Sunday, 30 September 2012

Pale Vs Dark Skin, Fat Vs Slim, East Vs West

 Skin Tan is More Skin-Deep Than Meets the Eyes 

(Or Beauty is in the Eyes of Societies)

We obsess with our skin. Even when we aren't racists, we're still preoccupied with it. We still judge ourselves by the colour of our skins. Outside racism, we judge the 'man-made' environmental tone rather than the genetic colour of the skin we're born with.

Well, this is hardly surprise as this is our most visible thing (because it's the largest organs) on our bodies.

In the West, specifically in English speaking countries like Australia, people prefer tanned skin. Sunbathing is quite a fashionable thing to do in Europe. At the mean time, people in the Far East - especially in China - preferred pale skin ("the East" in this article refers to "the Far East"). Let's look at some evidence.

I've been living in Singapore in the last 3 years in Holland Village. This shopping centre is a magnet for expats (read Caucasian) with its range of eateries. Here's a typical scenario of any restaurant, or coffee shop: Western expats occupy the outdoor tables of the restaurants/coffee shops while locals cocoon inside the air-conditioned premises, or walking in the streets with umbrellas. If I don't know any better, I would think Asian are vampires and white folks are reptilian.

It's not uncommon to see guys carrying umbrellas during sunny days in Singapore

Not convinced? Too anecdotal? For the Singaporean locals, umbrellas are being employed during sunny as well as rainy days. For the 30 years of living in Sydney, Australia, I've never seen a single white (male or female) Aussie carrying umbrella during sunny days in summer (a typical Sydney summer is far hotter and sunnier than any day in Singapore). In fact, soaking the sun rays while walking under the sun isn't enough for the white folks, so they make it up by sunbathing in the beautiful beaches of Australia. This is an Australian national favourite pastime (and the cause of the highest skin cancer rate in the world. This is hardly surprising. Look at the skin of native Australia who had lived in the continent for hundreds of generations, and have evolved very dark skin to protect them while white skin provides inadequate protection to the harsh Australian sun).

Still not convinced? Aren't you a skeptic? Skin whitening cream and lotion are popular in Singapore, HK, and China. Walk into any pharmacy in these Asian countries and you have no trouble locating them. I suspect it's popular in many parts of Asia. Well, even the Google Ads is displaying the whitening cream along side this article when I read it in Singapore. When I read it in Europe, it doesn't really come up. It could be just coincidence. Really?

A selfie mobile phone app called Meitu is very popular in China because not only its make the eyes of the selfie takers wider and their chins pointier, and most of all, it lightens their skin tone.

George Hamilton
George Hamilton's
trademarked suntan and tux
It appears there's a trend that the white people want to look darker while the darker Asian want to look whiter. Is it because of their tendency to want to reach the middle ground? Or do we desire something we don't have (like grass is greener on the other side, or skin is always looking better in other race)? Really?

In the well-heeled countries of, say USA or the Down Under, the tanned skin suggest people with money to travel. Lazing around on the beach sunbathing suggests the same leisurely lifestyle of the rich.  The guy who steps off his gleaming white yacht is unlikely to have a pasty white complexion with all that pleasure cruising. Instead he looks more like George Hamilton the Hollywood actor with his cigar, tux and all year round tan. And then people would comment, "look at that healthy tan you've got".

motorbike with an attached umbrella
In the developing/emergent economies of the East like China, tanned skin associates with labourers working outdoors in the sun - farmers in the rice paddies, street vendors, construction workers, coolies, etc. The migrant workers across China are dark skinned. White collar workers pushing pencils in offices are shielded from the sun, and they are considered to have higher social status.

And in many warmer and more sunny Southern parts of China, such popular travel destination like Guilin, a common, but curious sight to tourists are the bicycle-umbrellas. Even some motorbikes equip with such essential accessories. These umbrellas are for the protection against the sun; it's useless in rain.

Biclycle with umbrella, Guilin, China
It's a sunny day, let's open umbrellas and cover arms with long sleeves, a common sight in Guilin, Southern China

In the beaches of China's tropical island of Hainan, it's not uncommon to see Chinese ladies in bikinis, holding umbrellas - another unique Chinese tourist sight. Many are fully covered on beaches; more so than on the city streets because city streets have shades, but beaches have not.

Chinese women wearing bikini masks on a beach
These ladies are going to the beach, not the bank. It's a typical scene in a beach in Hainam Island, China.
What do you do if you want to go to the beach, but don't want suntan? No worry, bikini masks come to the rescue.

elderly Japanese Geisha as Maiko
Photo: JurriaanH from Netherlands under CC License
The traditional idea of Japanese beauty could be seen in Geisha. They painted their faces with white powder to accentuate the whiteness.

