Written by Valeria Varriano.

This is the age of selfies and selfie sticks. The self-portrait taken by the camera of a smartphone, which is immediately distributed and cast into a network, created a new way and new space of communication, as well as a new form of art. In China, the portrait itself held, for a certain period, the power of breaking with the past and with the dominant tradition. The selfie on the other hand seems to be the manifestation of a type of cultural homogeneity.

In traditional paintings, the portrayal of an individual meant to describe his or her moral essence (soul) through form. Gu Kaizhi’s (顾恺之) portraits aimed to grasp the spirits and overcame the dichotomy between subject and object, society, man and nature. This dichotomy was considered unreal and changeable through the creative process. Such a notion is the product and the cause of the artist’s lack of interest for the human body, whose forms and artistic versions were far from reality. Maybe the raison d’être of the portrait was mainly the representation or full realization of the virtue in the moment of death. For this reason, the portraits were realized three days before the funeral, when the artists would reproduce the face of the dead person, adding later the clothing which hid the mortified forms of the corpse.

Photography puts an end to this practice and highlights the portrait of common people, who are alive in the world. This is why it comes with no surprise that one of the first photographs should be a self-portrait–of Zou Boqi 邹伯奇 the man remembered as the first promoter of the art of photography in China.

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In the Mao era photographic portraits of ordinary people became commonplace, but the best examples are photos, like those of Hou Bo 侯波 and Xu Xiaobing 徐肖冰, where the individual is part of a whole, whether nature or a crowd of people.

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The development of digital technology has led to the deification of ordinary people as gods or celebrities, while the selfie has led to the fragmentation, parcelization and the standardization of the self. The focus on the individual has a cultural significance: born as a rebellion against the emphasis on the collectivity in the seventies, in the new millennium it became a way toward celebrity and then towards anonymity, with faces retouched in order to resemble a unique and well-defined beauty canon.

The rise in China, over the course of 2003-2005, of female celebrity blogger Furong Jieje 芙蓉姐姐, also known as Sister Hibiscus or Sister Lotus, can be read as a kind of provocation. She became famous posting ‘sexually assertive’ photographs of her body, fully clothed, on university bulletin boards. When she was expelled from the bbs, she published her portraits on a blog. Her body is a cry against imperial traditional portraits. She became famous when she started posting portraits of herself in poses designed to highlight her figure, combined with narcissistic comments about her extraordinary beauty and remarks against the Chinese university admission system.

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She later became a model for the political use of the sexualized body. Many “web celebrities” started using portraits as political tools, following Furong Jiejie style. The most famous is the Guoxue Lamei 国学辣美(2006-2010) known as the Confucian sexy girl, who portrays herself as a Confucian woman in order to promote the ancient and noble Chinese tradition and, at the same time, the struggle for the territorial unity of the China.

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The proliferation of selfies within social networks represents the death of the power of body language. On the other hand, it marks the birth of a new market. Today, you exist only if you exist in the web. You are faceless if you do not have a selfie. The standard of this new beauty canon is a pale complexion, round and bright eyes, a pointed chin, high-bridged nose. It is a standard that not even top Chinese models can reach. And thus in order to be “beautiful” women face the choice of plastic surgery or photo retouching.

The market for portrait retouching in China is massive. This year Meitu pic, a selfie retouch app, was ranked the fifth most installed app according to the Google Play Top App Charts. In 2013 the producer of Meitu pic launched a selfie phone for female selfie lovers, and today Chinese mobile phone are mostly sold with a photo editing applications which allow the users to be beautiful with a few touches.

The selfie phenomenon has changed the very notion of portraiture, which no longer reproduces reality nor the power to rebel. Today portraits are the essence of a version of the self, a clone of a prototype that says “I exist only because I look perfect”.

Valeria Varriano, is Professor at Univeristà l’Orientale Neaples. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.