Tsinghua design school accused of internalized racism for accentuating Chinese models’ slanted eyes at runway show

Society & Culture

Did graduates of a prestigious design school feed into racist stereotypes with a fashion show featuring models who all had noticeably slanted eyes, and makeup to accentuate their “Chinese eyes”? Or are Chinese internet users just oversensitive?

Chinese models at AADTHU's graduate fashion show

One of China’s top design schools has caught flak for almost exclusively casting models with noticeably slanted eyes at a fashion show and using makeup to highlight their Asian features, raising larger questions about beauty standards and internalized stereotypes in China.

The show, held on May 20, featured the work of recent graduates of the Academy of Art & Design at Tsinghua University (AADTHU). Formerly known as the Central Academy of Arts and Design, the school was China’s first institution of higher learning for industrial, graphic, and clothing design. 

The runway performance did not draw any complaints from live audiences. But when the institution uploaded footage of it to Chinese video-streaming platform Bilibili last week, viewers were quick to notice that there was a troubling lack of diversity among its cast of Chinese models: They appeared to have been chosen for their obviously slanted eyes, a physical characteristic of Chinese people that has long been stereotyped in racist depictions by Westerners. 

Critics also noted that a certain style of makeup, defined by dramatic black eyeliner, was applied to all Chinese models, which deliberately made their eyes look even smaller and more slanted.

It didn’t take long for the video to make its way over to Weibo, where outrage became feverish.  Much of the criticism was directed at AADTHU, which was called out for playing to offensive Western stereotypes of Asian people’s appearance. 

“I’m not saying that Chinese people or people of Asian descent can’t look like this. But I’ve encountered very few people who actually have this kind of eye in my lifetime. The Academy must have gone out of its way to find so many Chinese models who looked the same way,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese). Another one remarked (in Chinese), “Domestic artists need to stop feeding into racist stereotypes about Chinese people having small and slanted eyes. This is embarrassing.”

However, some internet users said that the backlash was an “overreaction,” arguing that the humiliation that many critics claimed to have felt was actually indicative of them not being comfortable in their own skin. Wrote one (in Chinese), “Why do we want Chinese models to look less Chinese? No one should feel ashamed of having slanted eyes!” A second said (in Chinese), “I wonder how many people who are angry over this actually want to have double eyelid surgery to make their eyes look bigger.”

As of today, “Is the controversy over slanted eyes at Tsinghua’s graduate show an overreaction” (清华毕设眯眯眼争议是反应过度吗), the primary Weibo hashtag related to the matter, has garnered roughly 300 million views. AADTHU has yet to make a comment on the issue.

Despite the mixed reactions to AADTHU’s fashion show, there’s no argument that when a non-Asian person pulls back the corners of their eyes, it’s a racially pejorative pose that deserves to be called out and condemned. In fact, the offensive gesture was exactly what got American supermodel Gigi Hadid dropped at the last minute for a fashion show in Shanghai in 2017, after she was seen in a social media post squinting her eyes at a dinner to mimic a cookie depicting the face of Buddha.