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Cassidy Pham

Writing 39C

Professor Broadbent

4 May 2018

The Idolization of White Skin: How Colorism in China is Normalized

“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Fig 1. Qiaobi Detergent Advertisement that sparked controversy of racism.

Introduction to Colorism in China

In 2016, an advertisement run in China for Qiaobi laundry detergent sparked controversy

worldwide. The advertisement featured a Asian woman doing laundry as a black male (covered

in paint) approaches her; the advertisement then depicts her tossing detergent in his mouth and

putting him head first into the washer, only to come out as a light-skinned Asian male

(Bromwich). Qiaobi’s advertisement had people worldwide challenging the thoughts and ideals

that were expressed through this advert: that lighter skin is more preferable than darker skin in

China. Many people took to notice the different connotations each male character played in the

advert, as it portrayed the black male as ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean,’ and the light-skinned Asian male as

‘clean’ or ‘untarnished.’ As this advertisement sparked controversy, it opens the conversation to

a growing, yet deeply rooted in history, problem in China. The advertisement shines light on the
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problem that has been prevalent in China for centuries: colorism; defining social class and

social worth based off of skin color, the colorism problem causes discrimination to run rampant

around China, for its long history in China creates the illusion that it is normal.

“ China’s obsession of ‘milk-white skin’ affects more than just the

discriminated dark-skinned, as most Chinese believe in the

phrase “one white covers up three uglinesses (Li).””

China’s Role in the Normalization of Colorism

Dating back centuries ago, the connotation of light skin in Asia first revealed itself years before

Western cultural influences could take place. Elysia Pan, “Beautiful White: An Illumination of

Asian Skin-Whitening Culture,” talks of how China was mainly an agrarian society until the most

recent century; the social classes of the Chinese were determined by their job, either conducting

business inside or doing manual labor outside, which correlated to the skin color they would

then take on. A significant power figure in Chinese culture and the only female to take the

throne, Empress Wu, was glorified in Fig 2. Portrait of Empress Wu from 690-705 A.D. paintings with white

paint the painter described would be so that the “...illustration of her beauty and status would

stand the test of time (Pan).” The artist, knowing that the medium they painted on would brown

over time, took the measure to paint Empress Wu’s face white: to ensure that her prestige was

known, even in the future. In most paintings of royal families, strong leaders, and other

prestigious people in ancient China, the depiction of white skin was all that was needed for

others to understand their class. The adoration of white skin created a rift in Chinese society,
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one that would sustainably divide the social classes and cause discriminatory behavior for

centuries to come.

Outside Influences on the White Skin Phenomenon in


Although some scholars, like Trina Jones, believe the

tensions of skin color were only influenced by the vast

background of agrarian China, other scholars believe that

the influences of Westernization also put pressure on the

‘moon-white skin’ ideals. As Western influences began to

flow into China in the 19th and 20th centuries, according

to Eric Li, “Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures,” it brought along strong notions

of Western beauty standards and fashion, changing the perceptions of white skin in China to a

beauty ideal. Through movies and propaganda, it strengthened the ‘differences’ between light

skinned and dark skinned people, creating a rift that categorized their person based on their

skin color. Pan makes the argument, however, that Western influences of beauty and fashion

standards didn’t change Chinese perceptions, rather their “fascination with whiteness” and the

many light-skinned conquerors they faced throughout the years reinforced their ideals. Through

the influences of both Westerners, and their own culture, Western women donned white-lead

powder makeup to give them that ‘deathly pallor’ they wanted to achieve and Chinese women

“swallowed crushed pearls in their pursuit of a milk-white complexion (Naidoo).” The cultural

ideals of both the white-skinned conquerors from the West, as well as the social ideals held by

the Chinese, pushed women and men alike to move away from the norm of natural skin tone

and move towards the path of light skin.

The Connotations Behind Skin Color

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Skin color in Chinese culture has many underlying connotations, as people with light skin are

more likely to be seen as, stated by Levashni Naidoo, “A Fairer Face, a Fairer Tomorrow? A

