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White Skin: A Chinese Obsession

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“What? You like old skin!?!” a young Chinese guy exclaimed to me in English.

“Old,” was the word he used for dark. I’m not sure if this was a language error or if it was a direct translation of some pejorative Chinese term for dark skin, but I answered in the affirmative anyway.

“Yes, I like old skin.”

Of course we were talking about China’s deeply ingrained obsession with white skin. My companion then pointed across to one of his classmates and told me outright that she had dark skin and was not very beautiful. She agreed. I tried to disagree.

“In your country people have lots of different color skins,” he tried to justify my apparent tastelessness, “so you think all color skin is beautiful. Here in China, everybody has yellow skin, so we think white skin is beautiful.”

This was an understatement.

The Chinese — and East Asians in general — have an all out obsession with light colored skin. This isn’t the direct result of Western influence dictated by Hollywood, advertising, hot Caucasian chicks, or anything like this. No, the people here are not trying to look “American;” their goal is to look like fair skinned Chinese people.

Skin whitening product

White skin is a very long-honed determinant of beauty in China, and spans back to a time long before the first white dude ever set foot in North America. To read through old Chinese literature you’ll find that skin tone is mentioned often and is usually used to reference class or character. In point, skin color is used to show where someone comes from and the type of life they live.

“The feminine ideal during the Han period for women of the court was almost unearthly white, white skin. . .” ran an article in the Global Post.

Unlike in the USA, skin tone in China has virtually nothing to do with race. Generally speaking, this is a culture that has been virtually mono-racial for large swaths of it’s history. In the West we use labels like black, white, brown, yellow, red to express race, but skin tone does not divide people up in China in the same way. With the exception the Uighurs in the west, most of the cultural sub-units in China are of Mongoloid stock. So when talking about skin color here it’s mostly a discussion of what shade someone is within the bounds of this broad racial grouping.

Instead of indicating race, skin color is directly connected to class.

“If your skin is dark it is like you work in the fields,” my companion explained.

Working in the fields = poor.

“A woman should always have fair skin,” a Chinese lady was quoted as saying in a NY Times article. “Otherwise people will think you’re a peasant.”

In a society that is now so vehemently infused with the pursuit of riches and status, nobody wants to think of themselves as looking like a peasant. It is the poor who are thought of as working outside doing manual labor. These are also the people who are thought of as having darker skin — either through being tanned by the sun or as a result of a downward flow of genes through socio/ sexual selection.

This does not mean that people with dark skin can’t rise in China or that people with light skin have an easy ride. This isn’t so absolute: there are very rich and powerful Chinese people with dark skin and there are whiteys cooking tofu in the streets. Rather, it just means that people with light colored skin are associated with wealth and high social standing, and are therefore held as a model for emulation and, by extension, beauty.

Though I do not want to underplay the role that this perspective has in fulfilling it’s own prophecy: skin tone is one of many determinants that will factor into an individual’s success. Therefore, there are other reasons behind why the Chinese aspire to have white skin that goes beyond beauty.

“My future employers like white skin more,” a Hong Kong student was quoted as having said in an article on skin whitening.

This statement just about sums it up.

—————

“Oh my baby’s skin is so dark, my baby’s skin is so dark,” a concerned Chinese mother spoke. “My baby goes out in the sun so much and plays. I can’t take a picture of her now because her skin is so dark.”

She didn’t care that her baby had a big bruise under its eye and no hair, she just cared that its skin was dark.

————–

My wife and her co-teacher had cut out three pictures of babies of a book to serve as educational aid for their class. One was of a Caucasian baby, another of a Chinese baby, and the third was of a black baby.

Three other teachers at the school came into the room they were working in, one after the other. Without prior discussion and independently of each other they all said the exact same thing:

“The black baby is so ugly.”

—————

I was sitting in a cafe drinking a cup of coffee when a very fashionable young woman walked in. She was completely clad in black, her jacket had fashionable metal studs sticking up out of it, she was wearing lens-less glasses, and her skin was corpse pale — of course. I looked over her arms, they sparkled white. On her face was a sort of clown-like layer of white foundation — but I’m unsure if it was really needed. It was impressive to look upon someone who cultivated their body as though it were a piece of art; it was frightening to think of what she had to do to make it that way.

“Your skin is very white,” I complimented her in Chinese.

“I know,” she bluntly responded in English.

It was a matter of fact: this girl was white white.

“How do you make your skin so white?” I asked her.

She told me simply that she covers herself in cream and drinks some kind of concoction — which, at that time, I had no clue even existed.

Keeping skin white, a full time obsession, a national psychosis

When the sun is warm and bright in China it is not uncommon for people to abscond beneath umbrellas. On sunny days in the prime of summer the parks are often empty until evening, and people seem to avoid going outside when they don’t have to — and when they do they often make sure the sun can’t touch them by hiding beneath umbrellas or staying covered in clothing. Not getting tanned is some sort of national psychosis here.

Going to the beach in China is an unexpectedly humorous experience. While most people are scantly clad and swimming there is a very visible minority that are conspicuously overly clothed. Not only are there facekinis covering people’s heads like florescent colored ski masks, but it is not uncommon to see Chinese women in long sleeve shirts, under big sun hats, decked out in sun glasses, gloves, skirts, and tights. Some even wear medical masks. What is interesting is that this is not only a habit for fashion conscious women, as men get in on the act too, and they can be seen walking in the sand wearing full office attire. Apparently, this is all to keep the sun from disfiguring their complexions — something this culture seems very serious about.

