Bai Fu Mei: An In Depth Look at the Chinese Quest for Whiter Skin

The following is an adaptation of an academic essay I wrote while studying abroad in Xi’an, China in the summer of 2012. 

What's the deal with skin whitening?

One of the major academic components when studying with the Alliance is the capstone. This capstone project is an academic research project on an aspect of Chinese culture you find very interesting. For this project, you must do a presentation and write a roughly 10 page paper. My paper was on skin whitening in China.

In China, very white, pale skin is considered beautiful, and girls will do just about anything to keep their skin fair. This includes everything from skin whitening products to sun umbrellas to facial bleaching procedures.

Bai Fu Mei:

An In Depth Look at the Chinese Quest for Lighter, Brighter and Whiter Skin


As the weather in China began to get warmer and warmer I noticed many unusual behaviors in Chinese women. I saw women with sun umbrellas on the street and sweaters with long pants at the beach. Coming from America, a country with a tanning obsession, this focus on maintaining white skin, even at the cost of comfort and convenience, seemed alien to me. Through my summer in Xi’an, I wanted to explore this concept: why white? Does this obsession stem from historical cultural practices, or a desire to appear more Western and cosmopolitan? My mission was to discover how these women are maintaining a lighter skin tone, and why.

“Bai fu mei” is a term used in China meaning women who are white, rich and beautiful. The male term is “gao fu shuai” or tall, rich and handsome.

My first experience with the desire to maintain white skin was wandering the beauty isles of Karrefour in quest of one product: moisturizer. However, I encountered an obstacle; every single moisturizing product was “whitening”. My friends and I had no idea what whitening products were. We were afraid they were skin bleaching, or would be as potent as Western self-tanners, leaving me with a ghostly face. After about twenty minutes of searching, I finally found the only non-whitening moisturizer in the store: a floral, greasy, over-priced concoction.

While attempting to discern whether or not my moisturizer was whitening, one of the many employees that roam the beauty isles grabbed my friend and pulled her towards a product, assuring here that it would erase the black spots on her face. By “black spots” she meant freckles. My friend attempted to inform the woman that she liked her freckles and wanted to keep them, however, the woman assured her that she would be more beautiful without them. This experience with the product isle left me interested in this new world of whitening products, which were previously unknown to me.

Hainan beach

Beachwear for women in the USA and China

My second experience with the desire to maintain white skin was in Hainan, China. Hainan is a tropical island just south of mainland China that serves as the “Hawaii of China”. When I arrived in April the weather was hot and humid, however, women seemed to be wearing winter clothing. I saw women everywhere in long pants and skirts, wandering the streets with umbrellas. It was the first time I had ever seen a personal sun umbrella, and the notion shocked me.

However, the most shocking was the beach attire. Men’s swimming attire consists of either a speedo or cotton underwear, while women swim in their street clothing, which ranges from shorts and t-shirts to jeans and long-sleeved shirts. The few women who donned bathing suits wore one-pieces with skirts. Most women preferred not to go in the water, admiring it from afar under a giant umbrella. While at first I thought the aversion of bikinis was a body-image issue, I soon learned that it was also to prevent sun exposure, which is why the beach was mainly deserted until after four in the afternoon.

“We see photos of the famous Americans at the beach without the umbrella and some girls think they don’t want the umbrella either”

The whitening products coupled with sun aversion caught my interest. What are these whitening products, how to they work, and why do women use them? What societal pressures are stronger than the desire to enjoy the ocean in a swimsuit or wander the street in a tank top and shorts? My past few months living in Xi’an I have explored this topic through a combination of research, interviews and observation. How do you obtain white skin and why is it beautiful?

I began my study by researching whitening products. I soon realized that Chinese girls, my roommate in particular, use a plethora of products to maintain fair skin. My roommate uses products such as Dove Natural White moisturizer and Garnier Aqua Defense whitening face masks. In total, I catalogued eight whitening products ranging from moisturizers and masks to lotion and toner. The most surprising aspect was that many of these products were from brands that I recognized. I assumed that only Asian brands would create whitening products, but it is mainly Western product brands that are cashing-in on this Asian standard of beauty. Many Chinese girls also use a foundation that is either green in color or has green undertones to cancel out their yellow skin undertones and make skin appear fairer.

whitening advertisement Thailand

Skin whitening advertisement in Thailand

One of my main interests about these whitening products was how, exactly, they whiten skin. I soon learned that there are two types of whiteners: hydroquinone, and AHA or fruit acid. According to CNN-World, hydroquinone is a very serious whitening agent and is either banned or regulated in most countries. These whiteners chemically suppress melanin production, and are normally prescribed by doctors to treat hyper pigmentation. Hydroquinone whiteners are either banned or require a prescription because they can create long term problems if used improperly. If used for over one year, hydroquinone can lead to patchy skin, skin-reddening and even worsening of dark spots.