Review of Skin Lighteners,” ‘good,’ ‘pure,’ and

‘virtuous,’ whereas darker skinned people were

seen as ‘wrong,’ ‘unfair,’ or ‘dirty.’ The ideals set

forth by Chinese culture in regards to skin color

pushed many to try to achieve the ‘milk-white

skin,’ mainly women as white skin became a

beauty standard, in order to “stand out in a

competitive job and marriage market (Pan).” Pan

also addresses the issue of colorism and how it

affects the lives of women specifically, stating

that skin color could affect the prospects for a

job or marriage partner. In this pursuit to white

skin, the colorism problem also pushes the

discrimination of darker skin tones, as Naidoo

states that the bad connotations with dark skin

Fig 3. A ‘simplistic’ chart defining ‘white/black’ groups lead to discrimination against dark skinned

people, which is a problem that China needs to fix. Splitting the country in parts, colorism

creates barriers that one cannot fix alone; discriminating against darker skin tones, China

creates a system of ‘black’ and ‘white’ inside its monocultural society. This social problem

creates many barriers and boundaries that people must jump in order to feel included, or not

discriminated against. By continuously leaving the problem unfixed, China essentially

strengthens the ideal’s holds on China’s society, creating rifts that can only be fixed through the

destruction of colorism.
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How the Colorism Problem in African Americans Compare to China’s

Through her comparisons of African-Americans and Asians, Trina Jones, “The Significance of

Skin Color in Asian and Asian-American Communities: Initial Reflections,” strengthens her

thoughts and ideas about how strong the bond between an Asian person’s social standing and

their skin color is, due to the many similarities Asians and

African-Americans have with one another on this topic. She

relates the tensions both Asians and African-Americans feel:

that skin tone matters, and how that affects even light-skinned

people. As African Americans strive for a lighter skin tone, so

do the Chinese. China’s obsession of ‘milk-white skin’ affects

more than just the discriminated dark-skinned, as most

Chinese believe in the phrase “one Fig 4. Women wearing

facekinis in China white covers up three uglinesses (Li).” Li explains the colorism problem in the

light of beauty, as many women in China believe that you’re more beautiful if you’re lighter

skinned. Going through many lengths to achieve white skin, businesses have responded to the

calls of Chinese women and created large industries around this growing problem. From

‘facekinis’ to skin whitening products, the consumer base in China grows with every year, in

order to achieve the ‘correct’ skin tone.

White Skin And The Ordeal To Achieve It

As white skin ideals continue to present itself in Asia, the market for skin whitening products

increases in size every year, with its main consumer base in China. The issue of colorism in

China puts pressure on both light skinned and dark skinned people, where light skinned people

want to retain their light complexion and darker skin wanting to obtain a lighter complexion. The

skin whitening industry is growing hugely in the past 20 years, signaling the strongly apparent

issues that China has yet to address regarding colorism. Adding onto the ideals of white skin
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China has held for centuries, the growing industry of skin whitening products creates a new form

of pressure on women in China. Li talks of the constant imagery of milk and pearls that surround

the ads of skin whitening products, as well as international superstars or Western women as the

model, as a way to remind Chinese women of the ideals.

As Naidoo compares the connotations brought upon by the skin Fig 4. China’s Skin Care Industry Sales

whitening advertisements, with good connotations referring to

light skin and bad connotations referring to dark skin, it brings

forth the insecurities consumers have: to be ‘dirty’ or ‘poor’ like

the dark skinned. Models used for ads by international

companies either refer to the ideal white skin of ‘Westerners,’

such as successful light skinned actresses or celebrities, or

actually is a Westerner, portraying the deep roots of history that

China today has yet to diminish (Li). The use and abundance of

the skin whitening culture is a sign of colorism, pushing

forwards the ideals that light skin is better than dark skin, and that showcases the effects of

China’s history that is still not dealt with. The adoration of white skin, and the problem of colorism

in China, is a shackle that holds down China from expressing, and accepting, free forms of

beauty. Colorism in China is an issue as it is a huge social problem that has been continuously

affecting the lives of Chinese people for centuries.

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Works Cited

Bromwich, Jonah. “Chinese Detergent Ad Draws Charges of Racism.” The New York Times. 27

May 2016.


Fuller, Thomas. “A Vision of Pale Beauty Carries Risks for Asia’s Women.” The New York

Times. 14 May 2016.

Jones, Trina. “The Significance of Skin Color in Asian and Asian-American

Communities: Initial Reflections.” UC Irvine Law Review. 2013.

Li, Eric, et al. “Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures.” Association for

Consumer Research. Jan 2008.


Naidoo, Levashni, et al. “A Fairer Face, a Fairer Tomorrow? A Review of Skin

Lighteners.” Cosmetics. vol. 3. iss. 3. Sep 2016.


Pan, Elysia. “Beautiful White: An Illumination of Asian Skin-Whitening Culture.” Duke

University. Apr 2013.