[Essay] Glaring White: Class and Race in Chinese Beauty Ideals — Chelsea Xu

Growing up, I was told the first rule of being a cute little Chinese girl is to have pale skin. I always had to stay in the shade when the sun was out. My mother and I would try anything to brighten our skin tone: applying whitening masks and creams, buying an expensive UV-proofed umbrella that can’t be used in the rain, and always carrying a cover-up, even in summertime. The celebrities I idolized growing up, mostly Taiwanese soap opera actresses, all had perfect, porcelain-like skin.

This fixation on white skin is still prevalent today. Contemporary Chinese makeup commercials by international beauty brands employ visual signs including light, lighting, mise-en-scene, and the model’s physicality to construct, sustain, and promote a traditional ideal of beauty: combining a flawless, glaring white ethereal aesthetic with a hegemonic, ethnically Han, fair-skinned, upper-middle-class femininity. This construction of the white face is in line with Richard Dyer’s theory of the racial and gender differences encoded in lighting techniques. In his essay ‘The Light of the World’, Dyer argues that in visual productions such as film and television, the white face is presented as the default. ‘The aesthetic technology of photographic media, the apparatus and practice par excellence of a light culture’, he says, ‘not only assumes and privileges whiteness but also constructs it’.[1] For Dyer, these ‘aesthetic technolog[ies]’ are also gendered: he argues that women glow (not shine), as they are faced with diffused light, constructing an angelic, ethereal image of femininity. In the Chinese context, there is a further dimension: colonialism. By situating the Chinese feminine ideal in relation to China’s colonial past and class and ethnic composition, we can see how makeup product commercials construct Chinese women not so much as ‘glowing’, but rather with a flawless, porcelain-like, almost non-human white skin that ‘glares’ with no shadows at all.

Many have commented that, because of China’s semi-colonial past, Chinese people have habitually perceived whiteness as a distinguishable marker of foreignness and/or Western-ness. This ‘Chinese’ gaze, in turn, is exploited by white Westerners to assert the primacy of their whiteness.[2] Although the age of colonialism ended in 1949 with the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and the prestige of whiteness or white foreignness has since been greatly reduced, whiteness still lingers in the form of white capital, sustaining and reinforcing this region’s postcolonial moment with the continuous influx of white Western migrants.[3] In China, a century of semi-colonization by the West has rendered whiteness as an admired physical quality that is often conflated with a more abstract, idealised Western-ness, characterized as modern, civilized, affluent, advanced, and internationalized. Recent research has shown that white models are commonly hired in the Chinese advertising industry as their whiteness signifies prestige and modernity for Chinese products.[4]

Haiyan Wu, however, calls attention to the importance of Chinese class differences to the ideology and idolizing of whiteness in China. She argues that the tradition of associating white skin with beauty sprang from a reverence for aristocratic aesthetics, wherein darker skin historically signified manual and agricultural labor, and toiling outside in the sun.[5] As a result of this historical lineage, whitening and lightening skin products have shown a dramatic growth in Asian markets over the past two decades and are the best-selling product categories in the Asian beauty industry. Eric P.H. Li, Hyun Jeong Min, and Russell W. Belk have shown that the long history of the desire for white skin has collided with technological developments and marketing forces, constituting and mythologising a powerful social norm that excludes those who don’t conform.[6] Understanding the Chinese “obsession” with and construction of the white skin ideal requires us to consider how class and race intersect. We can see this most clearly in the lighting techniques and other non-representational visual signs in beauty campaigns that strive to construct and sell a specifically Chinese ideal of whiteness.

Recent commercials by three international beauty product brands – Dior, Estee Lauder, and Armani – feature Angelababy, Mi Yang, and Yutong Zhou, three of China’s leading actresses, celebrities, and opinion leaders. As of May 2022, Angelababy has over 100 million followers on Weibo, Mi Yang over 110 million, and Yutong Zhou over 13 million. These commercials, though differing in detail, demonstrate a discernable pattern in their framing of the female stars as white.

First, in all three commercials, lighting always comes in a diffused form, wrapping around its objects. It offers a soft, pleasing touch on the actress’s face and does not cast harsh shadows. As Dyer argues, the different uses of hard lighting and soft, diffused lighting in one frame are often gendered: ‘go ahead, that’s the way he sees her… softly diffused… ethereal… beautiful’.[7] The ‘aesthetic technology’ of light in these commercials portrays women in a way that presents virtually no shadow – she has no dark spots whatsoever on her skin. Her face is so diffusely lit that there is almost no shadow to present a three-dimensional face. The whiteness of her skin blurs her facial bone structure and the shape of her nose: she is luminescent above everything else in frame, as her face is the largest and clearest space of whiteness (figures 1, 2, and 3). With no shadow to create contrast, these women don’t glow as Dyer suggests with Western white women, but glare, as they themselves become the bright, sharp, and dazzling light that contains no dark space at all.