Similarly, the highly developed - read Westernised - economy in the East like Japan, a craze of extreme sun tanning arose in the last decade called ganguro[1] - blond hair and dark skin (rebellious to the traditional Japanese ideal of beauty, probably influenced by the trend in the West). Especially among the Japanese girls, they take the idea to such an extreme that they look more like Aussie surfers than typical  Japanese. They don't do things by half measure.

Photo: moof from Tokyo under CC License
It isn't a question of that the East or the West has different ideals of aesthetics. They just have opposite ways of associating and expressing social status with skin tone because of their different stage of socio-economic development.

The "Eastern way" isn't uniquely to the East at all. In fact, it was the way of the West before the 20th century. European women before 20th century also valued white skin highly. And the carrying of parasols in sunny days were common and fashionable. And dark skin would be considered inferior then. In fact, it was all part of the racism as people were ranked according to the skin tone.

Claude Monet - Madam Monet and her Son
Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son
Of course, the West shook off its racism, and moved on after its powerful post-WW2 social movements that completely changed the social landscape.

During the time of, say Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen is well known for her chalky face make-up. Nobody commented that she was so white they thought they saw a ghost. They didn't say it not so much because they feared that their heads would roll if it was heard by QE1. It's because they were socially conditioned to like - or at least accept seeing - pearly white skin, which is a symbol of nobility and upper class birth.

The preference for fair skin is neither a Western or Eastern cultural constructs, but based on universal basic instinct (as it usually is). Babies are born with fair skin. Our skin darkened as we aged, and so fair skin represents youth, and thus health (as are big round eyes, muscle tones, wrinkle-free skins, and whatnot. Who doesn't find these things beautiful?).

Elizabeth I in Coronation robe
Elizabeth I in Coronation Robes
Before 20th century, both the East and the West placed paleness of skin on a pedestal. The departure occurred in the 20th century when a series of social and economical movements had propelled the West forwards. With the celebration of equality of social classes, the use of white skin colour as status symbol of higher social birth has less validity.

Social mobility has more respectability than social birth in the modern West. So any display of high social birth is generally being shunned. Especially in countries like Australia, and America where ideal of equality of social classes is regarded highly today. And they're proud to be thought of as the land of self-made people. So pale skin that associates with higher class birth in the past is to be avoided like plague.

Western monarchies are being replaced by democracy in the 20th century, and every person has the opportunity to become head of state with real power. Noble or privileged births aren't held in high regard any more, in general. Fewer people respect the aristocrats - the members of the lucky sperm club - than ever before.

Perhaps, this is the Western cultural version of ganguro. A cultural rebellion to its traditional racism based on the amount of colour pigment in the skin. While racism is out, exoticism is in. The dark skin now carries a certain mystique and style, instead of inferiority as it was in the West in the past.

After living in Singapore all these years, my wife also carries umbrella in sunny days, which she never did back in Sydney. Similarly, I also see an occasional Caucasians who walk in the streets of Singapore carrying umbrellas in sunny days. My guess is, they didn't do that back home. When in Rome or Singapore, you do what the locals do. So back in their home countries, even if these ladies wanted to use umbrellas in sunny days, they resisted because nobody did it. I guess social conformity is what this article is all about.

When's the last time you see a man carry an umbrella in sunny days in the West? Men don't use parasols. Well, you haven't met me. Of course, I only carry it for my wife. This brings me to the next topic.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Photo: wikipedia
There's one last but not least factor for the popularity of tan in the West today: machoness. When I said the West, in this case, I'm referring USA (and Australia. Just there're much less people pay much attention to the country). Masculinity had never been big in Europe before 20th century where men in high society wore earrings, wigs, powdered their faces, and put on lipsticks, and wore high heels. French king Louis XIV wore a pair of 4-inch heels (ooh la la).

See how delicate Bach's hand is in this picture. All these refined daintiness once again linked to the well bred aristocracy with little physical labour. That delicate hand - real or portrayed - is as much a symbol of high society as his wig.

In UK, the mannerism of a gentleman is regarded highly. This is too feminine for Yanks' taste and becomes a British stereotype in Hollywood. "He's not a gay! He's British!" is a line quite often found itself into Hollywood scripts from time to time. Remember too that noble birth isn't looking so noble today.

