Plateau Redness and the Politics of Beauty in Contemporary Tibet (Part 2)

In part one I shared a translated essay from Wechat penned by a young Tibetan woman on the perceived loss of Plateau Redness. In her essay she raised concerns about the rapid growth of the cosmetics industry in Lhasa over the past few years. She criticises the advent of a singular beauty standard revolving exclusively around whiteness as well as the ensuing loss of plateau redness, a distinguishing feature, she argues of Tibetan identity.

The essay garnered a great deal of attention on Wechat, generating a wide array of reactions and provocative commentary on the politics of beauty in contemporary Tibet. This blog starts off by trying to contextualize the essay and responses within the broader socio-cultural milieu within which they take place. To do so, I provide a brief overview of how the issue of plateau redness has been treated in Chinese media. I then move on to looking at some of the main responses the essay generated, before finally looking at a recent example of Han appropriation of plateau redness.

(The translations below are my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original texts, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement!)


Reading through a few articles from Xinhua, China News and other major news outlets, I noticed that state media have been quite consistent in their discussions of plateau redness. Like most reportage on Tibet in state media, the plateau redness coverage was framed by discourses of science, progress, development, and increasing integration with interior China and the world, often juxtaposing ‘old Tibet’ and ‘new Tibet’.

In 2013 a piece from state mouthpiece Xinhua entitled Tibet’s ‘Plateau Redness’ is Becoming Rarer explained that the disappearance of plateau redness is simply a case of Tibetans “understanding understand more of scientific culture (kexue wenhua)” and “how better to protect themselves”. In a bizarre attempt to put a positive spin on climate change, the same piece, quoting a professor of medicine at Tibet University, also made the argument that:

Global warming is leading to an increase in Tibet’s vegetation, more rainfall, more moisture, and an increase in the amount of oxygen in the air. These changes are making peoples’ skin better able to retain moisture, thus lessening the occurrence of dry, cracked skin, and plateau redness.

More typically, state media tends to dismiss plateau redness as an illness of bygone times before health awareness took hold. Citing Nyima Tsering, director of the Tibetan Medicine Institute in the Tibet Autonomous Region, a China News article in 2015 entitled “The Plateau Redness that is now Disappearing” stated “actually Plateau redness is really not as beautiful as imagined, it is a type of plateau illness.” Similarly in 2013 Xinhua ran a piece entitled “Tibetans Hope to Get Rid of Red Cheeks” where they discussed Tibetan women’s increasing sense of “irritation” with plateau redness and Lhasa’s bustling cosmetics market. Degyi, a cosmetics saleswoman in Lhasa, was quoted as saying “we used to bask in the sun for warmth and had no knowledge of the harm the exposure could do. Today, we have a better understanding of how to protect ourselves.”

A quick search on Baidu turns up no end of articles and forum threads discussing how to get rid of plateau redness. The advertisement below for Victoria Plastic and Cosmetic Hospital in Lhasa offers a “plateau redness removal” service for 8,800 RMB.

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Keeping the above in mind, let’s get back to the essay. In general the piece was well received. On Qumi, the Wechat platform on which it was originally posted, it quickly accumulated over 5,000 views and generated over 50 comments. The essay was also shared elsewhere.

The piece resonated with many readers. Several posted comments expressing their agreement and praise. One comment praised the piece for allowing Tibetan women to “accept and even like our plateau redness. You wrote so well!” Another read “many people ask me why there is no plateau redness upon my face. I can only remain silent”.

Others, however, were critical of what they saw as an implicit suggestion in the piece that those without plateau redness were somehow less Tibetan. As one commenter remarked, “So only if you have plateau redness do you count as Tibetan?” Others joined in, arguing that this attempt to make plateau redness a compulsory feature of Tibetan women simply constituted another “a form of social violence“. Some were also irked by the burdens and limitations the piece placed on Tibetan women’s personal freedoms. One commenter wrote, “whether people decide to wear make-up or whiten their skin is really a matter of personal choice and determination, and we should not talk about it on the level of ethnicity”. Similarly, another commenter responded:

I am a Tibetan who was born and brought up in Tibet, but since I was a kid I have never had any kind of plateau redness. If outsiders think that people who live on the plateau must have plateau redness, that just tells you that they’re too narrow-minded.

While the essay certainly stirred up debate around questions of identity and authenticity, others were much more concerned about thinking about the reasons behind plateau redness’ disappearance.

Upon the plateau redness that exists on our face, we smear stuff, taking Han whiteness as beauty. We hardly realise that doing things like this, in this society of counterfeits, will harm our very own original skin and original form, and this is what is making plateau redness disappear… 

Perhaps the most divisive point of the discussion was the degree to which Tibetans felt the loss of plateau redness was of their own making. Many argued the the disappearance of plateau redness goes far beyond being simply a matter of beauty trends and tastes. As one commenter wrote, “one of the main reasons plateau redness is disappearing has to do with the natural environment, rather than personal choice.” Indeed, other commenters quickly picked up on this point, arguing that climate change should indeed be considered. One posted that “plateau redness follows the trends of changes in the environment and climate, and disappears“, while another noted “I think Lhasa’s weather is less and less that of before, climate change should really be an influence in this“.