Most over the counter whiteners use either AHA or fruit acid to whiten skin. AHA stands for alpha hydroxyl acid, which comes from the sugars in plants, while fruit acid is found in acidic fruit. These products work to lighten skin by peeling off dead skin cells, moisturizing the skin, unblocking pores and improving skin tone and texture. This means that any tan on the top layer of the skin will be removed through the re-growth of new skin cells. As long as AHAs and fruit acids are less than ten percent acidic, while either containing or recommending the use of SPF, they are safe to use on a daily basis.

sun umbrella

My sun umbrella in Xi’an

Aside from whiteners, there are many other ways Chinese women can keep their skin from tanning. When I first arrived in Xi’an, I noticed that almost every woman carries a personal sun umbrella. These umbrellas have been incorporated into the everyday fashion of a Xi’an girl, with bight colors, sparkles, lace and flowers. By carrying a sun umbrella, a girl can virtually always be in the shade, no matter where she is. I was curious to see if sun umbrellas make a difference in terms of sun exposure, so I purchased my own and carried it around for multiple days. I discovered that the individual sun umbrellas do help keep the sun off the face and chest, which not only prevents a tan or sunburn, but also keeps the individual cool, similar to standing in the shade.

While umbrellas are the most popular method to shade skin in the sun, there are also other items that many Chinese women use. For example, some women prefer to wear long clothing that covers the arms and legs, while others wear UV-resistant gloves while driving. Some women even wear white, detachable sleeves while driving mopeds or walking outside. Very large brimmed visors are also popular with older generations.

arm covers for sun protection

My driver protecting her arms from the sun

I also noticed that many women seemed to do their shopping at night. Clothing stores that appeared empty during the day were crowded and bustling in the evening. While I first assumed that it may be because these women all needed to work during the day, after talking with many Chinese girls, I learned that Chinese women purposely try not to leave the house during the hottest part of the day to avoid the sun. Out of all young Chinese women interviewed, over half claimed they tried to avoid walking around outside for long periods of time until after four or five pm to prevent a tan. Most stated that it was more convenient because the sun umbrella was no longer necessary.

After studying the many ways Chinese women stay white, it was important for me to discover why. Through interviews, many Chinese girls informed me that light skin has always been considered beautiful in China, and though historical research I found this to be true not only for China, but also for Japan and Korea as well. According to Marilyn August in her article, “Asian Mania for Skin Whitening”, traditionally, darker skin belonged to those who worked outside. Those who were white were the ones who could afford to be inside, rather than toiling all day in the sun. White skin therefore, was a status-symbol incorporated into a beauty ideal.

Bai Fu Mei

My Bai Fu Mei friend Suzy

According to Marianne Bray in her article “Skin Deep: Dying to be White”, Chinese women historically ground up pearls and swallowed them to keep their skin white, while across the sea, Japanese women used powder to make their skin appear chalk-white, most notably Geishas, a symbol of the ideal standard of beauty in Japan. Anna Park, associate director at an Asian women’s health and lifestyle magazine in California comments that this quest for whiteness has been present long before western influence, “If you look at old pictures or old paintings of what is considered to be beautiful in China or Japan, all their faces are really pale,”.

“si si wen wen”- a woman with white skin who is very polite. When she laughs she doesn’t make a big noise.

A few articles and many Chinese girls that I interviewed mentioned an ancient Chinese saying “One white covers up one hundred ugliness”. This saying as well as the idea behind it is still perpetuated in modern society today, the belief being that not only will white skin make you beautiful, it will also cover up other flaws you may have. In LA Times article Beauty and the Bleach, one Chinese woman living in Los Angeles commented about another Chinese saying: “si si wen wen”, a phrase meant to describe a woman “with white skin and is very polite, and when she laughs, she doesn’t make a big noise”. She went on to describe that white is seen as feminine, meaning a delicate woman who does not need to toil in the sun.

