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Holistic Labour: Gender, Body and the Beauty and Wellness Industry in China

Jie Yang


There are two beauty salons in the community of Zhangqiu, Shandong Province, where I lived during my summer trips. The one I frequented is on the first floor of an apartment building. Walking into the salon, one sees a front desk decorated with bamboo plants—symbols of growth and good luck. To the left are couches facing each other, and between them is a low table spread with glossy beauty magazines, self-help literature offering ‘chicken soup for the soul’ and booklets on Confucianism and Buddhism proffering advice on how to cultivate yuan (the force to affect and attract people). Near the couches are jasmine plants and mints. Soothing Buddhist music and scents mingle throughout. People living or working in this building can come down for a massage, foot bath or

J. Yang (*)

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada

© The Author(s) 2017

A.S. Elias et al. (eds.), Aesthetic Labour,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-47765-1_6

facial. Those working at nearby office buildings also pop in over lunch for beautification or relaxation. The dynamics of this salon seem to take what Meredith Jones (2012) calls ‘lunch-hour’ procedures to a new level, as people willing to consume these services here do not even need to go to the nearest high street or shopping mall.

In China, urban residential communities are equipped with facilities like this, sometimes called yangshengguan, ‘life-nurturing centers’. They provide relief and rejuvenation for residents through various forms of beautification and ‘counselling’. People come to exchange ideas about beauty, health and life in general. They also confide in the beauty care workers, usually migrant women who are perceived as ‘outsiders’ detached from the affairs of this relatively close-knit community. Besides beauty care, the workers offer clients emotional, psychological and moral support.

This chapter is based on ethnographic work at these kinds of beauty salons in Beijing and Shandong Province.[1] I investigate the lives of beauty care workers (predominantly women) in order to understand their role in China’s booming beauty economy and holistic wellness industry. While many workers believe beauty equals happiness and health, in their work, they offer something more: quan fangwei fuwu, ‘holistic services’. To attract clients, they undertake training to improve their massage and beautification skills and various techniques of Chinese medical cosmetology. Many even seek training in psychological counselling or familiarise themselves with Buddhist, Daoist or Confucian doctrines, which are then deployed as both a marketing strategy and a resource for psychological relief. Unlike counsellors who start from the heart (the basis for cognition/emotion, virtue and bodily sensation), care workers begin with the body. They treat the body as the infrastructure for gaining access to beauty and physical and psychological health; that is, one can restore a full and positive relationship with oneself through the body. However, because of the important place of the heart in Chinese culture, beauty care workers cannot separate the body from the heart. Thus, they work at the body-heart nexus and attempt to provide holistic care. Through body work, they aim to reach the hearts of the clients, from which they extract value for themselves and the neoliberal economy.

I want to argue that when beauty care workers promote the art of living as part of their market-based labour, they actually participate in a holistic mode of governance of life that supports state interests. Although beauty salons or yangsheng guan appear as ‘depoliticised’ spaces external to the family and the state, they actually dovetail with and confirm them. Furthermore, while they seem to enmesh the Confucian tradition of xiushen (cultivating the body) as part of the tradition of yangsheng (nurturing life), beauty workers deploy neoliberal techniques to entice citizens to strive for health and avoid becoming economic or societal liabilities. I demonstrate that beauty workers’ holistic care constitutes an individual, medical and aesthetic solution to the broader social and economic problems that negatively impact individual bodies and health in China today.

  • [1] This chapter is based on a broader study on the beauty economy and the wellness industry inBeijing and Shandong Province since 2002. I interviewed both salon owners and employees (particularly those reemployed laid-off workers) (see Yang 2011).
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