Ever since the implementation of the Open Door policy, China’s foreign population-scapes (ethnoscapes) have been slowly but steadily transforming. These transformations were intensified by the post-2000 (post-WTO) nationwide relaxation of long standing restrictions on entrance, housing, and settlement of foreigners. Nowadays, people from all over the world can be seen living practically in every main city.
Africans in particular have a strong presence in all first tier cities (and to some extent in most export oriented second tier urban centres). While trade is the main activity that diasporic Africans undertake in the country, it is certainly not the only one. On the fringes of the growing export trading economy, Africans from all walks of life are doing things in the People’s Republic: hairdressers, teachers, preachers, barbers, football players, fashion designers, doctors and singers, amongst possibly many others. This flow of ‘newcomers’ somehow articulates with the half-century-old tradition of African students and diplomats sojourning in the country, and seems to further consolidate ‘African presence’ in China.
So, over the last two decades, but more so over the last 6 to 8 years, Chinese citizens have grown more and more used to the presence of Africans in downtown areas of cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. Actually, the continued presence of Africans in these urban spaces, and their mingling with local populations, has also had an impact on China’s mediascapes – in particular in certain popular culture products like TV game shows.
Before proceeding, I must confess that in the last year I became addicted to the popular dating show 非诚勿扰 (fei cheng wu rao – which literally means something like ‘if you are not sincere, don’t bother). Translated into English as ‘You are the one’, this show (based on the Australian ‘Taken Out‘) is produced by Jiangsu TV and, in a matter of three years, has become the most popular/highest-rated ever game show produced by this TV chain (some rating reports indicate that the show has finally surpassed decade-long-no.1, Hunan TV’s Happy Camp 快乐大本营). Each season of ‘You are the one’ has a somehow fixed cohort of 24 female contestants that reappear every week. In each session a young man is introduced to the contestants. Throughout the show, the girls interrogate the candidate about his values, tastes, aspirations, ambitions and so on. As the show progresses, usually fewer girls are interested in the guy, and if by the end there is anyone interested, they date. In a way is a typical dating show (have a look here – subs in English).
At first, I got attracted to the show because it features foreign Mandarin speakers. While most of the male contestants are Chinese, some foreign males do appear (these foreign males usually conform with stereotypes about the ‘foreigner 外国人’ in Chinese imaginations: the handsome Italian, the exotic French, the ugly but refined British, and the boring chubby American – all of them white, needless to say). In terms of the girls, there is slightly more variety. There is always a foreign Asian (i.e. Korean, Thai, and Indonesian – all wearing traditional customs from their countries); occasionally, some white girls have appeared (American/Canadian students of Mandarin); and of late (July 2013), there is a girl from Guinea Bissau (apparently, the second ever black African girl in the show).
Debujiada (24) with some other contestants
Thanks to her personality, values, and life story, Debujiada (德布佳达), or from hereafter Xiao De (小德), an Economics student at Heilongjiang University, has become a bit of a phenomenon – a microcelebrity in the Weibosphere (and in other Chinese realms of the internet). The following is Xiao De’s introductory video (for non-Mandarin speakers, she talks about her ideal partner and her dreams for the future; and her father, who also speaks Mandarin, talks about why she left Guinea: apparently due to civil war).
Xiao De’s Intro video
As with many other non-white foreigners in China, it seems that Xiao De has had to put up with a lot of prejudices and uncomfortable situations relating the color of her skin. Apparently, in China every time a Chinese person sees a black person (or a brown person, for many of them these two colours are kind of the same) all she thinks of is chocolate! (I know it sounds stupid, but keep reading).
The proof is in the pudding: during her first appearance in the show, Xiao De was invited to perform a little dance for the audience (no exoticising intended, no). Right after her dancing, one of the show’s ‘teachers’ (老师, a figure of authority pervasive in Chinese TV game shows that is kind of a hybrid between judge/professor & moral guru) made the remark shown in the following images (translated below):
(From left to right) 1) ‘when I saw her, I thought she looks like a chocolate bar‘; 2) ‘I could barely stop myself from biting her‘; 3) ‘Hahahaha‘ (real and fake audience laughter mingles); 4) the other teacher finds it appropriate to intervene in this awkward situation and suggest that ‘it would be a very strong flavour/taste, though‘ (Here you can see the whole Youtube video of Xiao De’s dancing and chocolate remark (Mandarin)).
Xiao De took the whole incident in a positive way, but she did complain against the second teacher that spoke about her ‘strong flavour/taste’. See, this thing about Africans having strong smells or flavours/tastes (in Chinese language both notions are almost the same) keeps coming again and again when Chinese people talk about black people – from taxi drivers to TV show judges you’ll often hear that. In China, as in many other countries, people from the countryside (peasantry) are usually discriminated for having ‘strong smells’. So, to some extent, Chinese contempt for people with smells is not directly aimed at black people but it is related to long standing historical class issues (i.e. tradition vs. modernity).
