Opinions on China: The Qiaobi Detergent Advert

 

China’s view on race and ethnicity is a complicated one. Within in the last month we saw a controversial advert from China, one which became a debated topic the world over. People were calling out the advert's creators, and people were saying it was the most racist advert ever made. I wish to preface this entire article by emphasising that I in no way condone the message this advert portrays. Despite this, from my understanding of China and the social constructs in place within Chinese society, I believe this advert is not 'racist'. This is undoubtedly a bold statement to make, and before you reach for the comment section to explain to me how I am wrong, or morally corrupt, I urge you to at least read the article. As I said, the offending advert is without a doubt discriminatory towards people of colour, but the complications arise when we begin to analyse the definitions of 'racism', and what it means in the social construct of places such as the UK or the United States. Yes, it is highly controversial to say something such as "I do not think this advert is racist", however, there is a strong basis to my argument which I will lay out in this article.

 

 

To understand the main point of my argument, I must reiterate that I am not dismissing how problematic this advert is. It is incredibly offensive to people of colour, and the fact it was produced and aired in a connected, aware world, was a huge oversight. The point of my argument is to explain why this particular case of discrimination is not exactly racism, at least by our Western measure of racism, and I aim to teach people about different facets of China, and different ways of understanding and categorising things that happen in society.

 

“But the advert is so clearly racist! Have you even watched it!?”

 

This is a common argument used to anyone who tries to explain the social context of this advert, but for those who understand China, or have studied China, we may argue that the reality is different. Let us first, then, look at what racism means in the social context of the West.

As we all know, the Western world employed slavery, particularly using African slave labour. Of course, over history, the Western world has attempted to abolish slavery, and the trafficking and sale of African slaves was officially abolished in both the UK and the US around the end of the 1800s. So, what does this have to do with China? Some Chinese netizens, in response to the backlash the advert received, argued that racism simply does not exist in China because of China’s history with slavery, and that China did not exploit African slave labour. Is there weight to this argument?

On a surface level, the argument sounds troubled in the Western mindset. Just because a country did not extensively exploit African slave labour surely cannot mean a country cannot be racist? Indeed, this is true. In history, China itself has been noted to have at least received black slaves as tribute from trade partners, however, the numbers were small and black slavery within China is relatively undocumented. Compared to the West, however, China never employed and exploited African slave labour to the excess amount that Western countries did. The argument that racism simply cannot exist within in China on this basis is indeed wrong, as racism is still a large issue in China. So, does China's history with African slave labour change their relationship with people of colour now, and in extension, does is affect definitions of racism within China? I argue that it does when we look at the social understandings of 'racism' as a term to define a form of discrimination.

Western Perspectives

The key reason many of us, as Westerners, view this advert is racist is because of our preconceptions of discrimination towards people of colour. Because we have a troubled past with slavery and the exploitation of people of colour, and a continued problematic relationship between privilege and race, we immediately associate any act of discrimination against people of colour, and particularly black people, as racism. Why? This is no doubt due to the fact that in history, black people in society were predominantly of African origin, and thus, discrimination against them was rooted in the fact that  their physical appearance differed from our own, and their differing appearances was an inherent result of their differing race. Our notions of racism undoubtedly stem from our history with race and discrimination.

In fact, definitions of racism differ quite broadly even within the west. A key example of this is when comparing how people view racism in the United States, and how they view it here in Britain. There is a growing sentiment with online users, particularly those from the United States, that white people simply cannot be subject to racism because they were never a minority, and that white people have always exploited their privilege over people of colour. This in itself is an incredibly complicated debate, however, whilst this notion towards racism might carry weight in the United States, here in Britain, notions of racism differ entirely. When we consider the racism that Eastern Europeans experience within Britain, particularly Polish immigrants, then one can argue strongly that in the social construct of Britain, racism towards white people definitely exists, as people discriminate them on the basis of their race as opposed to just the colour of their skin.

Of course, this does not answer why racism is any different in China. Indeed, their historical relationship with race and discrimination is different, and their views on race and discrimination operate under different frameworks. Something that is often forgotten in this debate, and the key point of my argument, is that discrimination against race, and discrimination against skin colour, are actually two entirely different things.

The concept of colourism

The discrimination based on skin colour, coined ‘colourism’ by The Color Purple author Alice Walker in 1982, is not synonymous with discrimination of race. Colourism defines discrimination based purely on skin colour, but racism derives from ancestry and beliefs. Whilst colourism is often a mechanism by which to assign individuals to a racial category, they are, as I mentioned, not synonymous. The fact that this distinction exists is often overlooked by many, as it is quicker and easier to label anything problematic and discriminatory towards people of colour as racism.

