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Ethnographic Account

Non-surgery in the Salons: The Ambiguous Legitimization of Beauty Work in Urban China
Valeria Lotti
p. 139-162


The economic reforms that triggered China’s extremely fast development since the 1980s have also involved the beauty sector: the so-called beauty economy has flourished along with all the commercial activities related to the beauty industry, from pageants to fitness, to cosmetic treatments. This article focuses on beauty salons and the beauticians who work there, considering some particular treatments performed in that environment. It is common to find beauty parlors that have an agreement with “specialists” who perform “advanced treatments” in a separate room. The treatments range from wrinkle removal to filler injection, up to double eyelid creation – procedures that are typical of cosmetic surgery clinics, but those in the beauty salon are performed with non-surgical methods. The treatments are performed in a warm and cozy environment, as opposed to the cold and intimidating clinics where surgeries take place. The beauticians who perform them are usually friendly and far from the impassive image of doctors. This suggests a negotiation of the boundary between medical and non-medical settings that is carried out by the beauty workers, and creates a “gray zone” that needs to be explored. What role do the beauty salons and the beauty workers play in this negotiation? I attempt to answer this question by analysing the data collected during my research stay in Hangzhou and Shanghai in autumn 2018. This insight has been further enhanced by some of the findings of my previous stay in the same area, when I was carrying out broader research on cosmetic surgery trends.

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I. Introduction: beauty salons and beauty economy in China

  • 1 This is not her real name, but a pseudonym. The names of all the participants mentioned in this art (...)

1When I entered that beauty salon in northern Hangzhou I felt relieved. I had some trouble finding it, because it was hidden in an alley on the side of a giant shopping mall in an unfamiliar area of the city – Hangzhou has unceasingly expanded since the first time I set foot there several years ago and it’s a discovery every time. Luckily, Mei gave me directions on Wechat and set off to rescue me. Mei1 was twenty-nine at the time and worked as a beautician, and was eager to share her experience with me. It was a hot and humid September in Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang province, in south-eastern China. Through a common acquaintance who knew about my research interests, I got in contact with a colleague of Mei’s and subsequent­tly with Mei. It was the first time that we met in person after exchanging messages in the previous weeks: she received me with a smile and briefly showed me around.

2The beauty salon was not big but well equipped: the entrance room had several reclining chairs, only few of them occupied at the moment by customers who were having their nails done; there were also a check-out counter and a couple of small cupboards that contained materials and utensils. The decoration was simple but feminine, along the shades of white and pink. On the wall opposite the entrance there was another door covered by a curtain: Mei led me through it into the back room. Here the ambiance was strikingly different from the front room: it looked more serious and professional, without any shades of pink in the furniture and decoration. There were two massage beds and in between them stood a shelf with some sort of machine and various products. On the left wall, I could see another door and next to it a staircase that led upstairs in the darkness. Later on, Mei revealed that the staircase led to the empty office of the “specialist” who collaborated with them for some advanced treatments and who was unavailable for interviews. Mei sat on one bed and invited me to sit on the other, offering me a cup of hot water. She told me with a touch of pride that this room was where she worked, because her tasks were more advanced than the regular nail-care and make-up treatments that were performed in the front room by her colleagues. She worked on skin care and used the fancy machines and products displayed in that room.

3Nowadays, beauty salons like the one where Mei works are widespread in Chinese cities. The period of economic, social and political reforms that started in the late 1970s, commonly known as the reform era, has brought about important changes in the country, shifting it from a centrally planned economy to a market economy with the aim of reaching a modern and industrialized society (Cao et al., 2010; Minzner, 2015; Zhu/Ngok, 2007). Some of these changes concerned the development of the beauty sector, with the flourishing of what Xu and Feiner (2007) have called the “beauty economy”. The beauty economy (in Mandarin meinü jingji, literally translatable into “the economy of beautiful women”) consists of all sort of beauty-related businesses and activities.

4This study focuses on one particular aspect of the whole economic and social phenomenon of beauty care: the advanced cosmetic treatments performed in beauty parlors. As mentioned above, beauty parlors are widespread in the urban areas of China, and to my knowledge there are no updated official statistics about their exact quantity. Xu and Feiner (2007) mention some numbers: 1.6 million beauty parlors employing 9.4 million people and producing an income of 176.2 billion RMB, according to Zhang Xiaomei, the President of China’s Beauty and Fashion Daily and also a member of the Tenth National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, these numbers are about fifteen years old and we should expect them to have increased since then. The National Bureau of Statistics of China regularly publishes data on the progress of the country’s economy, but we find hardly any specific data about the number of beauty salons. The last reports of 2019 only mention the cosmetic market in saying that the retail sale of cosmetics has been growing steadily (Natio­nal Bureau of Statistics of China, 2019a, 2019b). Some Chinese websites address the growth of the beauty business, such as, which published a top ten of the largest beautification companies by distribution on the national level at the end of 2017 (Chinabgao, 2017): focusing on these ten companies, however, this report completely overlooks the many small independent salons. Another website,, tried to estimate the size of the national beauty business in terms of revenues (Showlan, 2018).

5However, the reliability of such websites is questionable, because the source of their data is not clearly indicated; it is therefore wiser not to report those numbers here, although it is useful to acknowledge their existence. The difficulty in quantifying the beauty salons is also due to their nature, which is sometimes (or even often) not completely legal. It seems that the situation is similar in Japan, which Miller (2006) neatly described in the following words: «the aesthetic salon occupies a place on the border between legitimate business and shady operation» (Miller, 2006: 42). What is interesting, though, is that the above-mentioned websites agree on the fact that the beauty business is “the fifth biggest consumer hot spot” (di wu da xiaofei redian) after real estate, automobile, electronics and tourism (Chinabgao, 2017; Showlan, 2018). This confirms the trend that Xu and Feiner (2007) already discussed several years ago: that the beauty economy is one of the most productive economic sectors in China.