The lauded manliness of the Yank came from the history of pioneering, frontier spirit where only tough, rugged men could survive as the nation marched to the drumbeats of Westward expansion. Cowboys are the epitome of these macho men who are unshaven, walk with a swagger, wear boots, furrowed faces, and a outdoor tan. In short the diametric opposite to the European high social class where there was a history of men emerged from the barbarian Goths and Visigoths, Vandals and Vikings of the Dark Ages; shook off these shameful and primitive past and evolved into civilised societies of sophisticated manicured members of the upper class.

Marlboro poster with cowboy
An Americana - Selling the image of the real American man
Giddy up! This is an outdoor man: untamed and suntanned

If the New World of North America likes to see itself as a maverick, reinventing itself from the Old World of Europe with its image of self-made pioneering frontiers, it would make sense then that the ideal of beauty and manhood in the New World is the polar opposite of the Old World.

With the phasing out of monarchies and aristocracies, the Old World adopted the Republicanism (with European characteristics) of the New World in the 20th century. And it adopted more than political philosophy of the New World.

Since U.S. culture is so dominant after WW2, especially via Hollywood, which sent signal to the rest of the world's males to dress and act like 'real' men. It helped to dress down the world by giving them the rugged blue jeans that invented for cowboys. Australia has no need to fend off such invasion of manly image from USA because Australia too has a pioneering history, and cowboys where men drove cattle, and women wore frocks. (By the way, except for Canada, there's no country other than Australia where its history is more similar to USA. The only difference between USA and Australia is instead of expanding Westwards, it moved inwards into the hinterland from the coastlines to conquer the wilderness. U.S. has Lewis and Clark, and Australia has Burke and Wills. Yes, they both have a history of conflicts with the natives. Yes, they both have Gold Rushes the same time. Yes, they both have white-only immigration policy that specifically targeted the Chinese in the past. Yes, they're both multi-cultural societies today. Yes, they believe strongly in equality of classes. Yes, yes, and many more yeses. With so many similarities, it would be very surprising if they have different body image).

Post WW2, particularly in the period of 1950s to 1970s, mega production of Westerns dominated the cinema screens and especially the TV screens with popular TV series like Gunsmoke (1955 - 1975), Bonanza (1959 - 1973),  Daniel Boone (1964 - 1970), and The Wild Wild West (1965 - 1969), to name just a few. (Yes, i watched Bonanza during the Vietnam War in Saigon with real machine gun blasting away all around me. Bonanza was so tame).

In Hollywood, the American women love the Brits for their accents, but Aussie for their robust hunkiness. Yes, these are all Hollywood stereotypes. But stereotypes don't come out of the vacuum.

Chart of the usage of the term "masculinity" over time
Usage of the term "masculinity" over time
Source: Google

The Google chart clearly shows that the idea of masculinity is very much a 20th century phenomenon. It's not a coincidence that 20th century is the Century of America. Its usage starts off at the start of the 20th century, and it seems to have peaked at the end of the century, and starts to fall - at the very least, plateaued out - in the 21st century. But it may be too be early to say.

Silvester Stallon, Rambo
The macho Hollywood style.
Cowboys' revolvers just wouldn't cut it after 1970.

It especially took off in the period of the Vietnam War. One is left to wonder if there's a correlation of American foreign wars and masculinity. At wartimes, it's a good idea to sell masculinity. Or its rise simply corresponds to the rise of American cultural influence as USA is exporting Americana to the rest of the world.

It's interesting that masculinity is one of  - if not the - biggest American cultural export, and yet it went largely unnoticed.

The plateau of the graph of masculinity in the 21st century suggests the American cultural influence is saturating from the microcosm of this one American cultural export. I believe it is. Another possibility is that USA's influence isn't falling, but America itself is going through a process of feminisation of the male. Perhaps America is adapting to the times the same way Old Europe was adapting to the ways of the New World in the last century. This is probably caused by a gender rebalancing act. Time will tell.

Yes, it's true that this chart looks this way because I picked the word "masculinity", if I pick a different synonym, the graph would be different. What I said about the American cultural influence remains the same with or without the graph. The y-axis label "Mentions" may very well be replaced by "American Cultural Influence".

Indian Blue peacock displays its plumage to attract a peahen
Indian Blue peacock displays its plumage to
attract the opposite sex of its species, a peahen
In the animal kingdom, it's the males that are typically the showy ones to attract the females. Take the peafowl family where peacock is the showy ones while a peahen is always a plain Jane. Human is no exception until the 20th century when Western men upset the natural order of thing where men should look like Boy George instead (is that a peacock feather on his hat? Yes, he's a Brit).

