China's love of white skin is cosmetic conceit with possible genetic roots

Yonden Lhatoo says new research may suggest an ancient genetic link to Chinese people’s obsession with porcelain-pale skin, but it’s still cultural and social baggage that should be dropped

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 January, 2016, 6:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

It can be quite chilly out there, jogging by the harbour these winter mornings, so I enjoy every bit of sunshine.

The same doesn’t apply to the female joggers – or walkers, to be more precise – whom I often come across, wrapped in swathing bands like ancient Egyptian mummies so that every inch of skin is hidden from the sun’s rays. They also wear those gigantic sports visors turned down to cover their entire faces so they don’t pick up the slightest tan.

These phengophobic women’s fear of the sun is not a medical condition but a cosmetic conceit; they’re paranoid about becoming darker-skinned.

READ MORE: Bai fu mei: China’s obsession with white skin and ‘trophy’ partners may stem from genetic mutation 15,000 years ago, scientists say

This is an age-old hang-up among Asians, and Chinese people seem to lead the pack when it comes to obsession with porcelain-white pigmentation.

Interesting new international research out this week, led by Chinese scientists, traces it back to a genetic mutation among Han Chinese more than 15,000 years ago. In the not-so-sunny north China of prehistoric times, the fairer skin apparently provided an advantage for the body to absorb more vitamin D.

Of course, this does not mean Chinese people have a genetic predisposition to admire or covet pale skin – it’s still cultural and social baggage.

But put everything together – the scientific link, the history of fairer-skinned nobles ruling the country in the north, the influence of Caucasian colonisation – and it might explain why, in this modern age, Chinese women still aspire to be bai fu mei or “white”, “rich” and “beautiful”.

That’s why in the Asia-Pacific region, the world’s biggest market for skin-whitening products, China is consumption king, and everywhere you turn in Hong Kong, you’re assaulted by advertisements telling you women can’t have dark skin to be beautiful.

Racism and colourism may be separate concepts, but there’s a blurring of lines sometimes in this town

Of course other countries in the region have equally skin-deep ideas about beauty, but it’s heartening to know there’s plenty of public awareness of and objection to it.

Recently, a Thai cosmetics company had to pull an ad for a skin-whitening pill after people were offended that it showed an actress in blackface as inferior to a ghostly-pale model.

In India, where educated young men and women still rely on their parents to arrange marriages for them, the newspapers have entire pages dedicated to matrimonial ads in which every prospective bridegroom is always looking for a “fair and beautiful” partner.

I remember a time when that “fair” evolved into a more politically correct “wheatish complexion” for a while, but I notice the agrarian variation has now been abandoned in favour of trusty old “fair” again.

Hong Kong has its share of shameful controversies involving the denigration of dark complexions, like the one last year when an ad for domestic helper insurance featured a Chinese man in blackface – or brown – as a Filipino maid.

Racism and colourism may be separate concepts, but there’s a blurring of lines sometimes in this town.

I find shade prejudice incredible in this day and age, when humans are thinking of colonising the moon or Mars. But, then, what do you expect from a planet that holds beauty contests featuring only its female inhabitants under the title of “Miss Universe”?

READ MORE: Thai advert for skin lightening pills sparks outrage with tagline ‘white makes you a winner’

In any case, increasing globalisation, migration and intermingling of races should standardise the appearance of humans eventually. According to one theory that makes sense to me, darker skin will become more common, and we’ll all end up looking like Brazilians in just a few centuries anyway.

Bring on the samba and sunshine.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post