6The expansion of the beauty economy is partly due to the ideological shift of gender norms that happened after the end of the Mao era (Ip, 2017). Maoist ideology promoted the image of a strong muscular woman who rejected self-beautification in order to work for the revolution, whereas the market-oriented ideology of the following reform era brought about a sort of re-feminization of women and the flourishing of many forms of beauty­fication, which aim at reaching the ideal look: thin body, fair skin, oval face with pointed chin, slim cheeks, high-bridged nose, and big eyes (Lotti, 2018). Considering the formation of modern Chinese beauty ideals and the extent to which they are the result of cultural exchanges with the West, Wen (2013: 212) argues that

the new beauty standards in China are created from local forces, but they also involve aspects of borrowing and redefining. The globalization of beauty images is a hybrid process which invokes both the internalization of certain Western beauty ideas and the local redefining of global beauty ideals.

7Desjeux and Yang (2020: 51) define the beauty that emerged in China in the 1990s as a beauté métisse, that is to say a mixed beauty, which origina­ted from a reinterpretation of Western beautification practices in accordance with local Chinese culture. In this regard, it is relevant to acknowledge the influence of South Korea and Japan, which began having cultural and economic exchanges with the West much earlier and whose beauty and fashion industries have enjoyed great success in China. This has made the beauty ideals of the three neighboring countries quite similar, to the extent that they may often be referred to as East Asian beauty ideals (Lotti, 2018). These beauty ideals are often embodied by celebrities, such as Chinese actresses Fan Bingbing, Liu Yifei and Angelababy, who flaunt their fair skin, large double-lidded eyes and straight nose.

8Since this article deals with beauty work, it is important to observe that the gender differentiation typical of the market economy has not only impacted people’s appearance, but also the labour market (Yang, 2011; Rofel, 1999). As a result, many non-highly-educated young women go to work in beauty salons instead of factories (Ip, 2017; Liao, 2016). And these women are at the core of this article, because they are those who act within the special realm of the beauty salon, and whose work reflects the ambiguity that characterizes the beauty salon itself. This is a place where many different cosmetic treatments are performed, and some of them border on aesthetic surgery – such as the creation of a fold in the upper eyelid, a procedure that is usually called double-eyelid surgery and that is widely perfor­med in hospitals. Yet, it can be performed in beauty salons too, although with different techniques. The execution of such treatments, which are often called micro-surgeries, virtually situates the beauty parlor in a “gray zone” between medical and non-medical settings, giving it an ambiguous character that deserves to be explored.

9Both the salons and beauticians play a role in the continuous negotiation of the boundary between beauty and medicine, a negotiation that has already been the object of several studies and debates in the West. In particular, Alexander Edmonds (2010, 2013) has examined the cosmetic surgery sector in Brazil, one of the countries with the highest consumption of plastic surgery and the only country where those procedures may be provided free to those who cannot afford them. The right to beauty comes to coincide with the right to medical care, and it belongs to everyone: in this sense, beautification becomes a healing process from ugliness, which in turns becomes a form of disease (Edmonds, 2013). He argues that aesthetic concerns exist in medical branches other than cosmetic surgery, for instance in the field of women’s reproductive health care: this highlights how strongly the two realms of beauty and medicine intertwine. Edmonds’ research evokes, though indirectly, the definition and analysis of medicalization given by Peter Conrad (1992, 2007): the process of medicalization happens when a non-medical problem is treated as a medical problem, be it baldness or small breasts, and it often prompts people affected to search for a remedy in medical treatments. In other words, it facilitates the overlapping of medicine and aesthetics. Dalgalarrondo and Hauray (2015) explore the anti-ageing market in France through the story of the risky yet miraculous DHEA molecule, supposed to effectively slow down the skin’s ageing process. In the late 1990s and early 2000s those treatments gained a huge popularity, despite warnings on the medical community’s part: this shows that a strong popular aesthetic discourse contributes to legitimizing medical treatments that otherwise would not be as quickly legitimized. Both Black (2004) and Cochennec (2004) enter the realm of beauty salons, the former in the United Kingdom, the latter in France. Black (2004: 2) discusses the ambience of the salon, its decoration and the personnel’s uniforms: «These white overalls offer the impression of both cleanliness and clinicisation. They emphasise the medicalised nature of some of the treatments available, as well as the claims to professional status of the staff».

10The boundary between cosmetic and medical is blurry, at least in appearances. The beauty salon is then analysed as a place that not only deals with beautification, but also with a complex assortment of femininity, identity, health, and labour. It is precisely this complexity that makes the beauty salon a stimulating subject for socio-anthropological research. Cochennec (2004) focuses on beauty parlors on the Ile-de-France and especially in Paris. She explores the professional figure of the beautician in relation to the legitimization of the beauty care world, which is constantly undermined by its inevitable comparison to the medical world. In this study, too, the salon is considered a place of femininity that goes beyond beautification in itself.

11The beautician as the actor and the salon as the place of action carry out a process of legitimization of their particular position that is surely not unique to China, since the above-mentioned studies showed similar negotiations in the Western hemisphere. However, in this particular society it acquires a special significance related to the rather recent flourishing of the beauty sector after decades of suppression. How does the medical-cosmetic negotiation unfold in the case of China? And more specifically: what role does the beauty parlor play in the negotiation of surgical and non-surgical treatment? And then, how does the engagement of beauty salons and beauticians in the labour process facilitate the acceptance of micro-surgery?

II. Methodology

12The data this article is based on have been collected within the framework of a larger project on the evolution of beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery in urban China. The initial focus was on clinics and hospitals, since those are the primary sites where cosmetic surgery is performed, but it then expanded to beauty salons as well, because the specific aspects of the most popular procedures extend beyond the clinical realms. The beauty salons opened further research paths that diverged from the main project but that proved equally exciting: those secondary paths led to the creation of this paper, which may be regarded as a side development of an ongoing research project. Fieldwork was carried out in Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang province, and to a lesser extent, in Shanghai. The two cities’ relative proximity allowed me to travel back and forth quite often. For what concerns this article, Hangzhou was the primary site, because it is there that most of the interviews and the observation were carried out. In Shanghai I interviewed one woman who had undergone a type of non-surgical treatment that was also performed in a salon like the one described in the introduction. These women were introduced to me by mutual acquaintances and friends, which proves the efficacy of a solid personal network in the field.