Others identifed an interrelated third factor, namely China’s inland schooling programs for Tibetans (xizang ban). Since 1985, as part of its ‘intellectual aid scheme’ (zhili yuanzang), the Chinese government has been sending large numbers of Tibetan primary school graduates to inland secondary schools outside Tibetan regions. The cultural impact of inland schooling continues to be a very contentious subject of discussion among Tibetan netizens, and was also reflected in the comments on the loss of plateau redness.

Nowadays from a very young age many young Tibetans study in interior China and then their plateau redness slowly disappears. Also, before our diet was mainly tsampa but these days it’s basically rice and so on. These are just external changes, but the saddest part is that many have already begun forgetting their language and faith. 

Because ‘plateau redness’ will follow climatic and environmental change and transformation, and disappear. Following the upsurge in inland schooling classes so many students from the plateau study in interior China from a very young age. Once they go, that’s four years. They initially take their plateau redness with them to interior China and when they return to the plateau it has disappeared, and their skin has become white. 

While the majority acknowledged the role that climate change, education, mainstream beauty standards etc. play in the loss of plateau redness, not everyone viewed this as necessarily a negative development. As one commenter argued, the development of new beauty standards constitutes a sign of Tibetan development, openness and greater integration in the world:

Pursuing what is fashionable does not mean not having a deep love for one’s own ethnicity. We are in the process of integrating into modern society, and this demonstrates our openness but we cannot lose our essential things. We study English, Mandarin, wear modern clothes, but this does not represent a lack of ethnic identification. This is the process of Tibetans moving towards the world. 

Yet, there were plenty of others who took a far less rosy view of the situation:

The times are changing. Some things, we really haven’t intended to change but they change anyway. Just like some traditions that have already disappeared without a trace. If you want someone or something to blame, blame this nasty era.

To others, no matter the status of plateau redness, whether in the process of disappearing or not, “the blood that flows in our veins will never change“. Or, as another poster asked, “as long as there is a grain of love for Tibetans in your heart what does outwards appearance matter?” 

Meanwhile, while Tibetans debated over the many fraught issues of identity, climate change, and inland schooling, plateau redness was being mobilised elsewhere in a photo shoot named Nomads in the City. The photography collection (enjoy the whole thing in the slideshow below) featured two Han Chinese female models ostensibly posing as Tibetan nomads on a stroll around the high streets of one of China’s sprawling urban centres (looks like Chengdu to me). I found the following spiel on the photographer’s Weibo page about what the photo collection is supposed to represent:

From today’s perspectives, the nomadic lifestyle is pretty bohemian. They are of no fixed abode, they take their tent this way and that, settling wherever there is water and grass.They have no home. Wherever they pitch their tent is home, not unlike gypsies. This life of unrestrained freedom remains the fantasy of so many modern urbanites who perhaps walk and walk, not knowing where they will pick up a girl of their liking.

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Decked out pantomime-style in a bizarre mimicry of Tibetan attire and clownish-attempt at plateau redness, the models’ look did not make much of a splash among Tibetan netizens. The few comments I read had little more to say than that the representations of urban nomads were a “complete sham” and “terribly ugly“.

Just a few days ago I stumbled across the photos once again. This time they were on Taobao, a Chinese online shopping website, being used to promote ‘Gegu Heavenly‘, a new online store inspired by ‘ethnic culture’ and specialising in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, antiques and other ornaments. Gegu Heavenly has certainly been working hard to market their products by leveraging the many tired stereotypes of Tibetan nomads as wild, mysterious, exotic, romantic and unrestrained bodies. Mobilising an amplified plateau redness must have been considered as lending their brand an heightened charm of je n’ai said quoi.

Like so much of the socio-cultural landscape in contemporary Tibet, the politics of plateau redness are deeply embedded in wider ongoing debates concerning identity, cultural assimilation, migration, education, climate change and so on. Tibetan Girls, We are in the Process Losing Tibetan Redness and the many comments it generated reflect so many of internal dilemmas and conflicts experienced by Tibetans living in the shadows of the dominant Han culture and state. Yet, unlike so many debates and discussions of this kind, the politics of plateau redness was dominated by Tibetan women. Across state media and the essay comments I saw no references to Tibetan men’s relationship to plateau redness. Does plateau redness not concern Tibetan men? Where is the male gaze in all this? I briefly posed the question to the woman who penned the essay I translated. She responded that it was something she had not considered when writing the piece, but suspected the issue would resonate with many men. Perhaps the gendered politics of plateau beauty will have to be a blog for another time.

One comment

  1. […] As part two will examine, this essay’s exploration of the loss of plateau redness forms part of a wider discussion that has been ongoing for years. The piece generated a very complex array of responses, many of which situate the loss of plateau redness within a wider landscape of globalisation, cultural assimilation, climate change, identity, gender, inland schooling, as well as resettlement and migration. […]

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