In short, for the West today, world travel lifestyle and exoticism is cool; privileged birth and racism is not. Dark skin is hot; pale skin is not. Dark is the new pale.

Boy George
Boy George
source: wikipedia

A person's dark tan in the rich society is a way of saying to the world, "look at what a life I have".
A person's dark tan in the poor society is a way of saying to the world, "look at what a life I have".
Of course, they say it with an opposite tone (no pun intended) of voice.

The developing economies of the East like China haven't gone through similar social or historical developments. So they still cling to the accepted preferred dual standard of beauty and social status symbol based on light skin in the past.

For now.

A shift from that existing social indicators is occurring in China as the Chinese are travelling, studying, and working abroad. Their changes in this social indicator is probably less dramatic, more like evolution than revolution that encountered by the West.

For completeness, I should mention that in Beijing Opera, a black mask generally symbolise an impulsive, yet always a righteous character; in other word good guy. White mask on the other hand represents treachery, cunning, etc. In short the character who wears white mask represents a villain.

One more thing, don't confuse skin tan with racial skin colour. They're not the same thing. One is artificially induced; the other is naturally born with. One is voluntary; one is not. Attitudes towards them are not the same.

 Facing the Fats 

All this talk of skin colour is skin deep. Fat is another issue that are almost identical to the skin colour. And fat is in fact part of the skin or hypodermis. Fat, like skin, is highly visible, and so it serves as the same social indicator as skin tone.

In the West, if you call someone fat, it's a friendly joshing at best, an insult designed to hurt at worst. Because of the affluence of the West (in the 20th century), you don't have to be rich to overeat. So the perception of fat people is that they're lazy, or have no will power, or don't have knowledge of health, etc.  Fat is associated with blue collar workers in the affluent West that skin tan is linked to the working class in the poor countries of the East. With food so plentiful in the affluent West, it's not rare to see overweight hobos in the streets. This throws overweight as a status symbol of wealth out the window.

Mao Zedong swim in Yangtze River
Chairman Mao swimming in the Yangtze to show his physical prowess
In China, fat is associated with status of wealth and even health. When Chairman Mao swum the Yangtze as a propaganda to show that he was still in top physical shape, his topless body showed quite a bit of fatty celluloid.

In the West today, people would say this guy is out of shape just based on the shape of body alone. In China, that round shape wasn't viewed in the same way as in the West. At least then, when millions in China were starving. And even more importantly, the opposite view from the rest of the world about his plump body wasn't existed. China was an island then, isolated from the rest of the world.

Health consciousness was low at that time. To be fair, the whole link of fat and its related diseases was something only established by the medical community, or at least popularised after 1980s (as was the link between smoking and its related diseases. Mao was a heavy smoker. Base on these 2 health risk factors, you know what the doctor would say about his medical condition).

This is the crux of the matter. In a country where people have been starving for the last 2 centuries, only one category of people is being linked with being fat, the well-off and the powerful. You aren't likely to be fat if your 3 square meals are in question. My grannies and old folks of their generations reckoned I could put on few extra pounds (by the way, I was slightly overweight when they made those comments. I have to look like Homer Simpson or giant panda to measure up to their expectation of looking 'good' or 'healthy'). But then I suspect anyone who have grandparents in USA who lived through the Great Depression would probably see eye to eye with my grandparents (if you're still so lucky that they're still alive to nag you about your six packs).

General Guang Gong
General Guan Yu
You couldn't imagine an American President in the 20th century as fat as the late Chairman Mao would show off his body in a beach to prove how healthy he was. In fact, they don't even run for office. There's no fat US presidents in the 20th century from memory (or any other time that I know of). Coincidence? Really?

All American presidents have to be reasonably thin (and Christian. These 2 conditions are unspoken rules).

As it so happened ALL leaders of Communist China have noticeable spare tyres of various sizes.

In China, calling somebody fat is a term of endearment at worse, and a high compliment at best.

Fat people are said to have "fuqi" (福气), literally "an air or aura of fortune".

A pot-belly is also called a Military General Belly (將軍肚) in China. It's a high praise if you are in doubt.  It's a symbol of both power and strength (think heavy weight boxers, and Sumo wrestlers. By the way, Sumo wrestling originated in China).

General Guan Yu (in these 2 photos) is the most well known of military general. In fact, deified as God of War, is often portrayed with a pot-belly. There's a statue of a military general in the exhibition hall (not in the pit) of Xian's Entombed Warrior site that's paunchy as well. Remember that it was a sculpture, not a photo, so it would be sculpted to the General's desire (ok, photo could be doctored too). And it's obvious that the General wanted his pot-belly to be immortalised in terracotta. As the terracotta is more than 2000 years old, the idea "fat is good" is at least that old. Many nations today are younger than that.