Currently, whiteness is still used as a status symbol for Chinese women. Not only does it help distinguish city women who work in offices and can carry around umbrellas, from country women who need to work in the sun all day, the purchasing of whitening products also distinguish the wealthy from the poor.

Beauty products, especially in China, are very expensive, and only certain people can afford to use them. For example, according to one female I interviewed, the whitening face masks that many Chinese girls use nightly are roughly ten American dollars for a packet of five masks. That is a significant amount of money, even for Americans, let alone Chinese women. She also informed me that her masks are not considered an expensive brand, and depending on quality and brand-names, the price of these masks can grow exponentially.

“White skin means high class”

Dr. Sun, a Chinese-American plastic surgeon living in Los Angeles often does laser-skin treatments on his Chinese patrons to lighten their skin, “I think these women see skin-whitening very much along the lines of buying a Louis Vuitton bag,” he said in an LA Times interview. Some Chinese women are even willing to pay up to $1,000 US dollars for “mesofacial” bleaching treatments. There even seems to be a hierarchy within whitening treatments. One woman interviewed by the LA Times states that she never buys the very cheap whiteners because sometimes they can leave your face and neck different colors, and people can see that it is “not your real color.” She also stated that “whiter skin means high class”, even in today’s society.

sunburn China

this is what happens when you can’t find sunscreen in China

These quotes and interviews from real Chinese women show that the issue of class is still present in the image of white skin. White skin is not only beautiful, but also shows that women are delicate, feminine and wealthy. Whether it is young women living in Xi’an, or forty-year-old Chinese women living in Los Angeles, the idea that white is beautiful, expensive, delicate and luxurious is an idea that has permeated all of Chinese society.

“One white covers up one hundred ugliness”

Through a series of interviews, I wanted to discover what young men and women from Xi’an think about white skin as a symbol of beauty in modern society today. Every person interviewed agreed that white skin is more beautiful, but most could not explain why, making comments like “It’s obvious”. When encouraged to provide a deeper explanation, many stated that “boys like white girls” or, “my mom and friends tell me I need to be whiter.” Most also quoted “One white covers up one hundred ugliness,” explaining that white skin covers up other flaws.

One female interviewed told me that her nickname with her friends is “Da Huang” which means “Big Yellow,” because she is the largest and has the darkest skin. She said that her friends are always encouraging her to keep out of the sun because it will make her more beautiful. Her mother, who also has a darker complexion, buys her whitening masks and the two of them use them together every night when she is home.

“When I see a girl who is white, I think she is clean and showers a lot, but when I see a girl with dark skin I might think that she is dirty and she doesn’t shower very often”

Most girls, however, feel that the pressure comes from impressing boys. Every girl interviewed felt that all boys preferred white girls, while the color of men’s skin does not matter. This sentiment was confirmed when I interviewed young men in Xi’an. Every male I interviewed told me that girls with white skin were more beautiful, usually saying that they appeared more feminine and lady-like.

One seventeen year old boy I interviewed told me that some people believe that girls with darker skin are poorer. He assured me that he does not share this belief, but also informed me that, “When I see a girl who is white, I think she is clean and showers a lot, but when I see a girl with dark skin I might think that she is dirty and she doesn’t shower very often.” The main reason Xi’an girls care about their complexions is to attract boys, and with comments like “tan girls look dirty,” it’s no wonder that some girls will pay large amounts of money for whitening creams and masks.

China sun umbrella

Sun umbrellas in Beijing

I also thought it was important to discover if Western culture has influenced this desire to be white. Through research and interviews I learned that if anything, Western influences have done the opposite. Half of the females interviewed told me that Western celebrities have made it more acceptable for girls to have tanner skin, because of the current Western tanning beauty trend. One girl I interviewed told me, “We see photos of the famous Americans at the beach without the umbrella and some girls think they don’t want the umbrella either.”

In an interview by the LA Times with a Chinese woman living in Los Angels, this woman states that she was shocked by the California tanning culture. She said she soon realized that the beauty ideals of America and China are different, “When you see darker, you think they are very rich. They have a boat. They have enough time to go to the beach.” Her husband then stated that it is okay for American women to be tan because “It’s part of the sports thing”. This shows that the Chinese ideal of beauty is viewed as completely separate from Western values. While it is acceptable for American women to be tan because they are athletic, most Chinese men and women prefer the traditional, light-skinned, petite and feminine idea of beauty.

