Associate Professor, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, CUHK
"Gendered State Gymnastics: Ceremonial Usherettes, Hyper Femininity and Post-socialist China"
19 Apr 2013
The speaker talked about her research on ceremonial female
usherettes. These women exist in many contexts, such as the signing
ceremonies for businesses, but Wu focused only on the group of women who
serve at national occasions, such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
These ceremonial usherettes wear uniforms and have healthy bodies and
beautiful faces. Their appearance manifests the cultural standard of
beauty recognized by the Chinese government. They usually do not get
paid. Even though it is a voluntary temporary job, these women are
selected carefully. They are given a certificate after national events.
Recently, ceremonial usherettes have been under the spotlight.
They appear on the news. The mass media in China creates a collective
desire towards a certain female body. It reflects how a nation makes use
of the female image as a symbol of China’s modernity and development.
In the contemporary era, women have more opportunities to enter the
economic and political realms. While it seems that women’s liberation
can now be seen, the female body has also become a site of debating
Women have always been seen as sex objects.
They are gazed and consumed under the patriarchal order. The training of
ceremonial usherettes in China is seen as hyper feminine cultivation.
There was specific formula for calculating the face ratio. In one of the
trainings, women were asked to practice the way of smiling. For
instance, they needed to put a chopstick in between their teeth. When
they smiled, they should only expose 4 to 6 teeth. They were required to
practice this for an hour. Women were asked to correct each other on
the number of teeth exposed. There was also training on the way ceremonial usherettes walked. A book was put on women’s
heads. They were also asked to keep some distance between the arm and
the waist when they were holding a tray of medals. They needed to
represent the “oriental beauty” of the modern China. The training for
ceremonial usherettes usually contained military elements. The women
needed to learn the military style of standing and jogging. While these
women acquired the prefect feminine qualities and extraordinary bodies,
they also had to acquire physical skills. These women were tall, all
between 165 and 178 cm.
Through the embodied practices, it
showed that there was a uniformity of body shape of ceremonial
usherettes. The speaker emphasized that the collectivity and uniformity
of usherettes’ appearance was important in a country like China, which
upheld socialist ideology. As no class difference should be seen,
variations in women’s appearances and individuality should be
The speaker then traced the history of gymnastics.
During the Second World War period, gymnastics was seen as the symbol of
the Nazis and the German spirit. It also represented the national
culture and symbolized the patriarchal order of control of men over
women. For the communist countries, gymnastics was seen as new
revolutionary practice. New socialist men were created by the engagement
in keeping the uniformity of the idealized body shape. The Communist
party promoted gymnastics after 1949. Under the market economy, the
state responds to the market’s need to “sexualize” women’s bodies.
Women’s bodies have always been sites for re-inventing, debating,
negotiating the meanings of “Chineseness” and Chinese femininity. Under
the discourse of the state, the making process of idealized young female
bodies is the “natural” way to show the traditional “Oriental” beauty
In conclusion, the state displays its national power
and the patriarchal order through the bodies of ceremonial usherettes.
Feminists see this as a commodification and objectification of the
female body. Through the selection, training and disciplining on
ceremonial usherettes, these female bodies show the most desirable
elegance in Chinese women. The talk in general has shown the complicated
relationship between gender and the building of the nation-state.