Anyway, despite the sometimes silly remarks made by people in the show, and some nasty online comments (that have softened throughout her time in the screens), Xiao De’s attitude (and her media portrayal) have made a breakthrough in terms of the representation of blacks in Chinese media. One the one hand, her personality, assertiveness, value and belief system (which she has thoroughly discussed in her interventions), and in general her attitude towards life, has surprised many a Chinese netizen. On the other hand, the production of the show has done all they can to emphasise that Xiao De is no ordinary person. According to her online profile, she is the daughter of a renowned economist, her mother is a lawyer, her uncle happens to be Guinea Bissau’s ambassador to China; and her grandfather was an important tribal leader. This ‘non-ordinary background’ has been carefully promoted in order to make her appear as acceptable/desirable. Moreover, the mixture of her personal confidence and values and her supposed wealthy/decent origin, rapidly earned her the nickname of ‘African princess 非洲公主’, or ‘黑富美‘ (Heifumei, black, decent/wealthy family background, and attractive/beautiful: marriageable). Heifumei is a wordplay of baifumei (白富美 – fair-skinned/white, decent/wealthy family, and attractive), a term used to refer to the type of women that apparently all Chinese men should strive to marry. By presenting Xiao De as decent/wealthy and an attractive woman (with a proven moral standing – and, of course, capable of taking care of her husband’s parents) there seems to be an attempt (at least a mediatic attempt) to blur the lines dividing Chinese fair skin and African black skin: she is black, but she’s beautiful (inside and outside) and comes from a good background, therefore she’s acceptable/desirable, and on top of everything she speaks standard Mandarin better than many Chinese… the logic goes.
As mentioned earlier, netizens & audience (now kind of the same thing) have slowly changed their attitudes towards Xiao De. The assertiveness and moral values exhibited by this heifumei have sometimes contrasted with what some commentators have construed as the ‘lack of values amongst Chinese youth’. As shown in the following Weibo comment:
@芊芊丝草：我觉得不错，小德的感情观还有为人处世的态度在台上胜过任何一个自称“白富美”的中国女孩。有时候有些问题我都为中国女孩感到丢人，她所表现的价值观真的蛮令人欣赏的。如果非洲女孩都是这样子的话，那我只能说我们中国女孩子在感情观上的教育太失败。(“@芊芊丝草 Alright, Xiao De’s attitude and the feelings she’s expressed on stage outdo by far those displayed by most other ‘baifumei’ Chinese girls. Sometimes, on certain issues the Chinese girls make me loose face (feeling embarrased). Xiao De’s values are quite admirable. If all African girls are like this, then the only thing I can say about Chinese girls is that, at the level of attitude, and values education, we are failing.” – mind you this is a non-authoritative done-in-3-minutes translation).
But the craze for Xiao De has gone beyond the point of using her as an example of the failure in fostering/developing the right values among Chinese youth. Xiao De (who is now probably the most famous African woman in Chinese mediascapes) is being ‘chased’ by thousands of potential males, whom, according to the show’s production, have expressed their interest for her and their desire to participate in the game. The images below depict the moment in which one of these hopefuls declares his love to Xiao De, only for getting rejected.
‘I’m very much in love with you, Xiao De’
‘I’m sure that you’ll be able to find a girl way better than me’
Xiao De has been quite transparent and direct: she wants a Chinese partner because she wants to live her life in China – a country that she claims to love dearly. She also claims to be looking for someone who would value her by who she is, beyond her nationality and the color of her skin: ‘love respects no borders’, she’s continuously claimed. The show’s production has highlighted the fact that Xiao De came to China looking for educational opportunities and personal development in an ‘independent manner’. She has been represented as a very free spirited girl that was trapped in African tradition. Since she was a child, she always felt the need to escape her faith within the tribal structure to which her grandfather was the leader. Xiao De was no good for being subjected to her tribe’s traditional arrangements for marriage (one husband, many wives). In a way, Xiao De’s desire to marry a Chinese husband and remain in China is equated with her desire for escaping tradition. Apparently, ‘非诚勿扰- You are the one’ represents the possibility for her to overcome her fate by exiting tradition and entering modernity – a Chinese modernity (pure Sino-African politics!).
So, in a way, while Xiao De’s participation in the game show has resulted in some positive breakthroughs in terms of the representations of Africans in Chinese imaginations & mediascapes, a more profound and obscured narrative of ‘China bringing the torch of (yet another) modernity to African people’ still remains (not that different from the good old days of Internationalism, non-alignments, and the Bandung romance).
On another note, ‘非诚勿扰-You are the one’ is in negotiations to sell its production rights to several African countries. There would be ‘You are the one’ Zimbabwe. This is the first time that a ‘Chinese popular culture TV product’ is exported. The Africanisation of ‘You are the one’ has been portrayed as the long-awaited take-off of Chinese TV global soft power. Many Chinese netizens are already wondering if there would be some Chinese girls in the African versions (the opposite of Xiao De in the Chinese version). I’ve been wondering if Xiao De’s image would be somehow exploited within the logic of the spread of Chinese soft power in Africa.
Finally, this show is really really interesting. It’s fascinating to have the opportunity to listen to the issues that the young professional middle class participants discuss. The morals, ethics, aspirations, tastes, and anxieties, they debate are exemplars (for good and bad) of the views of a huge part of China’s population – a treasure for anyone interested in contemporary China’s culture.
Click HERE for a follow up (update) on this interesting case
In the last 5 years, the most notable cases of Africans in the Chinese pop-culture ecology are Hao Ge 郝歌 (a Nigerian born singer based in Beijing) and Lou Jing 娄婧 (a half Chinese, half American 2009 talent-show Shanghainese participant who was then virally known as the ‘Chocolate Girl‘).
Hao Ge 郝歌 during the 2008 CCTV New Year’s Gala
A lot has been said about these two cases, mostly about Lou Jing and the issue of racism/discrimination in China. So, in this post I didn’t touch on either of these two cases. In a way, what I wanted to briefly highlight is what I see as a subtle change that may signal some less negative attitudes towards black Africans and other dark-skinned peoples in Chinese mediascapes.