General Guan Yu
General Guan Yu
Under this deep-seated cultural belief, it shouldn't come as a surprise if you see Chinese men walking around, showing off their protruding pot-bellies by rolling up his shirts in summer. They are too sexy for the shirts. Many tourists to China are understandably mystified by such a proud display of rotund waistline. Those who are (un)lucky enough to have seen this spectacle probably nodding their heads right now. Even a foreigner who has been working and living in China for sometimes find this phenomenon puzzling as he pointed out in  his article "Strange Things in China, Part 2". As the blogger points out correctly, this sight is quite common. This sight is common not just Chinese men in China, but those in SE Asia as well. At least in the 1970s where I grew up in.

Well, like the giant panda, this public display of pot-belly is  uniquely a Chinese tourist sight. The guy showing off his big gut in the photo is just doing an impression of a ancient Chinese military general. With all that money and efforts investing into making his waistline more noticeable, why then hide it?  If it's good enough for Guan Yu, it's good enough for me. Let other people share this pride and joy (is it 6 months? 8 months? No, this baby takes years to get this big. Congratulation to your large belly. Let celebrate it with a big feast).

Statue of Zeus
the statue of the Father of Greek god Zeus
depicts a body that has less than 5% body fat.
No fat belly, just flat abs.
(photo: wikipedia)
What a Chinese mother wants for her birth is delivering a - borrowing an old and common Chinese expression - 'a fat fat white white baby' ('肥肥白白的婴儿'). This is what a mother wants from a baby, fat and white. This is scientifically sound. A dark skinned baby is indeed a sick baby (if the parents have light skin). A skinny baby is malnourished. If it could be applied to babies, why can't it be applied to adults? And so the logic goes. No concept of puppy fat, just fat.

It wasn't just Chinese culture that had been sending subtle signals that body fat is okay, but in fact desirable while the Western culture sending the exact opposite message of ideal male body image of brawn and ripped muscles.

Further more, Western culture had been and still is more obsessed with body image than the East today (just look at commercial ads). The artworks of naked muscular bodies had a tradition dated back to at least the ancient Greece while you don't see these bold depiction and worship of the perfect male bodies in the East.

Well, what's better to embody the ideal body image in the ancients than in the bodies of their gods? Surely their gods should have perfect bodies.

Both Eastern and Western deities have been reflecting these polarised attitudes for thousands of years. One started in ancient Greece, and the other ancient China at almost the same time.

Creation of Adam on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel in Vatican, painting by Michaelangelo
Creation of Adam on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, painted by Michaelangelo
The same body image tradition is continued with both "our father" Adam and "the Father" Christian God

Laughing Buddha (the sign at the bottom says, "All is happy")
The Chinese isn't laughing at this portly Laughing Buddha. Just admiring its ample flesh

eight immortals crossing the sea
the Eight Immortals, by default, the most ample
one - Han Zhongli - is given flesh showing privilege
(click to enlarge)
This Eastern deity - in this case, the Laughing Buddha - is projecting: "fat is happiness, fat is jolly, fat is good". Interestingly, the public display of naked flesh in Chinese culture had been mainly in fatty bodies. In other words, the only body type that's acceptable to show in public is flabby bodies. Maybe the curious sight of middle-aged Chinese I mentioned above who proudly display their fatty bellies didn't want to pose like a military general, but the Laughing Buddha or Han Zhongli (漢鐘離 the heaviest of the Eight Immortals). The other 7 deities are fully clothed because it's unseemly to show off a toned body (of a male).

In any case, the weighty body associates with 3 positive things: one represents strength, the other happiness and contentment, and last but not least material wealth.

I don't believe Han's style of hair - a pair of buns that typically found in children (both in the East and West) - is merely coincidental. Remember that to the ancient Chinese if puppy fat is good, so is adult fat. It would be logical for the ancient Chinese to think that, and would be quite surprising if the ancient Chinese understood that the science of puppy fat is good, adult fat is bad.

Remember too that the fair skin in children indicates health, and logically so should plumpness. The ancient Chinese got the right logic, just the wrong science.

You could say that this portly adults are reminiscent of children, and so the public display of naked children bodies were acceptable due to their innocence and so no need for modesty.

In other words, their roly-poly bodies are considered cute both in the East or West. But in the West, no men want to be seen as cute as a kid. They want to be manly and cool (whatever that means, except being cute). Even if the cute Eastern Han Zhongli, and the muscular Western Zeus or Christian God are both old (they all have beard, and thousands, if not million years old).

