Blurred lines drawn in China’s cultural wars

Fashion brand Dior and acclaimed Chinese photographer Chen Man are dragged into an online row

So this is the stunning image that launched a thousand lips.

The photography of a Chinese model in a traditional dress with “single eyelids and freckled dark skin” has created a Twitter-like tirade on Sina Weibo chat rooms.

Captured by the highly-acclaimed Beijing-born photographer Chen Man, it was branded a “horror movie poster” after appearing to promote a Christian Dior exhibition in Shanghai.

“Chinese social media users were largely spooked by the ‘eerie and creepy atmosphere’ portrayed in [the image] and were offended by it,” Shanghai Daily reported, forcing the French fashion brand to delete the online photographic post.

Fashion faux pas?

  • China’s state-run media quickly waded into the row.
  • “As a leading global brand, Dior should know how not to provoke Chinese and Asian people,” China Daily stated
  • “So strong was the public protest against Dior that it had to delete the poster from its official microblog,” the English-language media group said.
  • But Global Times, known for its fierce nationalistic editorial policy, was more balanced.
  • “Some said it was feeding into Western stereotypical images of Chinese,” it said.
  • “Others applauded the work for its departure from the fair skin and large eyes that are considered the typical standards of beauty in China,” Global Times reported.
Photographer Chen Man. Photo: WeChat

Shooting star: Chen Man has been compared to the legendary American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz. Her photographs have appeared in major fashion magazines, as well as being exhibited in leading galleries and museums, including the Victoria and Albert in London.  

Comment? No comment: She has yet to remark on the Dior row, according to the Chinese media.

Mirror image: Fans of Chen’s work insist she manages to capture the nation’s “various ethnic groups” to “reveal a comprehensive image of the people.”

Delve deeper: The fashion industry became an early casualty of President Xi Jinping’s brand of nationalism with Chinese characteristics. Now, it is stitched into the very fabric of the industry. 

Culture confidence: “Chinese nationalism is a defining cornerstone of the modern Chinese society. Even though it takes roots in the [sinocentrism] ideology of the Communist revolution and other pillars of Chinese culture, such as Confucianism, it has since largely evolved into the concept of ‘Cultural Confidence,’” Daxueconsulting, a market research group, said earlier this year.

A Cecil Beaton photograph from World War II. Image: Cecil Beaton / Wikimedia

East-West divide: As the online debate raged, the cultural perception of women in the West was highlighted through World War II photographs from the United Kingdom. They showed “images of brave, calm, elegant, beautiful, and fashionable women,” which is still relevant today, netizens said as reported by the Chinese media.

China Factor comment: Cecil Beaton, the iconic fashion and portrait photographer, captured the debt owed to British working women in a remarkable portfolio during the war years. But they were hardly “glamorous.”