Article published in:The Conceptualization of ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Ugly’ across Languages and Cultures
Edited by Anna Gladkova and Jesús Romero-Trillo
[International Journal of Language and Culture 8:1] 2021
► pp. 35–61
“Is beauty only skin deep?”
The conceptualization of ‘beauty’ in Mandarin Chinese
From a semantic and cultural perspective, one could ask a number of questions regarding the English word ‘beauty’ and the adjectival form ‘beautiful’ when they are used to refer to visual aspects of people. Given that scholars and professionals in the beauty industry frequently use the words to describe people from various cultures, should we assume that each of them embodies a semantic and cultural universal? Given that plastic surgeons and beauticians improve the physical appearance of people, especially women, why do they not use the word ‘pretty’ to promote their services instead? After all, the phrase ‘pretty woman’ is also the title of a popular song first recorded by Roy Orbison in 1964 and later the name of a hugely successful 1990 movie. Why are beauty salons so called? Why are they not called prettiness salons instead? This paper attempts to address such questions by studying the meanings of two Mandarin Chinese words: mĕi/měilì (roughly, ‘beautiful’) and piàoliàng (roughly, ‘pretty’). The words are polysemous and this paper focuses on the meanings that are relevant to the purposes of describing women. It tries to explain the conceptual difference between a woman who is mĕi/měilì and one who is piàoliàng. Hopefully, the findings will shed light on some of the semantic distinctions that are important to Mandarin Chinese speakers and thus the questions raised above.
Keywords: beauty, piàoliàng , měi , natural semantic metalanguage, Mandarin Chinese
Published online: 07 June 2021
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