All in all, in Chinese culture the fat body embodies not 1, but 3 overloaded symbols of happiness, health, and wealth. You get 3 positive things for the price of 1 fat body image. Everybody loves a good bargain.

Well, one is healthy in the body but not in the mind, and the other is the other way round. Once again, as in the case of the polarised attitudes of the East and West towards the skin tan turned out to have the same attitudes but with different symbols to express it. This same principle also applies to what seemingly the polarised attitudes toward body shape. Both the East and West idolise the same thing - youth and vitality - except they have different ideas of what constitutes youth and vitality. To the West, it's toned bodies, to the East, it's flabby bodies. In short, just different embodiment of the same adoring ideals.

Health consciousness is also a reason why the West prefer tanned skin and slim body in modern time even if the slim body image had ancient origin. I have no argument with reducing body fat. But white skin is healthy for white folks. Lobster colour, not so much. For the Chinese, the health consciousness about fatty bodies isn't too high at the moment while the General's pot-belly going back for a few millennium. The Guan Yu statue are increasingly being carved without the big guts, especially those made outside China. I haven't seen any portrayal of Guan Yu in HK movies in the last 3 decades with a big belly. British colony for some 150 years. It would be very surprising if the UK's Western ideal body type didn't rub on its people of the colony.

Here's another concrete example of how the many decades, in fact nearly 2 centuries of hunger in China had led Chinese had a penchant for the consumption of very fatty meats. At least, that was the situation in the late 1980s when China just becoming richer, but not to the point that they have sated of the high calories diet. During this time, I remember I ordered a pork dish in a restaurant, I was usually given pork that ringed by fat that was 2 inches thick. It nearly gave me a cardiac arrest just by looking at it.

Dongbo pork was popular then, and it was Chairman Mao's favourite dish. Can't say it was his guilty pleasure because there was no shame in looking well rounded.

Chairman Mao's favourite dish of Dong Bo Pork
Chairman Mao's favourite dish of Dong Bo Pork
Waiter, there's some meat in my pork belly !
By 2010s, the meat in the same restaurants became leaner, much leaner, as the new generation of Chinese born in a more well fed environment. And so don't find fatty meat a luxury to enjoy. That, and the improved knowledge in healthy diets.

In the West, people ride bicycles for pleasures or exercise, so it's something could only be afforded by the rich. The white collars sit in the office for too long. The poor is too tired from making ends meet. It doesn't have time for such leisure pursuit. More physical exertions don't appeal to blue collars. In China, riding bicycles is a viable necessity for the poor. Cars are status symbols more than a necessity. In fact, there's little reason for them to drive with congestion that make historical records.

This is yet another examples of how 2 societies, because of its different stage of socioeconomic development will have the exact opposite views about the same activity / thing (bicycling / bicycle).

Once again, the East and the West has an exact opposite way of viewing fat as it's with skin tone. This is once again not because they see things differently, simply because their socioeconomic circumstances are different. And so their status symbol of wealth is different, in fact, opposite.

There's a very negative stereotype towards women smokers. Especially Asian women. These days, some Asian women believe - falsely I might add - that smoking leads to slim bodies. What could better to show the changing perception of external image than this? They would rather be seen as a female smoker than being fat. An example of the convergence of beauty standard of the East and West, Old and New.

King of Tonga
King of Tonga
Of course, Chinese culture isn't alone aspiring to the XXL sized body image; the Polynesians too admire the wide bodies. Take Tongan, their average weight in the population is 100kg for men and 85kg for women. The "Tongan Beauty" is a lady weighs around the average 85kg. This ideal of big beauty make Pacific Islanders tops the Forbes list of fattest countries in the world for 2007. This is quite contrary to the spear-wielding warriors or rugby league players image outsiders see. As usual, the ruler of the country - just as American presidents or Chinese communist leaders - lead by example. The Tongan King is quite well nourished.

(Un)Fortunately, the Polynesians have succeeded spectacularly in achieving their cultural ideals where Chinese have failed.

In short, leader of a country and their god(s) are models of ideal body images for their citizen/devotees to follow. If both their gods and leaders are fat, surely you can't go wrong looking like them?

Since the Opening-Up in 1978, China is subject to external influences (good or bad), the traditional standard of beauty and what's desirable is being challenged. And may even converge. Similarly, the King of Tonga is calling his people to lose weight as Tongan has one of the highest rate of diabetes in the population.

