China's apparent white skin obsession is often difficult for foreigners to understand. This phenomenon, however, has a longer history than we may realise and is not restricted to the Chinese.
Before I came to China I wasn't aware that people would actually want to look white. In the UK, we all go on holiday to Spain to tan up. We don't like pale, pasty-white skin. In China, however — as well as in many other Asia countries — having white skin is desired as it is associated with beauty, intelligence, class and status. Although this white skin obsession is now a billion US-dollar business, it's not a modern phenomenon.
In China, as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), white skin was desired for women of the court as it represented social prestige. Skin color related to the type of life a person lived: It showed that you didn't have to work toiling the fields but could sit in the shaded indoors.
The Chinese vision of beauty would continue to change over the centuries. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), a beautiful woman was proud of her hips and curvature — being plump was desirable. From the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), women's beauty shifted more to the androgynous. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 AD), women were to be fragile and pale-faced. During the 1950s and 60s of the new China, however, women were back to looking like men again; they had short hair and were forbidden to wear make-up. Finally, thanks to the opening up of China, things have changed, yet again. It's all about big eyes, pointed chins and, yep, pale skin.
This obsession with white skin is not restricted to non-whites, however. During the Renaissance period (1400s-1600s AD), English women went to great lengths to achieve smooth, pale skin. They too wanted to avoid looking tanned, blemished or freckled, and wished to be associated with the upper classes who relaxed indoors.
Queen Elizabeth I was known for her pale skin, which she painted with mercury and vinegar to cover her small pox scars. This common use of mercury among women eventually led to the withering of the skin or even premature death. Other women went as far as cutting themselves and applying leeches in order to achieve a pale complexion.
Chinese white skin phrases
There are several well-known phrases that highlight the Chinese inclination towards white skin:
“白面书生” (báimiàn shūshēng): 白 (Bái) means white, blank/empty or clear; 面 (miàn) refers to the face; and 书生 (shūshēng) means scholar. The term can either refer to a young, beautiful-faced intellect – who has white skin because he doesn't need to work outdoors – or a young, inexperienced person. In the former case, beauty is represented by 白 (bái).
“白富美” (bái fùměi): “White, rich and beautiful”, used to indicate a rich, beautiful woman, the pinnacle of desire. Again, beauty is signified by the character 白 (bái). For men, the parallel phrase is “高富帅” (gāofù shuài), “tall, rich and handsome”.
Actually, not only do Chinese people want to be white-skinned, but white-skinned with rosy cheeks, as noted by the common phrase “白里透红” (bái lǐ tòu hóng).
More evident to the link between beauty and white skin is the traditional Chinese expression “一白遮三丑” (yī bái zhē sān chǒu), which could be translated directly as “one white covers up three uglinesses”, meaning that white skin is all one needs to be beautiful, regardless of other factors, such as having a big nose, for example.
The desire to achieve and maintain pale skin has led the Chinese to adopt certain behaviors, most of which can come across as strange to foreigners. It is quite standard to find people fully clothed on Chinese beaches or carrying umbrellas on glorious sunny days. Women, in particular, invest in skin whitening products in the form of lotions, pills and gels, which work by reducing the skin pigment melanin. It is not uncommon to hear a Chinese person abating themselves with, “I'm so black” when they are only just a tad tanned.
Scarily, the active ingredient in some Chinese skin lighteners is still mercury, which can cause serious psychiatric, neurological and kidney problems. Mercury is banned in the USA as an ingredient in skin lighteners. The skin whitening products sold there use hydroquinone, instead.
It is important to maintain as broad a perspective as one can when dealing with apparent cultural idiosyncrasies. I have argued that there is a socio-economic background which sheds light on the reasons why the Chinese, and Asian people in general, prefer lighter skin. But there is also a lot of money in the skin-lightening business, and the modern media, which itself capitalizes on the culture, does nothing but feed the cycle. And let's not forget that the same companies selling skin whitening products in Asia are selling skin tanning products in the West.
In closing, as China continues to develop and people become more consumerist and economically independent, I see no reason why the desire to express social status through skin tone will abate.
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Keywords: China’s white skin obsession
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