13Hangzhou and Shanghai are located in the Yangtze River Delta, in Eastern China, a large wealthy and highly urbanized area. It covers most of the Southern part of Jiangsu province, the Northern part of Zhejiang province, and the municipality of Shanghai. In addition to Hangzhou and Shanghai, many other important and also historical cities such as Suzhou, Nanjing, Wuxi, Shaoxing and Ningbo are located in the Yangtze River Delta. The economic and social characteristics of this area made it a fitting candidate for research on the beauty business. In the past two decades Hangzhou’s industrial sector has developed enormously, especially the technological and internet industries – it hosts the headquarters of the e-commerce giant Alibaba – increasing the city’s wealth and appeal on both national and international levels. On a more romantic note, beauty has always had a special connection with Hangzhou, which has long been considered among the most beautiful cities of the Celestial Empire, together with Suzhou. A popular saying goes like this: “in heaven there is paradise, on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou” (in Mandarin: shang you tian tang, xia you su hang). The West Lake in the heart of Hangzhou is a very famous historical site, celebrated for the exquisite beauty of its scenery, which contributed to boosting the growth of the city’s tourist industry.

14In Hangzhou I interviewed three beauty therapists, two of whom worked in the same salon. I visited other salons besides that one, but none of them granted me the opportunity to interview the beauticians and conduct observations as I could do there. The three beauticians mentioned in this paper represented very different types: Mei was very passionate about her job, and in fact she accomplished more advanced tasks, while the others mostly carried out simpler treatments like nail-care and make-up. The other two, Jin and Luo, did not seem very passionate: the former only did the job for the money and the latter did it for fun and because she was herself a beauty enthusiast. I first met Jin in April 2017: she did nail-care on a friend of mine who, knowing about my research interests, introduced me to her. She work­ed for a beauty salon but also independently home to home, but then quit and started working in a coffee shop where the pay was higher. I met Luo in September 2018 through a mutual acquaintance, while she worked full time in the beauty parlor. She then introduced me to Mei, who was a colleague of hers. This time I was focusing more narrowly on the study of advanced non-surgical treatments, and beauty salons triggered my curiosity much more than clinics. All interviews were quite informal and conducted separately, including Mei’s and Luo’s who were co-workers, and in various environments: I usually met Mei in the salon when she had no customers, while the other two preferred to set our appointments up in tea rooms and American-style coffee shops.

15I believe that it is important to point out that my interaction with the beauticians was influenced by my own identity: a young white European female researcher who speaks Chinese. They saw me as a foreigner who knew their culture well enough to deserve their taking time to talk and share their experience. If I had not spoken their language, I would have needed an interpreter, which would have made the whole process much less spontaneous, which might have had an impact on their responses. Mei, in parti­cular, was not only eager to share but also to learn about beauty trends in Europe from me: she asked me what kinds of face creams are popular over here, what brands are famous, how much a woman spends on skin care eve­ry month, and similar questions. Therefore, her interaction with me was shaped around mutual interest, which is more likely to arise when the two parties feel that they share similar characteristics – two women the same age having a conversation in a language they both speak about a topic they both find interesting. The researcher’s personal identity is an essential question in anthropology and thus it must always be taken into account.

16My approach was ethnographic, since it is probably the most suitable for describing how people in East Asia experience reality in the era of global economy with all the new possibilities and constraints it produces (Anagnost, 2013). My fieldwork included two separate stays, first in spring and summer 2017 and then in autumn 2018, but it must be noted that the first and longer stay was predominantly dedicated to my main research project on cosmetic surgery and the evolution of beauty ideals. It was only during my second stay that beauty parlors attracted my interest as an additional path to explore. Therefore, I consider my approach to this particular research to be closer to a “short-term ethnography”, borrowing the concept expressed by Pink and Morgan (2013). They point out that in contemporary social science research

ethnography is not always characterized through long-term engagement with other people’s lives. Rather it involves intensive excursions into their lives, which use more interventional as well as observational methods to create contexts through which to delve into questions that will reveal what matters to those people in the context of what the researcher is seeking to find out (Ibid.: 352).

  • 2 For more information about work migration within China, see Angeloff T., 2010.

17That is what I did, following along the path set by Liao (2016) with her study on beauty parlors in Shenzhen, in Guangdong province in South-East China. Her focus, however, was on the precarious labour of migrant women who work in beauty parlors, whereas mine had nothing to do with migration. This difference is not only due to the researcher’s interest, but also to the characteristics of the examined areas: Shenzhen is a Special Economic Zone (SEZ, jingji tequ in Mandarin), and therefore a hub of labour migration from all over China since the 1980s; Hangzhou, on the other hand, is a historical city that has developed its commercial potential more recently, in the internet era. As a result, Hangzhou has not experienced the massive flux of domestic migration that Shenzhen has, and therefore a focus on migrant workers would hold less significance in that case2.

III. The beauty salon as an anthropological place

18Beauty parlors are at the centre of this study as the place where certain types of activities are performed. Therefore analysing their symbolic signi­ficance as places is essential. As explained by San Cornelio and Ardévol (2011), there is a fundamental difference between the common understanding of space and place: the space is «a natural fact, a general and measurable issue, a setting where reality occurs», whereas the place is «a more concrete spot in space, occupied by individuals and groups, in other words, it is a social product» (San Cornelio/Ardévol, 2011: 316). Being a social product, the significance of a place is enriched by the experiences of the people living in it: the place is thus linked to the perceptions of people. Along these lines, the famous anthropologist Marc Augé (1992) described the place (as opposed to the non-place) as being related to the identity of people who live in it, an “anthropological place”, full of language and movement, memory and emotion. This experiential concept of place can be employed to analyse the beauty parlors: their role goes beyond that of a geographical place, but also includes the feelings and emotions people experience in it. And because their function is linked to emotions, beauty parlors tend to have a homey ambiance in order to make people feel at home. According to Friedmann (2007), we generally arrange a place in a way that makes us feel at home, because feeling at home means feeling comfortable. After all, Friedmann observes that

as anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written, “no one lives in the world in general” but in localities where human ties and familiar landscapes give rise to sentiments of place, providing shelter against the vicissitudes of life (Friedmann, 2007: 277).

