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China Gets a Facelift

My, what big double-eyelids you have! Learn about the real costs behind China’s lively plastic surgery movement, including a trip to one of the newest cosmetic hospitals in Beijing.


China Gets a Facelift

My, what big double-eyelids you have! Learn about the real costs behind China’s lively plastic surgery movement, including a trip to one of the newest cosmetic hospitals in Beijing.


Confession: I have small, squinty eyes (I am also Asian-American). But have no fear, according to a consultant at Beijing Mylike Cosmetic Hospital (美莱 Měilái), I am the perfect candidate to get double eyelid surgery. Big and “bright” eyes could be mine in 2 hours! And for 3,800 kuai.

Mylike, which opened in Oct. 2012 and has 16 centers throughout China, is just one example of how plastic surgery in China is a growing industry and vibrant social phenomenon. While some may see the industry as just a mess of pretty procedures, this “beauty” movement illuminates the new faces behind China’s rise.

According to data collected by the All-China Women’s Federation, plastic surgery was a 300 billion yuan (US $4.8 billion) industry in 2010. China is third in the world for its 3.4 million plastic surgeries performed.

South Korea’s plastic surgery market is also in hot demand by the Chinese. Medical tourist visas allow the Chinese to take advantage of their neighbor’s high-end facilities and well-trained doctors.

Why are the Chinese so obsessed with plastic surgery? Members of the younger generation cite three reasons: job, boyfriend and self-image. Other reasons deal with China’s changing socio-economic tide. In a Chinese version of “keeping up with the Joneses,” it is demonstrated as cool to show off wealth with a big house, new car and beach vacation. Now, the only thing left to do is put your best cosmetically-styled face forward.

From Mao Suits to a Modern Flower Vase

During the Sino-Japanese War in 1943, Song Ruyao studied plastic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. When he returned to China, the modern practice was born. Plastic surgery hit a roadblock during the Cultural Revolution for its “bourgeois attention to form over function.” As one blogger reported, “poster girls ceased to sell cigarettes and perfume and began to sell revolution.”

When Deng Xiaoping opened China in the mid-1980s, plastic surgery reemerged. Skin whitening and smoothing were common procedures, as well as the removal of moles and freckles. Surgical procedures increased into the early 1990s, and like those during the Renaissance, barber shops in China even began to offer plastic surgery.

Today, the industry is booming and consumers love their freedom. Chan Kin-man, Deputy Professor of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said:

“The increasing popularity of plastic surgery in China is closely linked to economic development. As China moves to a post-industrial from an industrial society, in which most people work in factories, looks become more important.”

All of these changes happen within the context of China’s One-Child policy. Some parents are relenting to give their children the best to get ahead, as early as 12 years old.

One China, Many Faces

In the plastic surgery market, female students outnumber their male counterparts 8:2. But male surgeries are on the rise. In the past few years, men’s statistics have doubled, and they now make up 10% of the plastic surgery market. Most are job-seekers and middle-aged men.

Clientele also varies according to profession and age. In the beginning, actors, dancers and other members of the performing arts were the main consumers of plastic surgery. Gradually, celebrities started to get work done. Now operating on students has increased, as  many receive plastic surgery for gifts (you name the holiday: graduation, Valentine’s Day or Women’s Day). Special cases of plastic surgery include couples who want to look alike, the elderly to avoid physical exams at airport security and honored disfigured “heroes.”

Ironically, today the actors are cracking down on plastic surgery. The Beijing Film Academy and The Central Academy of Drama recently banned prospective students from wearing makeup during their interviews.

Surgery where . . . ?!

If you’re not an actor, however, and have enough money, there are many procedures available in China. Compare the following surgeries to those most popular in the U.S. (breast implants, liposuction and age-reducing surgeries, i.e. Botox):

  • “Asian blepharoplasty” – Many Asians have a “mono-lid,” but desire a “double eyelid” to make their eyes look bigger. Doctors create a crease above the eyelid by cutting, folding and sewing the skin back with an instrument resembling a fishhook.
  • Nose – In order to get rid of flat noses, some Chinese choose to insert a piece of cartilage into the bridge of their nose. The result is a pointier noise and more three-dimensional silhouette.
  • Jawlines – The Asian conception of beauty has a wider forehead and narrower, angled jaw. Cheekbones should be more pronounced and the chin made smaller. After so many operations, the face should appear softer-looking.
  • Height – In the risky Ilizard procedure, shin bones are cut and attached to a metal brace. The pins on the brace stretch out the bone to allow new bone to form. After, a person may gain up to 9 cm, but lose the ability to walk for 6 months. An alternative to Ilizard is inserting heel implants, but this surgery is not always successful.

Real Costs

There are more than 34,000 cosmetic surgery institutions in China, which include hospitals, clinics and beauty salons. The quality of the service is both high-end and low-end. Private clinics are typically more expensive than public hospitals.

Risk factors definitely add to the costs. The plastic surgery industry in China is growing at a speed that ignores regulations. The darker side of this story includes “firemen” who offer surgery in beauty salons in a “fly-by-night” fashion.

Celebrities are blatant examples of what can go wrong. Singer Wang Bei died during a plastic surgery operation. Former dancer Wang Baobao didn’t know when to stop and underwent over 170 operations. A hospital falsely made Fan Bingbing the source of their plastic surgery advertisements.

There is also the question on the ethics of plastic surgery as a whole. Is plastic surgery in China enhancing Asian features or caricaturing them into Western ones?

On that windy day we took refuge in the glossy corners of Mylike, Alicia Zhang shared with me that her cousin received plastic surgery. She enhanced her eyes and became more confident because of it. But as for Alicia? She would never go under the knife. She’s happy with her Chinese face, just the way it is.

Special thanks to Alicia Zhang for help with this article.

Photo courtesy of Beijing HYW Translation Company.