Then, we turn back to China, and the social and cultural context by which discrimination functions there. In the case of the West, I explored the historical example of slavery to illustrate the social construct of discrimination – here, I can do the same. Within China, and perhaps Asia as a whole, importance has always been attached to skin colour, and the darkness or lightness of skin. China, for most of history, has been a mono-racial society. Yes, 56 ethnic groups exist in China, and they have different ancestry and even different physical features, however, even now, 95% of the population is Han Chinese, the Chinese we instantly recognise and associate as being Chinese. In Han Chinese culture, and indeed in many other Chinese ethnic minority cultures, skin colour has a strong bearing with social class. In history, and particularly during the Qing Dynasty, pure white skin was seen as the most attractive feature a woman could have. Why? Social class. People who worked daily in the fields, toiling under the hot sun, would naturally have darker skin. Darker skin, thus, equated to peasantry. White skin referred to the social elite.

This notion carries into modern Chinese life, where white skin is still preferred. Many beauty products contain whitening agents, and Chinese photo editing software often contains the option to instantly whiten your skin. Indeed, even amongst my own Chinese friendship circle, people will often complain about having darker skin, or playfully tease their Chinese friends who are darker than themselves.

What is Qiaobi's 'message'?

By this point, the conclusion I wish to make may be obvious. Let us consider the advert which started the entire debate, and let us consider what I discussed.

The controversial advert showed a black man being forcefully washed until he emerged as a handsome Chinese man. The most interesting part to consider is that the Chinese man who emerged from the washing machine at the end was, in many ways, fitting of the Chinese standard of beauty. In particular, he has very white skin. The link here is that the advert is referring to the social issue of skin colour.

Taken from the Chinese 'Qiaobi' detergent advert

“Then why on earth did they choose a black man to play the role? Couldn’t they have chosen a dark-skinned Chinese man!?”

 

It is a valid point, and it illustrates the whole reason why this advert is problematic. When referring to the social ideals of skin colour, Chinese media often prefers to use people of colour to represent ‘dark skin’, because they act as the perfect visual metaphor for it. They are not picked for their race, they are picked for their skin colour. It is a common sight in Chinese media that attempts to tell stories or portray messages about skin tone – in the popular comedy web series ‘Super Woman’, a black woman was used in a scene to demonstrate the amazing results of a spa whitening treatment. Compared to the Chinese woman, she acted as the perfect visual metaphor to show the contrast between ‘black’ and ‘white’. Without a doubt, it is problematic, and without a doubt, it is an aspect of Chinese culture that needs to be addressed.

Problematic scene from the Sohu web series '极品女士'  (Super Woman)

However, the problem with even my own argument is that race is not easily defined. Definitions of racism differ depending on the source and time period, which complicates the understanding of this issue. Despite the fact that some academics believe race refers to genetic difference, which in turn results in physical difference such as skin colour, the UN tends to side more with racial discrimination being synonymous with ethnic discrimination, and thus, more on the terms of heritage as opposed to physical differences. Regardless of which definition of racism you use, I argue that the people of colour chosen to act in Chinese media, and particularly in the case of the Qiaobi advert, were not picked because of their ancestry, or 'race' by the UN definition, but instead because they represented a difference in skin colour, acting as a method to visualise the social stigma attached to skin colour within Chinese society. Thus, my argument is that the advert is not racist, but is in fact colourist. Yes, this is a somewhat pedantic point to make, as in both cases, the advert is still incredibly offensive to people of colour, and does not excuse the fact that this advert was produced. However, in this article, I hoped to educate not only on the social context of China, and the social issues facing media representation within China today, but also to point out that, whilst it is easy to make quick judgements, the reality is that we often mislabel things, particularly when it concerns what we consider to be social correct or socially acceptable in our own social construct. Particularly for us, as Westerners, racism can have very different interpretations, and that there is not one single perfect definition. This advert, in my opinion, does not fall easily into most definitions of 'racism', however, it can categorically be said that this advert discriminates on the basis of skin colour, and for that reason, the advert would be better defined as colourist . The reality is, in a society that is so cautious of causing offence, and in one where racism is a serious and on-going issue, defining this advert as "The Most Racist Advert Ever" is certainly more appealing, and more engaging, than titling it "The Most Colourist Advert Ever."