19And beauty parlors do aim to emphasize human ties, familiar landscapes and sentiments of place. I have stepped into many beauty parlors in China and all of them, in one way or another, looked warm and cozy. Most of the time it was the colours of the walls and furniture that evoked that sentiment of comfort – usually shades of pink and orange symbolizing coziness, together with light blues and white symbolizing tranquility. The beauty parlor that I examined for this study, as mentioned in the introduction, had one front room and one back room, which featured two different decoration sty­les. The front room was more girly and colourful, with pink decorations and posters of beautiful women on the walls, and had comfortable reclining chairs where customers sat for nail-care and facial treatments like masks and make-up. The beauticians usually gave customers and visitors a cup of tea – or of simple hot water, as is the custom in China even on hot days. There were beauty magazines for the customers to read while waiting, though most of them just played or chatted on their smartphones. The overall atmosphere was lighthearted. The back room looked more scientific: it had simple white walls, a couple of posters showing perfect wrinkle-free and oval-shaped faces, two beds like those you find in a medical practice, and a shelf that held a skin-purifying machine and several bottles and boxes of skin products. There were no beauty magazines here, but instead brochures explaining various skin treatments. The atmosphere here was more serious, but still comfortable. This was Mei’s operating space and she made sure that people felt at ease, by offering them tea and cheerfully chatting with them. Both rooms sought to seduce the customers; they just did it in a different way: one by offering a feminine homey ambiance, the other by showing a professional, but not threatening, face. The decoration of each room reflected the degree of seriousness of the treatments that were perfor­med there. But both rooms aimed to make the customers feel comfortable, and the beauticians’ friendly behaviour was key in that.

A. Toward a competition?

20The image of the beauty salons as familiar and homey places affects their position in the gray zone between the medical and the cosmetic realms directly. The beauty salons have perfected some treatments that “replace” certain cosmetic surgeries, in the sense that they obtain similar results without performing a surgical operation. In this way the salons attempt to raise themselves, in the eyes of their customers, to the same level as hospitals and clinics, because they provide treatments that aim at the same outcomes but boast non-invasive techniques. Moreover, they offer to carry them out in a pleasant environment, where the customers can feel at ease, comfortable and relaxed, and where they can interact with friendly and caring beauticians. Together with the beauty parlor, the beauticians too attempt to elevate their status: they are no longer “simple” beauty workers, because they act within and belong to an environment that offers superior aesthetic care.

21What do the salons and cosmetologists seek in raising their status? A conjecture might be that they aim at an indirect confrontation with the hospitals and doctors. In order to win over prospective customers, they propose a certain image opposed to that of hospitals and doctors: it is unlikely for people to feel at home in a hospital, let alone for the medical personnel to establish friendly relationships with the patients. These contrasting images may encourage people to choose beauty salons over clinics to undergo advanced beautifying treatments, since they are attracted to an intimate and friendly place rather than an impersonal though professional setting. Human ties and emotions may in this case prevail over pure professionalism, although I admit that there is no real competition on a larger scale: cosmetic clinics offer many surgical and medical treatments that are beyond the beau­ty parlors’ competences. The two may “compete” only as concerns procedures that overlap, that is to say, those procedures that may belong both to the medical and cosmetic worlds, depending on how they are performed.

B. The magic of an intimate place

22In the European and North American context, some studies have explo­red the ambiguous nature of the beauty salon, a characteristic that situates it between the medical and the non-medical and between the domestic and the professional realms (see Black, 2004; Cochennec, 2004; Straughan, 2010). This ambiguity is also part of my personal experience, since I too sometimes happened to go to a beauty salon as a customer, mainly during my late teens in my hometown in Italy. I clearly remember that particular atmosphere that oscillated from light to serious, but that always remained very intimate, as if to cement a special secret connection between the beautician and each of her customers. Although the beauty salon is a public space, it is also an intimate place, since the treatments performed there concern the body, a vulnerable and private territory for the human being. The salon’s warm and amicable ambiance, as well as the beautician’s caring gestures and words, create the sort of intimacy that lets the customer unwind and trust the hands that handle her body. In this sense, the salon turns into a “protective cocoon”, as suggested by Morgan Cochennec (2004: 81). Indeed, the walls of the salon protect the clients from the external world and its violence, creating in that way a sort of oasis of peace, an intimate and safe place far from the real world (Cochennec, 2004; Ourahmoune/El Jurdi, 2020).

23In fact, I remember crossing the threshold into the salon and feeling that all the noise and worry belonging to the outside world could no longer touch me. Certainly, I did not experience the same thing when visiting beauty salons as a researcher, since in those circumstances the “magic” was not addressed at me. I talk of “magic” regarding the beauty salon but I am not the first one to do so: Cochennec (2004) and Ourahmoune and El Jurdi (2020) have too, although they referred to the techniques and rituals of beautification, whereas I refer to the ambiance of the place. Surely, lotions and treatments that modify the body evoke the rituality of magic, but that’s not what I want to express. In my perspective, the whole ambiance of the beauty parlor with its warmth, comfort, and intimacy aims to cast some kind of spell over the customer, who then feels sheltered and pampered however brief her stay there. The Hangzhou salon had the potential to cast such a spell over its customers, thanks not only to its decor, but also to the sociable manners of its beauty workers.

