Zhibo: Literal Whitewashing in China

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7:44 PM HKT, Tue November 28, 2017 4 mins read

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

In these increasingly divided times, I think one thing we can all agree on is the importance of good lighting. It doesn’t matter if you’re Instagramming that healthy food you’ll never eat, taking gym selfies, or trying to get that perfect profile picture; everyone wants their face/abs/kale chips to be illuminated just so.

And luckily for us modern-day pond-gazers, we have more lighting choices for our photos and videos than ever before. Whether it’s the ever-growing collection of photo filters, the touch-up options you can play with from the lazy security of your camera app, or the funhouse mirror world that used to be called Snapchat, we live in an unprecedented time when it comes to quickly and easily messing with the light situation of our photos and videos.

Chinese livestreaming is obviously no exception, and proper-ish lighting was something I started thinking about once it became clear that a not-insubstantial number of people were showing up to my stream for foreigner-gawking purposes. But before you start repositioning all the lamps in your house or go hunting for filters, you should know that Yingke does a lot of the work for you. Or, at least, it does… something:

Can’t quite put my finger on it…

From the moment you launch the app, it’s clear that something is different. At first glance, you might assume they’ve just got a less-than-optimal light balance situation going on, but no — this vampire effect is pretty universal.

It’s like a PSA for the dangers of never leaving the house

And to be clear, this is the baseline. Once you get into the actual *beautification* effects, the freak show really gets rolling. There are four main effects — first and foremost among them, the skin-whitener:

To be fair, this is probably what I’ll look like once the winter is over anyway

Then there’s the skin-softener:

And this is what I imagine my wax statue would look like

If you want to really start moving into alien territory, there’s a slider to make your eyes bigger:

Oh boy

And finally, what is essentially a plastic surgery slider for that gaunt, malnourished look you’ve always craved:


Now, I look at this result and see some kind of hilarious cartoon monster. And to be fair, plenty of Chinese friends have laughed along with me at the obvious excess of these features. And yet…

I mean, they can’t ALL be doing it ironically, right?

This obsession with pale, thin, big-eyed faces is neither new nor unique to China’s livestreaming industry. Cosmetic ads targeted at Chinese consumers have made it clear for years what kind of pigmentation is deemed ideal:

Very little, apparently

So… why the obsession with whiteness?

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this is a relatively modern problem, that because the average Chinese consumer is saturated with Western media but rarely sees foreigners in real life, they’re easily persuaded that whiter = more beautiful. But this doesn’t really make sense when you consider that Western beauty standards — unreasonable though they are — have been pushing well-tanned skin for decades, and what Yingke and Chinese commercials show is more like a literal whitewashing. In fact, it’s worth pointing out that Chinese preference for pale skin isn’t really about race, and it’s certainly not about looking like Westerners — it’s about being the palest possible Chinese person you can be.

(see above)

As far as I understand it, this is a class issue that long predates the first Caucasian setting foot in the Middle Kingdom — more pale skin means you aren’t laboring in the fields, which indicates more wealth and prestige. To some degree, that’s not unique to China; medieval European artwork shows us that their nobles also preferred pale women on the basis that they weren’t spending time in the fields. Of course, they also had a preference for curvier bodies that indicated someone was well-fed, whereas the Chinese beauty ideal has insisted on women with tiny waists (and feet) for many, many centuries.

Pretty sure this came before they cast a bunch of white kids in The Last Airbender

And yes, there is a focus on women in this equation — no shocker there. Just Google “Chinese empress artwork” and “Chinese emperor artwork” and you’ll have no trouble spotting where the bars are set. But when it comes to regular people — not stars, royalty, ancient concubines, etc. — there’s no question that dark skin is frowned upon no matter the gender. Women are treated more unfairly, to be sure (again, no shocker), but while they have to deal with a lifetime of having nasty and often dangerous beauty products literally shoved in their face, darker-skinned men in China are judged by a whole lot of employers and potential mates to simply be inferior from the word go.

Then again, you can probably tell from the pictures above that the “must be paler must have bigger eyes” phenomenon on Yingke disproportionately impacts the female hosts. But then again (again), the 小鲜肉 moniker (literally “small fresh meat,” meaning a somewhat feminine, soft-skinned, well-groomed guy) is a super popular idea in China right now, so perhaps men’s time in the harsh beauty-standard spotlight is finally coming.


Just so long as there’s no UV rays in that spotlight (source)

And despite living in the 21st century, it makes sense that a lot of people in China would still be holding on to the idea that pale skin means beauty and status. If you’re a young adult here, there’s a statistically relevant chance that either your parents or grandparents were farmers — remember, this is a country that was still an almost entirely rural, agrarian economy less than half a century ago. As someone who’s never seen a pre-Beijing-Olympics-China, it can be easy for me to forget that this is a country that went through an entire Industrial Revolution’s worth of progress in just a bit more than my short lifetime.

So when I roll my eyes at a subway ad asking women if they’re “white enough,” I’m not really actively considering that a large portion of this country’s population grew up in a world not just without subway ads, but without subways.

Of course, times change, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to adapt their thinking when they get new information and are confronted with new realities.

But, you know, maybe I’ll see if we can cast a Chinese woman to play Mulan and/or make it another month without a neo-Nazi rally before I start chucking *behind the times* stones in this glass house.


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