These days, calling somebody fat in China may get you a knuckle sandwich, not a happy chuckle. Things are changing in China. You would be safer to compliment somebody is fat if they're over 60 (back in the days, a warm Chinese greeting of your friend after a long period of absence would be "You have gained so much weight!". "putting on weight" is the American equivalent expression of "getting a healthy tan").

For the younger, say Chinese who are under 30, compliment how slim they're. Well, generation gaps are made of these. And in China, the generation gap is as wide as China's East Coast to American West Coast.

For the Chinese who are between 35 and 45, they're very confused, and don't know if they should be fat or slim, have dark tan or pale skin, own a car or ride a bike. They're the transitional generation. Transition = confusion.

There's nothing superficial or only skin deep about skin tan, or fat, they're simply visual cues of something that has a deeper and complex social, cultural, and socioeconomic outlook.

I guess the central message of the article is that many cultural perceptions could depend on the stage of economic development - agricultural, industrial or post-industrial. This article also illustrates another facet of this argument.

And these changing perceptions are all part of the process of globalisation.

East and West is culturally exact opposite, but exactly the same at the same time. It's a matter of perspective.

[1] It isn't just the younger generation of Japanese women who rebel against the traditional value, the male counterpart also wade into this rebellion too. While the Japanese female make themselves look more like men, the men make themselves look more like women (using the traditional image of men and women). They're the soushoku-kei danshi, or the herbivore men. They're as different to traditional Japanese ideal male as they can be. By tradition, I'm talking about the masculine samurai, stoic, tough as nails. The very essence of manhood. And the soushoku danshi is a far cry from the image of samurai. (ok, samurai has longer hair than today's soshoju danshi. But then Medieval European men wore wigs, earrings, and tights while women didn't. But that's difference in fashions, not attitudes).

While Japan took on the model of the West in its economic and political institutions. Culturally, and socially, Japan in many ways are more traditional than Chinese society (at least before the 1990s). Especially in the female gender role. This is because China lived through a communist revolution where lots of Chinese traditions were denounced. So during the Mao era, in a sense, China is very culturally "progressive". Japan never has such cultural upheavals. Only technological, political and economic upheavals.

So in Japan, you have this wide dichotomy of Western systems of government and business, and the Eastern traditions remain intact. Is this state of affair really possible, especially in this globalised world?

Perhaps these rebellions like ganguro and soushoku danshi is the sign of the attempt of Japanese society in closing these 2 chasm of contradictions. At the very least, this is a sign of cultural  diversification of Japanese society in the face of external influence in the globalised world.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Gender Inequality & Imbalance in China

Everyday I wrestle with the many faces of China because it went through the greatest changes in the shortest period in the history of womankind (and ok, mankind as well). Gender inequality is a good case in point.

The well known, shocking case of the Chinese woman with 23 needles buried in her body is a glaring indictment of the outdated feudal tradition of favouring male over female (重男轻女). This is more prevalent, although not limited, to the rural areas. This heart rendering issue of baby girl killing is addressed briefly in a multi-award winning movie Blind Mountain. Mainly the movie tackles the social issue of arranged marriage, but also touches briefly on baby girl killings. Both of these problems are distinct but related. They're both rooted in the adherence of outmoded feudal tradition that are typical of pre-industrial, agricultural society that are no longer applicable in China. This practise is thus very outdated in this new social order. Some people attribute this problem to One-Child Policy. This policy only exacerbates the problem, but not the root cause. If a girl is just as good as a boy, no ridding of girls are necessary.

Today the killings are done more 'humanely' by gender-selective abortion with the help of technology like ultrasound. This makes the gender selection even more effective, leading to the further skewing of male population. Before the Opening-Up of 1978, the male to female gender ratio is about 105 to 100. Today the figure is about 120 to 100. This gender imbalance leads to another social issue of single men having problem finding wives, especially in villages where this problem is most acute.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Forbes' 2012 List of Top 14 Richest Self-made Women is populated mostly by Chinese women. Of course the list of richest women in the world has family names like Walton and Reinhart, who are heiresses to their daddy's fortune. They're not in the self-made rich list. Because China begun its ascent to prosperity really only in the last 20 years or so (it opened its door 30 odd years ago), so ALL Chinese billionaires are invariably 1st generation. In other words, self-made.

The simple reason that there are more Chinese women in this self-made rich list than any other country is because in the last 30 years China is the Land of Opportunity (obviously more so than USA. A ratio of 7 Chinese to 4 Yanks). Of course, the women in China had to be given the same or at least similar opportunity as men in order for them to grab these opportunities that arose from the rising China. At least in the large cities, the Mao's message of "women hold up half the sky" is being heard, and put into practise. Women in the workplace in the major cities don't really face sexism at all.