IV. Who are the beauty workers?

24When I first met Jin, she had just quit her job in the beauty parlor and started working in a coffee shop. She said that she wanted to learn new skills, because she was a bit bored with her job in the beauty industry, where she had worked for two years, mostly doing nail-care. She was not a beauty enthusiast and went into beauty care only because it seemed like something she wanted to try. We might say that she became a beautician by coinciden­ce when she arrived in Hangzhou from the suburban area: working in the salon was better paid than other service jobs and allowed her to learn some useful skills.

25Beauty care is in fact often the choice of young migrant women lacking skills, capital and qualification (Liao, 2016). Neither Jin nor the other two beauticians were, however, real migrants: only moving around Zhejiang province, from small suburban areas to the provincial capital, Hangzhou, which could offer them more job opportunities. They were still relatively close to their hometowns and families, and therefore they did not bear a burden as heavy as that of the inter-provincial migrants who are the object of Liao’s reasearch. The somewhat accidental nature of Jin’s choice to work in beauty care may lead one to wonder whether there are schools training beauty therapists in China. In fact, there are beauty schools in China, as confirmed by Liao (2016), who mentioned the existence of beauty schools in Shenzhen. Very often, however, the training takes place within beauty salons, as was the case for the beauticians I interviewed. The salon where Mei and Luo worked provided them with an initial training when they started working there, and then with intermittent training to keep them updated about new products on the market. Luo affirmed with satisfaction that every few months an instructor would go to the salon and train the beauticians. To my knowldge, however, there is no nation-wide standardized formal training, and therefore the beautician’s personal skills become even more important for the advancement of her career.

26A therapist as passionate as Mei, although having no higher educational qualifications, was more likely to be successful in beauty care than the other two. Indeed, she occupied a higher position. While talking to her, she appeared better prepared and motivated than the others, and this made conversing with her far more enjoyable than conversing with the others. From what Miller (2006) wrote, in Japan there is a similar situation of lack of official beauty training. In Hangzhou and Shanghai I saw beauty parlors everywhere, but do not remember seeing any training schools for beauticians, apart from one, which was not far from my accommodation in Shanghai, in Xuhui district: L’Oréal Training Centre, which looked very elegant and high-end from the outside, definitely not a place to train the multitude of beauty workers that go into small regular beauty salons. This observation, together with the information shared by the beauticians themselves, suggests that the training is usually carried out directly in the beauty salons, although beauty schools do exist.

A. Precarious labour and human interactions

27The lack of standardized formal training to become a beautician may contribute to the instability of this occupation, which is already somewhat precarious financially. Beauticians do not usually earn a fix salary, with their earnings depending on the treatments they perform: the more the better, and especially the more expensive the better (Shi, 2018; Ip, 2017). Their basic salary is quite low (or in some extreme cases even non-existent), with commissions increasing it significantly. Commonly, the senior workers are paid under a bonus system in which they receive a basic monthly wage with an additional amount that depends on their clients’ expenditures and also on the company’s sales revenue. Therefore, clients are essential for the beautician to make a good income (Shi, 2018; Ip, 2017).

28The strategies the beauticians implement to make clients purchase more treatments and products are various. I observed that Mei, while talking to me about her job, emphasized her committment to the customers by saying that she tried all the creams she used for treatments on her face before proposing them to the customers: she would never sell anything she did not like and trust herself. She had earned the confidence of her customers and would never place it in jeopardy, as she took her job very seriously. Acting friendly with customers is surely one strategy to make them purchase more, in suggesting what suits them best and thus gaining their trust, as pointed out by Ip (2017). The personal connection is what wins them over, and beauticians spend a lot of time establishing and strengthening that connection, treating the regular customers like family, in order to transform a business transaction into a personal relationship (Shi, 2018). This supports the consideration that human interactions are a key aspect of work in beauty parlors. Indeed, Luo admitted that an important reason why she decided to work in beauty care was the interaction with people, something she would have missed had she embarked on “a boring office job”. Developing relations has something to do with the ability to listen, which is often presented as a fundamental quality of the beautician, even more than her professional competence (Cochennec, 2004).

29The existence of such precarious labour is due to the labour system of neoliberal societies, where new jobs are often transitory, linked to an increasing migration toward richer areas and to the development of illegal networks (Falquet, 2006). This dynamic applies to the Chinese case as well, with the significant difference being that the migration does not cross international borders, but is a domestic movement: from the poorer West to the richer East, from the countryside to urban areas, and from small towns to big cities. But the nature of the jobs, in being temporary, poorly paid, and sometimes even illegal, is similar. In China, neoliberalism has prioritized economic development at the expense of class and gender struggles, which instead were a focal point of Maoist politics (at least officially), insofar as socialist ideology also promoted gender equality by promoting the participation of women in the workplace (Liao, 2016; Angeloff, 2010).

B. A feminine job

30A beauty salon is a predominantly feminine universe, not only because the majority of customers are women, but also because the majority of beauty workers are women. Four decades ago, Pierre Bourdieu (1979) observed that it is no coincidence that jobs in the service sector and beauty care are mostly occupied by women. In China, too, the service sector seems to be strongly associated with femininity (Hanser, 2005; Otis, 2012). Much more recently than Bourdieu, Liao (2016: 141) commented: «Unlike factory work, the beauty business is largely considered the province of women, and it evinces such feminine characteristics as caring, patience, and somatic, as well as emotional, intimacy». She argues that the beauty parlor has become an extension of the household: the same family norms and assumptions are enforced, those that direct women toward child-care, supporting a husband, and offering care to others both physically and emotionally.

