A catchy new twist on a familiar style conquered China in the 1920s as the qipao, which translates literally as “Manchu banner gown” got an update befitting of the modern era. This one was a major departure from the loose-fitting traditional qipao that hung straight down from the wearer. The modern, tighter fitting qipao debuted in 1921 with a shorter skirt and sleeves that revealed both ankles and arms. This version was visually stunning and immediately sensual. It would have been unthinkable for a Chinese woman to wear this garment in public during the conservative Qing era, yet the new qipao was ubiquitous for Chinese women featured in advertising and fashion magazines by the end of the decade. Attractive qipao-wearing women, including famous film stars, featured prominently in popular commercial ads. China’s first “Movie Queen,” Hu Die (胡蝶), enjoyed peak popularity during the 1920s and 1930s and was a regular highlight in cigarette card series from the period.
Changing values about women were reflected not just in fashion choices, but also posture and body language. Francesca Dal Lago argues that “[e]ven a bodily posture may signal an achieved status of modernity, highlighting with its visual and moral connotations the constructed image of the new woman.” Early cigarette cards showed women seated with backs straight, or standing like arrows, but these were replaced by images of women in more relaxed poses with more intimate body language of the sort seen in the accompanying images. Advertisers freely borrowed “Western-inspired casual positions… [knowing that] in Chinese traditional culture outstretched postures and a seeming lack of control over one’s body could be associated with loose moral habits.” This imagery was meant to evoke pleasure and availability by openly highlighting the model’s “distinctive sense of ‘modern’ sexual availability” as she enjoyed smoking her cigarette.
New ideas about the role of women in China’s modern society typically circulated first in Shanghai and were then broadcast to a much broader national audience via the city’s influential advertising houses. Wen-hsin Yeh writes that Shanghai was “the birthplace of a new kind of urban culture in the context of a new pattern of economy, enabled in part by the introduction of new technology. This culture and economy were seen not only as the product of Sino-Western contacts, but also, in the particular forms that they took, unique to Shanghai society. Shanghai, in other words, was not simply yet another Chinese city, but the seat of an emerging form of Chinese modernity.” Advertisers deliberately chose to tell a story about Shanghai’s successful transition into by modernity through images of women in non-traditional pursuits, piquing the interest of viewers across many different forms of print media with prominent female-centric advertisements for a range of goods.
It is impossible to overstate Shanghai’s influence on Chinese fashion during the height of cigarette card manufacturing and circulation in the 1930s, a time when the city’s advertisers set off trends that took hold throughout the country. Shanghai was home to China’s lucrative domestic film industry, an East Asian Hollywood of sorts, and the related gossip and fashion magazines that inevitably followed it. Fans treated movie stars like royalty, following their fashion as it was detailed in prints that sold like hotcakes. As historian Sarah E. Stevens writes, “[t]hese cultural products were important public arenas for the display and codification of new body cultures—high heels, new hairstyles, close-cut gowns, Western-style bras, swimming and other new forms of body work.” Every Chinese woman with a pretense to style copied the sort of permanent wave hairdo and qipao depicted in these cigarette cards, which not only supported ideas surrounding the Modern Girl but disseminated them to a much broader audience—all of the country’s smokers—than all of the public intellectual modernizers of China’s Eastern Seaboard combined. Everyone in China was exposed to a daily barrage of cigarette advertising that cut across class and gender lines.
 Antonia Finnane, “What Should Chinese Women Wear?: A National Problem,” Modern China 22, no. 2 (1996): 99-131, 109.
 Francesca Dal Lago, “Crossed Legs in 1930s Shanghai: How ‘Modern’ the Modern Woman?” East Asian History 19 (2000): 108.
 Ibid., 137.
 Yeh Wen-hsin, “Shanghai Modernity: Commerce and Culture in a Republican City,” The China Quarterly No. 150, Special Issue: Reappraising Republic China (June 1997) 37.
 Ibid., 393.
 Stevens, “Figuring Modernity: The New Woman and the Modern Girl in Republican China”, 84.