The contestants, heavily made up with hair expertly teased, waved and posed as they were presented to reporters before a week of preparations for the Dec. 18 final.
The competition and its novel pitch is another sign of China's increasing fixation with beauty as the country grows more prosperous and its people more conscious about looking good at any cost.
In the larger cities, cosmetic surgery has become the norm as more women, and some men, go under the knife to improve their looks.
"Before, I couldn't imagine that was possible to have places where the old could become young and the ugly could become beautiful," said Liu Yulan, who at 62, is the oldest contestant. She has had a facelift and surgery on her eyelids.
"I'm not here for a prize," said Liu, who was wearing a formfitting carmine Mandarin-collar dress with silver beading. "I want to show my attitude of my heart, my self-confidence."
The idea for the competition took shape shortly after an 18-year-old woman was disqualified from a Chinese beauty pageant earlier this year because she had had plastic surgery. She sued unsuccessfully for emotional damages.
Han Wei (search), one of the organizers, said there had been more than 90 applicants from other countries including the United States and Japan, but none were chosen because they weren't serious about the contest or had language or scheduling problems.
"This contest shows women's strong pursuit of beauty," she said. "We would like to use it to unveil the mystery of manmade beauty and let society have a complete understanding of every aspect."
Other individual prizes will also be awarded for best figure and best stage demeanor.
Liu Xiaojing, a 21-year-old finalist from the northeastern city of Harbin (search), was a man three years ago but doesn't feel that it makes a difference to her chances in the competition.
"Becoming beautiful is the wish of everyone," said Liu, who was wearing a strapless turquoise dress. "I am now legally a woman and this contest is my first formal step toward womanhood."
Liu, who hadn't told organizers that she was a transsexual because no one had asked, revealed that she used to be a man on Sunday in front of reporters. Han said Liu's case was being discussed and no decision had been made on whether she still qualified as a contestant.
"If they disqualify me, I will use legal means to seek fairness," said Liu, who has also had work done on her eyebrows, nose, chin and facial shape. "This is a turning point in my life."