31Beauty therapists embody a type of labour that requires high levels of intimacy, care, and face-to-face relations: it is what Hochschild (1983) cal­led emotional labour and then Hardt (1999) called affective labour. Emotional labour emphasizes the relational aspect of work (Steinberg/Figart, 1999; Toerien/Kitzinger, 2007). In fact, the strategies that beauticians employ to persuade customers to purchase more treatments are often successful thanks to their friendly relations with the customers, rather than their skills at doing those beautification treatments. Steinberg and Figart (1999: 9), quoting Macdonald and Sirianni (1996), refer to skilled, labour-intensive and relation-focused service work as “emotional proletariat”. This seems an appropriate designation for these beauticians’ type of employment. Mei, Luo and Jin all graduated from high school but did not pursue college education; in this regard, Mei felt that she lacked the educational qualifications to start a career of higher prestige (i.e., a white collar job) and that had contributed in part to her decision to work in a beauty salon. Their salaries were neither very high nor very stable, depending on the commissions they ear­ned each month; that being one of the reasons why Jin decided to quit her nail-care job and go work in a coffee shop, where her wages were more stable and she felt more secure. Their work in the beauty salon revolved around building friendly relations with the customers, through taking care of their bodies while talking and listening to them; this possibility to share and connect with other women was very much appreciated by Luo.

32In Europe, Cochennec (2004) sees an over-representation of the female population in occupations related to “care”, like nurses, childcare workers or indeed beauticians, and identifies the reason in the fact that women have generally been cast in maternal roles that involve caring. In the case of beauticians in China, Liao (2016) points out that care seems to them the one thing they can do well, and therefore the one thing they should be doing, together with being flexible, entrepreneurial, and capable of working long hours. This generates a paradox: in a way, non-highly-educated women are empowered by their ability to choose their own work – being no longer obliged to go work in a factory – but then they are, at the same time, limited by that very choice. The choice that offered them freedom also constrains them into a gendered type of labour. Liao’s consideration concerns migrants, but I see it as more broadly applicable to female beauty workers in China.

33The beauty therapists of this study are not exactly part of the migrant population (though they did move from smaller towns to the provincial capital), yet their labour has the same attributes: feminine, emotional and precarious. This type of labour usually belongs to the service sector, that Fal­quet (2006) divided into two branches: cleaning/housekeeping and prostitution. At this point it is evident that a third branch needs to be added, that is beauty care, which is an aspect of the service sector as well but does not fall into either of the two categories Falquet set out. The work of the beauty therapist belongs to its own category and acts within the same gray zone as the beauty parlor, according to its own rules of caring for the body. Black (2004) argues that the beauticians themselves tend to perceive their skills as inherent to their feminine identity, but at the same time see their status as adjacent to that of medical professionals, because of their shared know­ledge of human biology and care for the body. In the gray zone of the beauty parlor, the various aspects of the beauticians’s work are in harmony with one another.

V. Ambiguity and the legitimization of advanced beautification

34Luo and I were drinking tea while she told me anecdotes about her job. At that time she was twenty-six and had been working in the salon for a little over a year. Besides basic tasks such as make-up and nail-care, she had learned how to do filler injections, because once in a while an expert would come to the salon and teach the beauticians more complex procedu­res. She had not yet given injections to customers, though, but practiced on herself, on her mouth precisely: she did not only like performing beautification treatments on others, but also enjoyed undergoing them herself. We might call her a beauty enthusiast, always up-to-date, always eager to try new things. Working in a salon surely provided her with abundant access to the beauty universe, and also gave her the prospect of progressing in her career by learning advanced treatments, as she had just started doing. In that way, she could reinforce the mechanism that positions beauty parlors and beauty therapists on the edge between cosmetic and medical care, in that ambiguous land where the body is skillfully touched and treated for improvement.

35The salon where Luo and Mei worked offered some advanced treatments, those that in China belong to the broad realm of weizheng. This term is a combination of the adjective “tiny, slight, micro” (wei) and the first half of the words zhengxing and zhengrong, which both indicate plastic and cosmetic surgery; the character zheng alone, however, means “repair, put in order” and has no direct link to the surgical and medical realms. Thus, the English translation of weizheng is not simple, because it needs to incorporate the nuances of several Chinese characters. It may be translated into “micro cosmetic surgery” or “micro cosmetic treatment”, with the latter seeming more appropriate as it does not stress the surgical element but leaves more space for all the other nuances.

36Since weizheng may include both surgical and non-surgical treatments, people have various understandings of what constitutes a weizheng and what classifies as “real” cosmetic surgery. Usually, the advanced treatments performed in the beauty salon, such as filler injections, wrinkle removal, and even the creation of a fold in the eyelid, are perceived as weizheng. But what about procedures such as rhinoplasty (nose job), which are undoubtedly considered surgeries? Can they still belong to weizheng? Well, actu­ally, they can. It all depends on the paradigm we choose to define this special category. If we decide that what counts is the size of the area involved, then yes, a nose job is a weizheng, because it operates on a rather small area. Following this logic, a breast augmentation surgery is definitely not a wei­zheng because the area it involves is rather large, and not because it is a more invasive procedure than, for instance, filler injections. However, if we decide that what determines the categorization is the degree of complexity of the procedure, then a nose job is not a weizheng, because it requires breaking and replacing bone and cartilage. In this sense, a rhinoplasty falls into the same category as breast augmentation surgery: zhengxing or zhengrong, that is, proper cosmetic surgery.

37This discussion is as fascinating as it is inconclusive, since no paradigm has been officially accepted and everybody holds onto their personal understanding of the matter. Even among the professionals of beauty and medicine there are various perspectives that may all be valid. The advanced procedures performed in beauty salons, however, quite surely fall into the wei­zheng group. They are non-surgical treatments and strongly advertised as such, even when they aim at bodily modifications that are usually obtained through surgical methods. The double eyelid is a great example and will be addressed later on.

