When producers were casting over-30 female celebrities for this summer’s smash reality show “Sisters Who Make Waves,” their choices all had at least one thing in common: They looked uncannily young for their age. Yet even amid all the show’s glossy faces, Ning Jing stood out. The 48-year-old actress, famous for her copper-toned skin, was so pale she was hardly recognizable.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum across the United States and Europe in May and June, a number of Western cosmetics companies sought refuge in rebranding. On June 19, Johnson & Johnson announced it would discontinue its “Clean & Clear Fairness” line of skin-whitening products. A week later, France’s L’Oreal issued a similar statement, saying it would “remove the words white/whitening, fair/fairness, light/lightening from all its skin evening products.”
Reactions in China, where pale skin has long been idealized, ranged from bewilderment to ridicule and even anger. Skepticism ran high across Weibo, WeChat, and other social media platforms as netizens asked: “What’s wrong with wanting lighter skin?” and “Are they going to start selling products that make you darker?” Some wondered if the moves were an overreaction; others compared it to the bloody Cultural Revolution or blamed the BLM movement for overreach.
The politically incorrect anger at BLM will probably draw most of the attention from international observers, but it’s important to understand that Chinese responses to the move — and their preferences for fair over dark skin — are grounded less in race and more in class.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with race and racism in China, including discrimination toward Black people. Some of it stems from internal factors, such as xenophobia — an ugly but deeply rooted part of human nature — and an entrenched Sinocentric worldview.
There are also external factors, including early but extremely influential contact with Western theories of race and scientific racism, which captured many leading Chinese thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period, when China was under threat from the modernized and industrialized West, Chinese came to idealize white people and supposedly “Western” features like big eyes and noses, while looking down on colonized Africans and Black people more generally. But China’s love affair with fair skin and skin-lightening products is far too old to be chalked up to this desire to emulate white people.
Aesthetic appreciations of fair skin in China can be traced back to the “Book of Songs,” the oldest extant collection of Chinese poetry, which dates from between the 11th and 6th centuries B.C. One of the included poems, “Shuo Ren,” praises a woman named Zhuang Jiang for having “hands like buds, skin like tallow.” “Buds” here refers to the delicate white buds of a plant, while “tallow” refers to congealed fat. The lines were meant to emphasize the fairness and tenderness of Zhuang Jiang’s skin.
Partial image of “Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” attributed to the Tang Dynasty painter Zhou Fang. From Liaoning Provincial Museum
Pretty much ever since, Chinese literature, language, and art have continued to adulate fair skin — especially for women.
Is there a problem with this kind of ideal? Of course. But it’s more class-based than race-based. The Chinese tradition of associating white skin with beauty sprang from a reverence for aristocratic aesthetics. Only the upper class could afford to stay indoors and protect their skin — a luxury inaccessible to laborers toiling outside in the sun and rain.
The fair skin standard was so deeply ingrained, even after Europeans and Americans turned to bronzed sun-kissed skin tones in the early 20th century, most Chinese — and Chinese women, especially — continued to shun the sun. Today it’s common to see women in floppy hats, UV-protective clothing, and balaclava-like facekinis, even in the summer.
That being said, if all this had little to do with the West or white supremacy, it does seem to have accelerated in recent years. Where once it was enough to protect your natural complexion — perhaps augmented with a little makeup or an overnight face mask — now middle-class Chinese are increasingly willing to pay significant sums for more drastic solutions, including whitening injections. These shots, which cost upward of 30,000 yuan ($4,300) a year, can whiten a person’s natural skin tone by “two tones,” according to plastic surgeons.
And for those who can’t afford to see a doctor, there’s always smartphone technology. Almost every filter offered by popular photo-editing apps like Meitu automatically lightens subjects’ skins.
That same technology helped “Sisters” turn a woman nearing 50 into a wrinkleless wonder with skin as white as snow. If Ning Jing can’t live up to the prevailing beauty standards without some technological wizardry, what hope is there for anyone else?
Actress Ning Jing on reality shows from 2018 (left) and 2020. From Weibo
In my view, the real story here isn’t skin-whitening, per se, but the homogenization of beauty. What the author Li Ao once satirized as China’s “thin, tall, white, elegant, and young” aesthetic ideal hasn’t been cast aside as the country’s modernized. Rather, its position is more unassailable than ever. While China’s economy bounded forward during the reform era, women’s liberation stalled under the twin pressures of capitalism and patriarchy.
Activists looking to challenge Chinese people’s desire for white skin would do well to understand this context. Framing the crusade against whitening products as a racial issue or a move to overturn the legacy of colonialism is overly simplistic and more likely to spark resistance and defiance than understanding.
In the meantime, the majority of Chinese women are likely to keep chasing fairer complexions. If Western cosmetics companies really do stop making or marketing skin-whitening products, they’ll simply turn to their Japanese, Korean, or domestic competitors. Capitalism always finds a way.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Two women wear facial masks in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, June 21, 2018. Xu Kangping/Rayfoto/People Visual)