Nationalist online mob goes after Chinese model for having slanted eyes

Society & Culture

After social media users posted photos of an old ad campaign, angry mobs went after the model for the way her eyes looked, which they claimed played to offensive Western stereotypes about Chinese people.

One of the controversial images featuring Cai Niangniang

Today in “the nationalist cancel mob is at it again,” a Chinese model has found herself at the receiving end of online vitriol not for something she said or did, but for having slanted eyes that she was born with — a common physical characteristic of Chinese people described by her critics as “ugly” and “offensive.” 

The model, who goes by the name Cài Niángniáng (@菜孃孃) on Weibo, became a trending topic on the Chinese internet over the weekend after images of her in a 2019 advertising campaign were widely shared on social media. In a series of promotion photos for Chinese online snack retailer Three Squirrels, the model poses with the brand’s products while wearing  eyeliner that makes her eyes look even more slanted than they actually are.

Backlash quickly ensued on Weibo, where people called out the snack company for featuring the model and accentuating her eye shape, which they said played into offensive Western stereotypes of Chinese people’s appearance. The model, who likely had no control over her styling for the advertisement, also became a target of mockery and criticism, with people calling her “ugly” and even telling her to stop modeling.

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By Sunday, a hashtag on the topic had generated more than 300 million views on Weibo. At one point, when the snack brand livestreamed on Taobao Live to sell products, thousands of angry internet users spammed (in Chinese) the chat with hate comments, forcing the session to end sooner than scheduled.

The online bashing became so abusive that the model felt the need to respond to the controversy. In a Weibo post (in Chinese), she said that the personal attacks on her had turned into a case of “cyberbullying” and “harassment.” While imploring haters to stop making her life miserable, the model defended herself by saying that she was “just doing her job” while working with Three Squirrels. 

“Am I disqualified to be Chinese just because I have small eyes?” she wrote. “I was born with these eyes and they look even smaller in real life. Does that mean I can’t be a model? Have I been offensive to Chinese people since the day I was born?”

She went on to encourage the normalization of an inclusive beauty standard that welcomes diversity and an emphasis on everyone’s “unique charm,” writing that although she’s “all about being patriotic, it’s an unhealthy obsession to politicize everything.”

Meanwhile, the snack company apologized (in Chinese) for the styling, saying that the makeup was based on the model’s facial features and that it had no intention of making her look ugly. “Regarding the feedback that the makeup defied mainstream beauty standards and therefore caused displeasure among consumers, we are sincerely sorry,” the company wrote, adding that it had removed all web pages containing the photographs.

The growing scrutiny of stereotypes about China and Chinese people has put a string of Western companies and celebrities in trouble, including American supermodel Gigi Hadid, who was dropped at the last minute for a fashion show in Shanghai in 2017 after a viral video in which she was squinting her eyes to mimic a cookie depicting the face of Buddha, and Italian luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana, which faced a boycott by Chinese consumers in 2018 following promotional videos showing a Chinese woman struggling to eat classic Italian dishes with chopsticks.

But 2021 has seen the sensitivity reach a new level as Chinese nationalists discovered the power of “cancel culture” and used it against artists they felt were disrespectful to Chinese culture or showcased Chinese beauty improperly. In June, the Academy of Art & Design at Tsinghua University, one of the top design schools in China, came under fire for almost exclusively casting models with noticeably slanted eyes at a fashion show and using makeup to highlight their Asian features. Last month, Chinese photographer Chén Màn 陈漫, who has worked with numerous fashion magazines, A-list celebrities, and influential brands around the world, was forced to apologize after online criticism of her past work that featured models with slanted eyes.