38The Hangzhou beauty parlor had a convention with a specialist who performed advanced treatments. That’s right where the staircase I saw in the back room led to: a third room where the “weizheng specialist (weizheng zhuanjia)” performed those treatments. During the time I spent in the salon, that room was always inaccessible due to the absence of the specialist, who only came when she had appointments with customers. Unfortunately I did not have the occasion to meet her during my stay in the area, and she remainned in my imagination a mythical creature who eluded my regard. She was probably busy elsewhere, since she collaborated with more than one salon, and perhaps had no interest in being interrogated by a researcher. In the hierarchy of the salon she was above all the other beauticians, because of the type of treatments she performed. When I asked Mei whether this woman had some sort of medical degree, she was unable to tell me. The possession of a degree was totally irrelevant to her: this woman had skills and experience, and that was enough to make her a specialist.

A. The maixian technique: the beauty of the non-extreme

39One treatment that this specialist performed was the maixian technique, that we can translate as the “hidden thread” technique. It is used to obtain a double eyelid: it creates a fold in the upper eyelid so as to enlarge the eye – as mentioned in the introduction, big eyes are an ideal beauty trait in contemporary China. The maixian technique has the same goal as the blepharoplasty, the so-called double eyelid surgery, but it is nonincisional, which means that it does not require any cutting and removal of tissue, whereas the blepharoplasty does. It does, instead, require a suture of tissue thread on the upper eyelid in order to create the fold (Choi/Eo, 2010). A procedure like this, although nonincisional, is commonly performed in clinics and hospitals by aesthetic surgeons, as shown by Choi and Eo (2010). The fact that it is also performed in beauty salons by non-medical specialists is an indication of how far the salons have exerted their efforts towards the medical realm.

40In October 2018, I learned from an acquaintance that her sister-in-law had had her eyelids modified with the maixian technique. She underwent the procedure back in 2006 in a beauty salon in Shanghai, which suggests that this trend did not emerge in the last few years but has been around for no less than fifteen years, at least in highly developed and urbanized areas. This woman chose the maixian instead of the blepharoplasty because she perceived it as non-extreme, as it did not involve any cutting. But in fact, she lamented the thread’s dissolving after a few years, which made this solution less final than the surgical blepharoplasty. She warned me that one’s appearance may become “uneven” if the thread dissolves faster on one eyelid than the other, leaving the person with one double-eyelid eye and one single-eyelid eye for some time. Therefore, she considered the maixian to be a temporary practice, but that is also the reason why she’d undergone it: she did not feel like having surgery done, because surgery meant a durable, if not final, change. This temporary character of the maixian falls, too, into the gray zone beauty salons belong to. The aesthetic results of the procedure are similar to the surgical ones, but its effects are non-permanent, just like those of most beauty treatments. Mei showed me many photographs of artificially created double eyelids, daring me to guess which were made through incision in a clinic and which using the thread technique in their beauty salon. I could not tell: they all looked the same to me. This gratified her as to the skills of their specialist, and also reinforced her conviction that one does not need to go through hospital procedures when everything can be done in the safe and friendly environment of a beauty salon.

B. Dwelling on the boundaries

41Several times in China I heard women claim that they would never undergo cosmetic surgery, even a relatively minor one like the double-eyelid surgery. But then, these very people often said that they might consider undergoing advanced treatments, such as the maixian performed in beauty salons. But why? Their reply usually involved the perception they had not only of the procedures themselves, but also of the environment where those procedures were carried out. The surgical and non-surgical divide was su­rely the predominant reason, but the ambiance played its role too: they would just rather be accommodated in an intimate living room-like place with friendly and considerate personnel. In such a place, they would feel at ease because they would not be in a true medical environment, but rather in an in-between land where the medical aspect is softened by the cosmetic one. And in this in-between land, how is the beautician’s advanced work on the body legitimized?

42Although focusing on midwives rather than beauticians, Foley and Faircloth (2003) discuss the legitimization of work that in some ways comes close to the medical profession, in its being performed on the frontier of medicine. Legitimization comes when there is a sort of medical support for it, since it is the medical authority that is recognized as legitimate when treating the body. Following this reasoning, we may argue that the beautician’s self-positioning in the gray zone is justified, because the medical side of her work is legitimized by the advanced treatments that take place in the salon. However, an important difference arises here between the European (in particular French) and the Chinese case. According to Cochennec (2004), the boundary between medical and cosmetic is represented by the skin: the beautician’s work does not go beyond the epidermis. Going deeper than that requires medical expertise and thus belongs to the field of medicine. This limitation is not applicable to what I observed in China, since the advanced treatments performed in the beauty salons do penetrate skin more deeply than in the case of say massage, facials, and so on. The maixian technique is an example of that. It does not involve cutting – that seems to be the real criterion for the beauty workers: as long as there is no knife involved and nothing is cut, they stated, the procedure cannot be called a surgery but only an advanced beautification treatment. However, the mai­xian involves sewing the skin with the goal of changing its shape, which may seem as surgical an attribute as cutting would. Well, that is not so in the Chinese context. This pushes the boundary much further and makes the Chinese case particularly intriguing.

VI. Conclusion

43This article has attempted to explore the world of beauty salons in urban China, which is still moderately understudied, often in favour of the more flamboyant milieu of cosmetic surgery. Like all studies, it has some limitations. First, it is geographically limited, because it is based on fieldwork carried out in only two cities of the same geographical and economic region, and therefore does not claim to be representative for the multitude of beauty salons in China – nor even for all the beauty salons of the Yangtze River Delta. And secondly, the perspective from which the matter has been examined is just one out of many possible perspectives, therefore this study does not claim to be completely exhaustive. What this article does, however, do is to provide an insight into the everyday reality of beauty work in urban China, which is a field that still offers us a lot to study and discuss, especially for the European scholarship and readership that may not be very familiar with it.

