This Week in Asia

Who's making China look ugly now? Anger over Zara's ad showing freckle-faced model Li Jingwen only puts Chinese people's lack of confidence on show

In the latest case, a new cosmetics advertisement for the Spanish fashion house Zara featuring a Chinese model has stirred up debate on the topic of "uglifying China".

Since the ad "Beauty is Here" was released on Sina Weibo last week, a number of angry Chinese netizens have accused the company of defaming China by depicting model Li Jingwen's face with little make-up and clearly visible freckles. "You spent such an effort searching for a model with freckles, just like finding a needle in the haystack. How hard you must have worked on this!" one comment read.

China's thin-skinned netizens need to lighten up

Before long, Zara responded that it meant no harm, saying photos of the model were taken in an all-natural way, without any software modification, and that "Spanish people have different beauty standards".

And this is not the only recent case. During the Lunar New Year holiday, the well-known America-born Hong Kong movie star Daniel Wu posted a cheeky and unexpectedly controversial greeting, an Instagram post of a picture of a pig with the words "Happy Lunar New Year!!"

Many followers, seemingly from China, obviously took offence with it, because they were unhappy with the image of the pig that was selected.

In Chinese culture, pigs are traditionally considered a symbol of fortune and good luck for their chubby physique, but some said the pig in the picture posted by Wu looked a bit sick and unhealthily thin. In other words " "ugly". And with the caption "Happy Lunar New Year", some social media users questioned whether Wu had intentionally used the "ugly" image to insult the Chinese as a whole. To date, Wu hadn't responded. To me at least, the photo didn't appear offensive and I just laughed it off.

The incidents may say something about the differences in aesthetics between Chinese and Westerners, as well as the attitudes towards these differences. The standards and definition of beauty in China have always seemed unitary to me, although they may change with time.

Amid the political zealotry and debilitating poverty of the 1950s to 1970s, beauty in the People's Republic was equal to wearing green army uniforms, without showing any distinctiveness. Today, wang hong lian, or "internet-celebrity face", perfected by apps like BeautyCam, dominate the interpretation of beauty. With the help of these mobile-phone apps, women can have their face look thinner in photos, their chins sharper, eyes bigger and brighter, and most importantly, skin smoother, paler and strikingly flawless.

The pervasiveness of these apps may have contributed to the idea that anyone who doesn't look that way is to be viewed as "ugly". Needless to say, the narrow-mindedness and intolerance can do real harm to society, and especially its youngsters.

Holding a mirror to China's selfie obsession

The pursuit of a narrow notion of beauty in personal appearance in fact reflects a wider problem in communist Chinese society. The ruling Communist Party has for years preached about the importance of always presenting a rosy picture of the country, so much so that it is now second nature for many Chinese to prefer the positive " even if it is fake " over the negative, regardless of where the truth lies.

Last week, the new movie by renowned director Zhang Yimou was abruptly pulled from the Berlin Film Festival. One Second is set in the Cultural Revolution. The last time Zhang's work suffered a similar fate was in 1994, on the release of his movie To Live, which not only covered the Cultural Revolution but also dipped into the tragic history of the early years following the civil-war victory of the ruling party.

The suspicions of censorship recall the relentless complaints over the years that Zhang and other Chinese directors who have won awards at international film festivals became acclaimed only because they "uglified" China to impress Western audiences. And by "uglify", the critics mean of course that the filmmakers used their works to reveal some uncomfortable truths.

Chinese censorship the talk of Berlin after Zhang Yimou film pulled

Furthermore, because of its "century-long" bitter experience of being bullied by Western powers, a deeply rooted perception of victimisation persists in China, even today. The theory goes something like this: we suffered so much in the hands of the imperialists for so long that we can't believe our former adversaries don't have some hidden agenda today aimed at hurting us.

In the meantime, with China's rapid economic growth and increasing geopolitical power, an aggressive jingoistic nationalism has been on the rise.

With the mix of these two seemingly opposite yet both xenophobic sentiments comes big, yet fragile, egos. People who fall for ultra-nationalism see hostile forces all over the world, from the US to Japan, from Sweden to Canada. The overzealous "patriotic" vigilantes dubbed "Little Pink" often flood the social media accounts of people they perceive as having insulted China with derogatory comments. If the offenders are foreign companies, they organise boycotts to force them to apologise for "hurting Chinese people's feelings".

And these actions are often backed by the authorities, such as the foreign ministry spokespeople, who themselves from time to time refer to China's national pride when taking issue with others.

I feel sad about that. As the world's most populous country and second-largest economy, why can't we be more confident and embrace some diverse ideas, be it different definitions of beauty, our own unpleasant past or other people's observations about us, and reserve our indignation for actual malicious racist attacks when they do occur? As a Weibo user commenting on the Zara advert puts it: "I think this model does not look bad. She has a kind of beauty of confidence!"

Instead of the glossy and fake perfection we call beauty, this kind of natural, true-to-life and confident beauty may be what we lack.

Audrey Jiajia Li is a broadcast journalist and nonfiction writer

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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