But, thankfully, for young women the “be as pale as possible” fashion ethic does not trump the “show as much leg as you can” trend. The ankle to the top of the thigh is fair game for public showing, and, by extension, getting sun light. At least there is some degree of sense withheld in this anti-suntan mania. But, rest assured, any body part exposed exposed to the Chinese sun is probably salved up with sunblock that does not only reflect away UV rays but is equipped with built-in skin whitening agents.

Skin whitening products

They have names like Extreme Bright Brightening Gel, White Swan, Snow White, and Fair and Lovely. They are skin whitening products, and it’s estimated that 50% of Chinese people between the ages of 25 and 34 have used them in some form or another. Needless to say, skin lightening in East Asia is a multi-billion dollar per year business.

The pharmacies here are full of complexion lightening creams, gels, lotions, sprays, and even skin whitening pills. What is even more is that so-called skin lightening chemicals are added to many other types of skin care product, like soap, lotion, and sun screen. So not only does sun block here prevent skin damage from UV rays and lotion sooth the skin, but many of these products have agents which are suppose to lighten it as well.  It is now actually somewhat challenging to find skin care products without whiteners.

But this is nothing new: the Chinese have been finding and coming up with agents to lightening skin tone for ages. Ligustrum, Chinese hawthorn, and Cinnamomum subavenium are herbs that have often been used in skin whitening concoctions.

There are also certain foods that people are told to eat if they desire lighter colored skin. During the Ming Dynasty it was written in a Chinese medicine manual that consuming “three white soup,” which is made from white peony root, white atractylodes, white tuckahoe, and liquorice will make the skin whiter. Another remedy called for grinding up the pearl from seashells into a powder and swallowing it. Other foods, such as peas, pearl barley, lily root, soybean milk, asparagus, white fungus, white turnips, walnuts, and almonds, have also been recommended throughout Chinese history as having skin lightening properties if consumed regularly.

How skin whiteners work

There are two main types of skin whitening product: one works by suppressing melanin production in the body, the other works by sluicing off dead skin cells, revealing the supple, lighter layer beneath.

Melanin production can be lowered by applying topical cremes and lotions or through ingesting medication and, to a lesser extent, various types of food and herbs. Most skin-lightening treatments which aim to reduce melanin do so by inhibiting tyrosinase, a copper containing enzyme. This is often done through applying or ingesting a mix of hydroquinone, arbutin (which is found naturally in the leaves of mulberries, blueberries, and cranberries), Kojic acid (a byproduct of sake production), Azelaic acid, Vitamin C, and a host of other substances.  But mercury generally has a better effect.

Mercury has been used as a skin lightener for many years all around the world. Though banned in many countries it continues being added to skin whitening products, particularly those manufactured and sold in China. Back in 2000, 36 skin whitening creams were tested by researchers at a Hong Kong hospital. Eight of these creams were found to of have mercury levels that exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration safety limits, with two having levels between 9,000 and 65,000 times this amount. All of the cremes that contained mercury were manufactured in China and Taiwan, which lead to researchers to conclude that many other skin whitening creams in these countries more than likely also contained high amounts of this toxin.

When one of the researchers phoned one of the suppliers of a toxic skin whitening cream, the representative was infamously recorded as stating,  “What is wrong with a little mercury in the cream, as long as it can make ladies beautiful.”

The irony of this is the fact that mercury can accumulate in the skin, and eventually have a darkening effect if continuously applied over an extended period of time.

The second method of lightening skin is done by removing the top layer of skin, which is where most of the melanin is contained. So by removing this dead layer a person can make their complexion a little more fair. This is often done through the use of alpha-hydoxy acids, which are applied topically and used to scrub away the dead, melanin rich skin cells. Cryosurgery, which uses liquid nitrogen to destroy the top layer of skin and cause the skin to regenerate, is another method of melanin removal. Lasers can also be used.

白富美 White, Rich, and Beautiful

Living and traveling in China is to be brought face to face with the fact that skin tone is a major factor in determining beauty, class, and status. Though there are no hard coded rules here, social preferences err towards individuals with light skin, and the culture’s ingrained outlook that white = rich and dark = poor is continuously self-fulfilled.

It was reported in the NY Times that two thirds of men in Hong Kong prefer fairer skinned women, while half the women who participated in the survey stated that they want their men whiter.

Social ascension based on qualities of physical attractiveness is not something that is rare in any country in this world, and a culture’s “attractive” genes are ever being pooled upwards.

China is a country that is now obsessed with wealth, power, social ascension, opportunity, and beauty. This entire packaged is often wrapped up in a single symbol:

White skin.

I bluntly questioned a young Chinese woman about her culture’s white skin obsession. “Why do you want white skin?” I asked her.

She deferred to the translating program on her mobile phone, and after punching a few buttons a satisfied look crept over her face. She handed the device to me, and on it was written:

“White skin removes all ugliness.”

一白遮三丑

Filed under: China, Fashion, Women

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been moving through the world since 1999, visiting 51 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China. has written 2760 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Xiamen, ChinaMap