A closer look at the list also reveals that ALL the Chinese women in this list struck it rich in the traditional male domain while MOST of the women in the West in this list made their fortune in female related products and services like fashion and TV personality that aims squarely at female audience (with the only except of Meg Whitman, the founder of EBay. And as for Russia, I don't know to qualify them as the West or the East. Russia is part of BRICS as does PRC). Not to mention that the average age of the Chinese women in this list is considerably younger. These 2 points - the male dominated industries, and age - highlight even further how remarkable their achievement are. Once again, they had to be given the opportunity to do it. Without it, none of this is possible.

And it wasn't just the business world, Li Na, a woman Chinese professinal tennis player, had achieved something that no Asian - male or female - had accomplished by winning the French Open.

Mosuo Chinese minority
Chinese Mosou minority
Let's not kid ourselves that glass ceilings exist in China, which is quite universal except for a few minorities. Of course, 1 of them is in China, and is known as the Mosuo people, which ias a matrilineal and matriarchal culture.

This reasonable high level of Chinese gender equality could be better be reflected when compare to its neighbour of Japan. While Japanese per capita GDP is almost 10 times that of Chinese, and had been the world 2nd richest country for several decades until PRC surpassed it just last year. More importantly its industrialisation/modernisation is at least 1/2 century ahead of China, and yet no Japanese women made into this self-made rich list (probably never had). It's very well known that despite Japanese advanced Westernisation/modernisation in the political, economic, scientific, and technological arenas, when it comes to women's place, it trails behind Chinese womenfolks. Japanese kimono - originated in Chinese Tang dynasty - it's still being worn by modern Japanese women. The most traditional thing Chinese women wear today is qipao, which is a hundred years old or so, not over a few thousand years old like kimono. The difference between PRC on the one hand, and Japan, HK, and Taiwan on the other is economic development. There's no major cultural difference between Taiwan and Mainland China. The difference is economic. In fact, many many social issues that people think has to do with culture is in fact an economic problem. The issue maybe rooted in culture, it could be solved by economic progress. For one thing, with increasing prosperity, One-Child Policy will be abolished. In fact the relaxation of the One-Child Policy is taking place selectively, and gradually in Mainland China right now.

With the Chinese government's effort to promote the women's right, a number of female fighter pilots are in service in PLA, and 1 of them end up as the 1st Chinese female taikonaut. This gender equality PR exercise is wonderfully liberating and soaring into space, while baby girls are being terminated on earth. The gap is dizzyingly hard to reconcile. But  it's narrowing. Look at the other 2 Chinas - HK & Taiwan - they don't have this baby girl killing problem. Of course, with the size of Mainland, it would take much longer.

The conclusion should be clear: the gender equality between the progressive large cities and backward and traditional communities in China  is like heaven and earth. One is inspiring, and the other heart wrenching. And so these extreme contrasts make generalising China quite impossible. You can't view China in black and white. China is BOTH black AND white. This is typical of a developING economy, especially 1 that is the size of China (and India has similar baby girl killings, which suggest sadly this inhumane feudal tradition isn't unique to China. And both countries in transitions suffer similar social tragedies). Yep, it's all part of the growing pains.

It's this developing stage of economic progress that led to very uneven opportunities in different groups of women in different socioeconomic ladder and geography that lead to this tragedy. I guess the best long term solution is the narrowing of the income gaps between the rich and the poor. This challenge is far far more daunting than landing on the Moon. Well, didn't the Yank land on the Moon in 1969 at a time when there was great social strife and upheaval on earth in America (both gender and racial inequality issues). Yep, how different are PRC and USA? And Yep, PRC is in a more or less similar stage of socioeconomic development as USA in the 1960s (actually more similar to 1940s). The more things change, the more things stay the same. isn't it? President JFK said that "US goes to the Moon not because it's easy but because it's hard". He's wrong, going to the Moon is easy. Solving social problems on earth is hard. Way harder. In 1969 where the Yanks flew to the Moon, they struggled with racial and gender inequality on earth. Human problems are far more intractable than technological problem.

This kind of contradictions of gender equality aren't limited to China. Have you noticed, the most of the female leaders are countries with low female status? S.Korea, India, Pakistan, Burma, The Philippines, etc. On the other hand, there're still no female leaders in countries where women's lib is considerably quite advanced. For example, France, USA, etc. It's a bit like saying since USA had elected an African-America president, there's no more racial prejudice in America.