Blackface, Red Faces

It was a source of embarrassment for the Chinese government and a dent in China’s image around the world: that is what some commentators are saying about a TV comedy sketch that appeared during the Chinese New Year. Lots of Chinese people, especially the younger generation, go back to their hometown during the CNY holiday, in order to see their parents and grandparents. Sometimes they will bring with them their boyfriend or girlfriend. This means that the Chinese New Year is often the first occasion that the older members of the family will have to meet their future son- or daughter-in-law. In the television sketch, a smart-looking Chinese young man is going with his black girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time. The sketch was meant to be funny, but many people all over the world have condemned its blatant racism and the way that it perpetuates racial stereotypes.

The sketch was supposed to be set somewhere in Africa. The girlfriend’s mother was played by a Chinese lady wearing black make-up (“blackface”) and lots of padding under her dress, so that her backside looked enormous. (Chinese girls are rather proud of their cute little bottoms.) Standing next to her was another Chinese man, dressed up as monkey – presumably he was meant to be her husband, the Chinese boyfriend’s future father-in-law. Probably many Chinese people did find this sketch very funny and apparently there were lots of jokes, mostly about how stupid African people are. As an example of international sensitivity and cultural understanding, it was a disaster for China.

Perhaps the producers could not find a big-bottomed black actress who could speak Mandarin, so they had to give the role to a Chinese lady and ask her wear “blackface” makeup. It could, of course, be argued that very few black people can understand Mandarin and no one in Africa watches Chinese TV programmes anyway. And it is true that there is plenty of racial stereotyping that goes the other way, with racist jokes being made about Chinese people (like Madam Twanky and Wisheewashee in the pantomime Aladdin).

There certainly are many wrong ideas about China. You may know that awful story about the elderly couple who took their poodle to a Chinese restaurant, but the truth is that most Chinese people do not eat dogs. (The consumption of canines is quite common in Korea, so I am told. “Good boy, Rover! Fetch the stick! Now jump in the cooking pot!”) Irena did not want to come to China for a long time because she was convinced that it was a shabby and dreadful place, whereas in fact Shenzhen is an efficient and modern city.

Well, I think that the hullaballoo about this sketch does show how little Chinese people really know about the rest of the world and how difficult it is to change their attitudes. The answer might be for Chinese people to see a bit more of the world, but alas that also might have its problems.

And while we are on the subject of insensitivity and shocking behaviour, here are my new swimming booties. No, they do not come with a volume control.


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