BEIJING – In absolute numbers, China probably has more beautiful women than any other country in the world. But one could never tell that by looking at the squeaky-clean glass display windows in upscale stores in this capital city or in Shanghai, whose architecture has been often compared to London, Paris and Rio.
The classic image of beauty in those stores and elsewhere across China are modeled after the American and European standard of beauty – white, blue-eyed and blond.
That's remarkable in a country that has long considered itself the center of the universe.
"From the most ancient times, the Chinese chose to call themselves white, with a light complexion highly valued and likened to white jade," Martin Jacques wrote in "When China Rules the World." "By the beginning of the twelfth century, the elite attached a heightened meaning to being white, with colour consciousness amongst the elite sensitized by the maritime contacts established during the Southern Song dynasty (AD 1127-1279).
"During this period even the newly popular Buddha was converted from a 'swart half-naked Indian to a more decently clad divinity with a properly light complexion,' rather as Jesus was whitened in the Western Christian tradition."
Sun Yat-sen, who led the revolution to overthrow the Qing dynasty in 1911, had a clear-cut view on race.
"Mankind is divided into five races," he said. "The yellow and white races are relatively strong and intelligent. Because the other races are feeble and stupid, they are being exterminated by the white race. Only the yellow race competes with the white race. This is so-called evolution among the contemporary races that could be called superior, there are only the yellow and white races. China belongs to the yellow race."
In both old and new China, whiteness – or proximity to it – is prized.
"In the Chinas today there is a clear racial social hierarchy based on the assumption of racial superiority," wrote M. Dujon Johnson, author of "Race & Racism in the Chinas: Chinese Racial Attitudes Toward Africans and African-Americans." "The comfort level and the acceptance of a foreigner in the Chinas are directly proportional to the skin pigmentation of that non-Chinese."
Acknowledged or not, racial discrimination is indeed a problem in China that manifests itself in strange and sometimes unique ways.
Lynne Coleman, a former school administrator in China, has been a recipient of white preference.
"China is a place where my white skin-color gains me much broader entry to places than my Chinese counterparts, particularly those who do not speak Mandarin with the proper accent," Coleman recalled.
She and her husband would be walking down a street in Beijing and suddenly find themselves surrounded by Chinese eager to take a photo with her.
Coleman said, "I've had my photo taken with un-numbered families who wanted my blond self to hold their babies for luck."
And Chinese women make no secret of wanting to climb the social ladder by marrying Mr. White. They go to great lengths to alter their color as Julia Wilson, a chocolate-colored African American, discovered first-hand.
"I went to the grocery store to get some lotion," said Wilson, CEO of Wilson Global Communications in Washington, D.C. "I said to this girl, 'I want the best body lotion you have because my skin is really dry.' She said, 'Fine' and took me by the hand to the lotion section and said, 'Here you go.' She handed me skin whitener. I looked at her and said, 'No, no, no, Sweetie. I don't want to lighten my skin.' She said, 'You don't want to lighten your skin?' I said, 'No, honey, I love this."
That was not Wilson's only memorable experience involving race.
"When I went to the beach and people had all of their clothes on," recalled Wilson, who was in China last year to deliver a lecture. "I asked, 'Why do you have all of your clothes on?' They said, 'We don't want to get brown.' I am looking at this and not believing my eyes. You can find pictures of women with a total mask on their face on the beach so that they don't get a tan."
Some visitors to China have told of accidently brushing up against a Chinese, only to witness them trying to brush imaginary blackness from their clothes. Others recall walking into a subway car and suddenly having an entire area to themselves.
Beginning with the beating of a Zanzibar student in Beijing in 1962, there have been more than a dozen race-inspired riots or public demonstrations. Most of the incidents were ignited by a racial slur or tensions over African students, most of whom are male, dating Chinese women.
Boubacar Traore, a philosophy student from Ghana, told the New York Times in 1988, "When we walk on the street, people insult us. The call us black devils, and so on. Even if we're alone, they insult us. And if we're with a girl, they say she's a hooker and is doing it for the money."
Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in the Dec. 30, 1988 New York Times, observed, "...It is common here to hear racial stereotypes that would make most Americans cringe."
While Americans recoil at such treatment of African Americans by Chinese, critics say they are in no position to lecture anyone. In the "Dred Scott" decision in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery. Chief Judge Roger Taney, writing for the majority, said authors of the U.S. Constitution viewed all blacks as " beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
The Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 upholding racial segregation in public accommodations remained the law of the land until the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision. It was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Several Chinese officials, urging more patience with China, pointed out that blacks weren't able to fully exercise their citizenship in America's democratic system until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"Race is not as large a factor compared to the United States," said Carl Humphrey, an African American who lives in Shanghai. "In China, you are a laowai or foreigner first then you are an American foreigner. Only after that are you a black, white or yellow foreigner. That's very different from home."
Humphrey said he has seen an improvement in how Chinese view blacks.
"The locals over the years have been used to seeing the majority race represented abroad," he said. "With the media spotlighting people such as our current president, entertainers and sports figures, we are looked upon in a very positive light outside of the United States. It's very strange to me to witness the respect of President Obama here in China. He is loved everywhere in the world by individuals of all races."
Johnson, author of the book on Chinese attitudes, believes the country would benefit from a more open discussion about race.
"The images of beauty which stress American and European centric racial characteristics and notions of beauty are acceptable to an astonishing degree by the Chinese even though it attacks at the very core of Asian values and the concepts of Chinese and Asian beauty," Johnson said.
And the people best positioned to help Chinese get past that problem are those dark-skinned people that many look down on.
"Ironically, the cure for this social and cultural malady can be found where Chinese society dares not look: in the communities of peoples of color who have themselves fought this internal cultural battles years ago," Johnson said.
"What the African-American community learned and could teach the Chinese community is that definitions of one's cultural wealth and beauty are not defined externally but internally."
(This story is part of a series that grew out of a week-long African American Media Leaders Mission to China sponsored by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a non-profit organization whose goal is to foster a better understanding between the people of China and the United States. Neither the foundation nor government officials in China had any input in the stories or saw them prior to publication. The 7-member U.S. media delegation was led by Cloves Campbell, Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant and chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. The trip included visits to Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai.)