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Pet Sins January 2004

'Looking like a foreigner' - modern Chinese notions of otherness and beauty

I have an interest in medieval Chinese history, and read many books about the Silk Route in particular. The Silk Route and Spice Route brought many foreigners - Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Arabs, Persians - to China to trade. Some of these foreigners stayed and intermarried with the local Chinese. Recently I had a strange conversation with a man from mainland China: He said, "Chinese are a very mixed race; many people in my family look like foreigners". So I said, "Oh, like Indians?", since I was thinking of the medieval melting pot and some of my Chinese friends who have vaguely Indo-Iranian or Semitic features.

He replied, "No, not like Indians, like foreigners", at which point I was confused because aren't Indians foreigners too?

Then I realized by 'foreigner', he meant only white Caucasian foreigners, not Africans, not other Asians. It kind of bothered me that the only relevant foreigners in his eyes were white Caucasians. The rest of the world didn't count.

I admit there is no definitive proof that the man was boasting of the 'foreign features' in his family, but this conversation reminded me of another conversation I had with a Chinese woman, in which she said, "When I was a child, I was very pretty. I had a high nose bridge and looked Caucasian, but not anymore." I have yet to come across a Chinese who would point out that s/he has a hint of, say, Melanesian or aboriginal Australian features, much less brag about it.


Comment from ' Anonymous '
I've heard from someone who was an exchange student in China that over there, they just grab any European from off the street and put him/her on a magazine cover, even if that person is "extremely ugly". Apparently, just being European is enough to qualify one as glamorous and beautiful in the eyes of the Chinese.