Skin whitening China

My Chinese friends and I at a BBQ

Out of all of the girls I interviewed, not one seemed to think light skin as a symbol of beauty has anything to do with the West, citing China’s history as the reason. According to Hiroshi Wagatsuma in her article “The Social Perception of Skin Color in Japan”, Japanese and Chinese people rarely refer to their skin as “yellow”, traditionally using the terms “white” and “black” to define their range of skin tones. This means that the Asian concept of “white” is not light Caucasian skin; it is the lightest variant of their own skin tone.

In conclusion, the conception of white skin as the beauty standard is a Han Chinese ideal that stems from a deep history within most East Asian countries. This beauty obsession is purely Chinese, and is not affected by Western culture. If anything, the Western beauty ideal of tan Caucasians gives some young Chinese women an excuse to let their skin tan naturally. In terms of whitening products, many over the counter products such as lotions, creams and masks are safe to use on a daily basis, containing plant or fruit acids that work to brighten skin and protect it from the sun.

White skin in China is not just a beauty ideal, it is also a status symbol. Only those that can afford to stay out of the sun or buy expensive whitening products will maintain light skin. Finally, it is not today’s young women that are perpetuating this beauty ideal, but the older generation and the men. The ability to seem attractive to men in today’s society seems to be the driving force behind the whitening trend in today’s younger women.

While this may seem strange and foreign, the same can be said for American society and tanning. Many young women buy self-tanners, bronzing powder and lay out in the sun for hours to appear more attractive in today’s modern society. As I started this project, the idea of skin whitening was strange and alien to me. I assumed Chinese girls were bleaching their skin white with chemicals, while simultaneously letting their desire to remain white inhibit them from enjoying a normal, free life. The fact that Chinese girls swim in street clothing, carry sun umbrellas and try not to go outside during the day time seemed like a modern version of foot binding, inhibiting a free and natural lifestyle in a quest to maintain fair skin.

However, after interviewing and talking with many young Chinese men and women I began to discover that the quest to remain white is not as foreign as I originally thought. Many of the skin whitening products are healthy and good for your skin, and the rigorous application of SPF shields Chinese women from skin cancer. While carrying a sun umbrella and attempting to stay indoors during the afternoon may seem extreme, those methods are much healthier than burning oneself in a tanning bed. Overall, this project has given me a new understanding and acceptance of Chinese culture. While I disagree with the negative self body image that many girls with darker skin have, I now understand and respect China’s culture of “whiteness” and realize that it is not so different from my own culture in America.

foreigner with locals Guilin

New friends in Guilin, China

What do you think? Is “bai fu mei” really all that different from the West’s tanning obsession? 

If you’re looking for a blog post about my personal experience relating to Chinese beauty norms and how it feels to be considered both beautiful and fat in China, be sure to check out my blog post I’m a Chinese Beauty Anomaly.



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

14 comments on “Bai Fu Mei: An In Depth Look at the Chinese Quest for Whiter Skin

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  3. This is bad. All types of skin and features are beautiful. Why does ideals exist? It’s not even true when you see them in real. Chinese people should really cut down on the beauty and wealth thing. They should promote character more than beauty. In bai fu mei (fair, wealthy, beautiful) there’s no character mentions as well which doesn’t do well for self-image. Two of them are related to looks just like the men-gai fu shia (tall, rich, handsome). In a population of 1.4billion, only some will be rich. How did status and beauty even be placed together? It probably is but is like an ideal a person wants to be. There are beautiful women from poor and rich families. I don’t think all the beautiful girls are white skinned (fair, rich or beautiful) and they aren’t.

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  5. The average Chinese has brown skin, however the middle class and the rich are really obsessed with white skin, from bleaching their skin in a daily basis to wearing “wacky” outfits in order to protect themselves from the sun…
    Asian surgery to modify the entire shape of their eyes, nose and their faces, going too far trying to achieve a “white” look. NEVER being in a place as racist as China… really disgusting to see how they treat each other.
    I really wish someone could tell them that no matter what they do, they are not and they’ll never be white.

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  12. Same thing in India! I’m a rock star in Asian countries but people mock me in my home country lol (with pale white skin and red hair, I don’t look Portuguese at all…)

    • Haha yeah blondes and red heads get so much attention in Asia! I actually find that I get more attention when I’m with my friend with red hair.. like being with him makes Chinese people notice me more!

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