44The beauty salon is a place where many different levels of beautification are carried out simultaneously, some belonging fully to the cosmetic domain and some pushing toward – if not entering – the medical realm. This confers the salon an in-between nature: the ambiguity of the treatments is reflected in the ambiguity of the salon, which is in turn reflected in the ambiguity of the beauticians. The three of them, procedures, place, and workers, are situated in the gray zone between the cosmetic and medical settings, and they play in that zone. They promote an image of themselves that appeals to the cosmetic and even the home-like side, accentuating the experiential aspect of the salon, where people relax in a soothing ambiance and enjoy pleasant interaction. At the same time, they offer treatments that make use of medical artistry to legitimize their role, though not being proper surgeries. The treatments that are carried out in a homey and cozy beauty salon are labeled and perceived as “less medical” than those that are carried out in a hospital, even when they have similar characteristics, because the beauty salon is not a hospital and makes this aspect clear through its ambiance and its workers. The beauty therapists’ work is emotional and precarious – for several reasons that were explained earlier – but they take advan­tage of a position that bestows something close to medical expertise on them, since they act within and belong to an environment that stays in the gray zone. They are actors in between two worlds, because the salon is a place in between two worlds.

45Will the ambiguity of the beauty salon be able to tell us something valuable about the Chinese society on a larger scale? Isn’t that, after all, the final aim of social science research? The comparison with their western counterparts suggests that this ambiguity may be stronger in China. Phenomena often seem to be amplified and intensified in contemporary Chinese society, partly due to the extremely fast development of its economy in the last few decades. Until the 1980s there was not even a proper beauty sector in the country and today it is one of the largest in the world: this is certainly remarkable. How the beauty sector will evolve is yet to be seen, but it will very likely be the subject of future research. Meanwhile, we are welcome in the magical in-between realm of the beauty parlor.

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Structured Summary

Presentation: Beauty salons are nowadays widespread in urban China, where the so-called beauty economy has developed greatly in the last four decades of reforms. This development is partly due to the ideological shift of gender norms that happened after the end of the Mao era: Maoist ideology promoted the image of a strong muscular wo­man who rejected self-beautification in order to work for the revolution, whereas the market-oriented ideology of the following reform era brought about a sort of re-feminization of women and the flourishing of many forms of beautification. The ideal look to be reached is: thin body, fair skin, oval face with pointed chin, slim cheeks, high-bridged nose, and big eyes. This study focuses on one particular aspect of beauty care: the advanced cosmetic treatments performed in beauty parlors. The parlor is a place where many different cosmetic treatments are performed, and some of them border on aesthetic surgery. The execution of such treatments virtually situates the beauty parlor in a “gray zone” between the medical and the non-medical settings, giving it an ambiguous character that deserves to be explored. The overlap of the two realms of beauty and medicine is surely not unique to China, since several studies showed similar negotiations in the Western hemisphere. However, in this particular society it acquires a special significance related to the rather recent and rapid flourishing of the beauty sector. How does the medical-cosmetic negotiation unfold in the case of China? And more specifically: what role do the beauty parlor and the beauticians play in the negotiation of surgical and non-surgical treatments and in their acceptance?

Theory: This article approaches beauty work considering both the position of the salon and that of the beauticians. It analyses the significance of the beauty salon as an anthropological place, which includes the feelings and the emotions people experience there. This study also looks at the type of labour the beauticians carry out, situating it within the environment of the salon and in relation to the job market in China. Connecting the analyses of the place and the people provides a suitable perspective to explore the ambiguity of advanced beautification.

Methodology: The data on which this article is based have been collected within the framework of a larger project on the evolution of beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery in urban China. Fieldwork was carried out in Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang province, and less extensively in Shanghai, both located in the Yangtze River Delta, a large wealthy and highly urbanized area. The economic and social characteristics of this area made it a fitting candidate for research on the beauty business. All interviews were quite informal and conducted separately and in various environments: the salon, tea rooms and coffee shops. The research approach was ethnographic, since it is probably the most suitable at describing how people in East Asia experience reality in the era of the global economy. Since the study of beauty parlors represented an additional path on the side of a larger research project, this approach may be closer to a “short-term ethnography”, which involves intensive excursions into people’s lives, not necessarily characterized by long-term engagement.

Results: The analyses show that although the beauty salon is a public space, it is also an intimate place, since the treatments performed there concern the vulnerable and private territory of the body. Both the salon’s homey ambiance and the beauticians’ friendly behaviour reinforce this intimacy. Their labour is feminine, emotional and precarious, a type of labour that usually belongs to the service sector, often chosen by non-highly-educated young women as a consequence of the gender differentiation typical of the market economy. Some treatments offered in the salon, however, come very close to aesthetic medicine, such as the maixian technique, that aims to create a fold in the upper eyelid by using a thread. The execution of such treatments enables the salon and the beauticians to display an image that benefits from the professional prestige of their medical-like procedures.

Discussion: The salons attempt to raise themselves, in the eyes of their customers, to the same level as hospitals and clinics, because they provide treatments that aim at the same outcomes but boast of non-invasive techniques. And they carry them out in a pleasant environment, where the customers can feel at ease, comfortable and relaxed, and where they can interact with friendly and caring beauticians. Together with the beauty parlor, the beauticians too attempt to elevate their status: they are no longer “simple” beauty workers, because they act within and belong to an environment that offers superior aesthetic care. This superior care usually consists of weizheng, translatable as “micro cosmetic treatment”, which is in itself an ambiguous definition of a broad ensemble of surgical and non-surgical treatments. The ambiguity of the treatments is reflected in the ambiguity of the salon, which is in turn reflected in the ambiguity of the beauticians. The three of them, procedures, place, and workers, are situated in the gray zone between the cosmetic and medical settings, and they play in that zone. They promote an image of themselves that appeals to the cosmetic and even the home-like side, accentuating the experiential aspect of the salon. At the same time, they offer treatments that make use of medical artistry to legitimize their role. They are actors in between two worlds, because the salon is a place in between two worlds.

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1 This is not her real name, but a pseudonym. The names of all the participants mentioned in this article have been changed to respect their privacy.

2 For more information about work migration within China, see Angeloff T., 2010.

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Valeria Lotti, « Ethnographic Account »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 51-2 | 2020, 139-162.

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Valeria Lotti, « Ethnographic Account »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 51-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 26 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Valeria Lotti

Freie Universität, Berlin.

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