on a first glance. In other words, it’s an innate quality that comes across in your every action and expression. “It comes from inside of you,” said Zhang Jiyi, 55. “It is something you are born with. It is something that a person cannot fake or pretend. It shows through your actions when you do things, such as in the way you pick up a spoon or read a book.”

Imagine a pretty and poised-looking young woman opening her mouth to unexpectedly reveal that she cursed like a sailor, showing her true self despite her looks. “That is qi zhi,” Zhang said. “It cannot be hidden.”

Although often included in qi zhi, appearance was by far the most popular answer with 18 out of the 20 respondents listing it in their top three traits for what makes a woman attractive. More than one respondent declared that physically, a woman’s eyes must have “shen,” a sort of liveliness and mystique to them – another concept that was new to me.

Others listed physical attributes such as fair skin, long legs and a petite frame.

According to professional make-up artist Xiao Feng, 26, a pretty face features “white skin, big eyes with long lashes, a small and tall nose, and a small but sweet mouth.” Xiao speaks from professional experience since she works at a photography studio in Shanghai where she seeks to enhance beauty by performing a procedure on clients that is near-scientific in its attention to detail.

Xiao recently showed a visiting reporter her technique on one of her clients. The first step in Xiao’s beautification process was to apply a base foundation all over the face and neck, in a shade or two lighter than the original skin color. Dark skin is associated with menial work, Xiao said, whereas those who are rich can stay inside and not get tanned by the sun.

Next, Xiao cut strips of clear tape and applied them to her client’s eyelids in order to create a double eyelid, thus widening the eyes. Next, false eyelashes were applied. “The eyes have to be the main focus,” said Xiao, following up with eyeshadow and blush, and ending with a shiny lip gloss. Xiao’s client smiled to herself in the mirror as she rotated her head back and forth, observing her newly augmented facial features.

And what of the woman’s qi zhi? From this reporter’s viewpoint, something did indeed appear to shine through her “cosmeticized” face in the way she self-conciously batted her eyelashes and carefully flashed a wide smile. Thanking Xiao, the woman then took giant, gleeful steps in the direction of the photo study to get her picture taken.

It sure looked like qi zhi to me.


  • CL said:

    Good article and I definitely agree!

  • Tami Nowicki said:


    I am a Texas Longhorn (class 2001) who is living and working in China, and I was really excited to find this website yesterday. I teach English 3 1/2 hours away from Shanghai, and I enjoy every opportunity to learn about Chinese life and culture. I found this article interesting because I recently had a lesson with my students about fashion and beauty. We talked about skin whitening. I didn’t know about qi zhi until now. Thanks!

    Tami Nowicki

    esl teacher in China

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