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When one pair of eyelids isn’t enough

Jonathan Saruk | Getty Images

It is peak season for plastic surgery in one of the world's oldest continuous civilisations. In China, nose and eye jobs are among the most popular graduation presents for high-school students who survive the gaokao university entrance examinations. Parents see it as an investment: piano lessons, mathematics tutoring, double eyelid surgery. Tiger Mum knows best.

Studying for the gaokao is enough to make anyone's eyelids droop, but these kids are not getting their lids lifted, they are getting new ones installed. Western plastic surgeons are asked to shrink noses and eyelids, but their Chinese counterparts have the opposite job: build an eyelid fold where none went before and give that flat nose a hump and some height.

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To each their own corporeal obsessions: Michelle Obama's admirably firm upper arms apparently helped spark a 4,000 per cent increase in elective arm surgery over the past 12 years, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

And although the plastic surgery history of Peng Liyuan, China's first lady, is hardly a matter of public record, her plump ear lobes have been singled out for favourable comment in the blogosphere, since substantial lobes are apparently a guarantee of lifetime financial security. (Her nose and chin shape are, it seems, good for her husband's career, her mouth and teeth indicate she's no gossip, and her oval facial shape is also a good omen.)

(Read more: Faltering economy in China dims job prospects)

But in today's China, all this is about jobs. Ask the 15 university students who came to the Shanghai Time Plastic Surgery Hospital last month to attend a seminar on physiognomic enhancement. They weren't warbling on about Ms Peng's ear lobes or Ms Obama's upper arms – they were talking salary.

Gu Xiaopu is 23 years old, slender, poised and pretty – but she thinks her chance of beating this year's 7m Chinese graduates to a job could come down to her eyelids (double eyelid surgery, the most popular form of plastic surgery for grads, involves inserting an extra crease in the lid to make the eyes appear larger – and, according to Chinese culture, more energetic). Ms Gu thinks an extra lid might also help in the boyfriend market.

Since she is no fuerdai – second-generation rich kid – she says she needs to do what is most cost effective to launch herself into the world. With her student card, she can get a 20 per cent discount at Shanghai Time on the normal cost of Rmb2,000-4,500 ($324-$728) for eyelid surgery. Personally, I'd advise her to lose the dirty high-top shoes before she starts adding body parts. (A new pair of fake Converse will cost $10.)

(Read more: Chinese jobseekers don't seem bothered by slowdown)

Another gangly participant, sporting yellow eyeglass frames and a spiky haircut, says he has failed to get a job from his first few interviews, so he wants a longer nose (though his is already prominent by Chinese standards). And a striking 22 year old with pink skin-tight jeans, and a decidedly evasive glance, says she wants the job opportunities that an extra eyelid can bring. Speaking as someone who occasionally hires young staff in China, I think she lacks more in the way of charisma than eyefolds.

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Shanghai Time officials point out that students (not to mention parents) often have unrealistic expectations of how physiognomy pays off in the workplace. They set up the seminar last month to damp down graduate expectations, and brought along a careers adviser from Shanghai Jiaotong University to underline the risk of investing in a new nose rather than clean plimsolls.

Which is not to say that rhinoplasty never gets the job done: Sophia Wang of the university's student careers centre says some jobs in China do have a "hidden appearance policy" – but she advises physiognomic help only after preparing for the workforce in more conventional ways, such as getting communication skills up to scratch.

And there is some data to suggest that "lookism" is alive, well and overt in China: two academics from Wuhan's Huazhong University of Science and Technology School of Management have calculated that females can earn 1.5-2 per cent more for every extra centimetre of height. They gave no statistics for pay rise per eyelid.

Meanwhile, over at the People's Liberation Army 455 Hospital, one of the Shanghai market leaders for plastic surgery, students can get rhinoplasty for a special school-holiday price of Rmb1,999, down from Rmb3,000 normally. The publicity-shy might want to opt for surgery done by the PLA: at least they know a thing about secrecy.