Figure 1: Yutong Zhou’s lipstick campaign for Armani
Figure 2: Angelababy’s lipstick campaign for Dior
Figure 3: Mi Yang’s skincare campaign for Estee Lauder

The glare can be clearly seen in figure 3, in which Yang wears a white-gold dress laced with diamonds. The color of her glittery dress almost completely matches her skin tone, so that it blends into her skin, while adding another dimension of brightness with the small but densely packed assortment of diamonds. Meanwhile, her skin presents no dark area, to the extent that, in this frontal shot, the shapes of her nose, cheekbones, or collarbones are not readily discernible. Her body, skin, and dress are transformed into a unified color entity that is glaring white.

Other non-representation signs in these commercials also work to accentuate whiteness. All the actresses have dark hair that greatly contrasts their fair skin, and very light, ‘natural’-looking eye makeup that does not distract from their clean, ethereal aesthetic. Their facial expressions are always composed and cheerful but not excited, so their ‘personality’ does not come through to disturb this almost non-human type of beauty – this flawless, glaring, and porcelain-like skin. The background in all three commercials is rarely visible because the women often take up most of the frame. When it is seen, however, it is always a simple block of color, with no obvious representational form. In this way, the women in these commercials exist in an abstract space that is somewhere other than this world: their glaring white skin is thus constructed as an ideal, hegemonic femininity that connects to otherworldliness, ethereality, and perfection.

My mother was from a rural town in a largely agricultural province in China. Her entire life, she worked hard to escape her ‘peasant’ identity: she moved to the city and got a job as a saleswoman in a department store. She told me the best part of her job was not having to stand under the sun – now she could stay indoors, in an air-conditioned space, and avoid that unwanted tan. She still spends thousands of dollars a year on whitening skincare and makeup products; her first concern when buying a piece of clothing or choosing a nail polish is always: ‘does this color make me look dark?’ To her, staying white is a symbol of social mobility, a token that she has made it to the middle class.

A nation’s beauty standards can sometimes be dismissed as a superficial topic; but they can offer profound insights into a country’s social, cultural, and political histories. Flawless, glaring white skin in China is a symbol and regime that is socially constructed and maintained by Chinese notions of class and race. The ‘desirable’ attribute is constructed and sustained by the more naturally fair-skinned Han people, the majority ethnic group in China. For the many minority groups who are exposed to beauty standards and cultural products made by and for the Han people, the glaring white skin is difficult, if not impossible for them to achieve. This prompts women into the continual consumption of whitening beauty products, in turn sustaining a particular, ideological expression of femininity in Chinese culture.

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Chelsea Wenzhu Xu is a second-year doctoral student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from China and her Master’s in English from the University of Rochester. She is interested in the interplay between nationalism and (anti)feminism in China, particularly in how contemporary films and television portray the changing women’s roles, maternal responsibilities, and familial structure. She is currently teaching Global Affairs and Culture and Globalization at George Mason University.

Notes


[1] Richard Dyer. White: Essays on Race and Culture. (London, UK: Routledge, 1997), 122.

[2] Pauline Leonard. ‘Work, Identity and Change? Post/Colonial Encounters in Hong Kong’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36: 8 (2010), 1247–1263; Phiona Stanley. A Critical Ethnography of ‘Westerners’ Teaching English in China: Shanghaied in Shanghai (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Phiona Stanley, ‘Superheroes in Shanghai: Constructing Transnational Western Men’s Identities’, Gender, Place & Culture 19:2 (2012), 213–231.

[4] Yadong Ji and Benjamin R. Bates, ‘Testing “Racial Fetish” in Health Prevention Messages: Chinese Evaluation of Ethnicity-(in) Congruent Messages as a Function of out-Group Favoritism’, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication (2019), 1–20; Perry Johansson, ‘Consuming the Other: The Fetish of the Western Woman in Chinese Advertising and Popular Culture’, Postcolonial Studies 2:3 (1999), 377–388; Pauline Leonard, ‘Old Colonial or New Cosmopolitan? Changing White Identities in the Hong Kong Police’, Social Politics, 17: 4 (2010), 507–535; Hongmei Li, ‘Branding Chinese Products: Between Nationalism and Transnationalism’, International Journal of Communication, 2 (2008), 1125–1163.

[5] Haiyun Wu, ‘China’s Quest for Fair Skin, from Zhuang Jiang to Ning Jing’, #SixthTone, 15 July 2020, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1005927/chinas-quest-for-fair-skin%2C-from-zhuang-jiang-to-ning-jing.

[6] Eric P.H. Li, Hyun Jeong Min, and Russell W. Belk “Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures,’ Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 35, Association for Consumer Research (2008), 444–449.

[7] Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture, 136.