In many ways, Lou Jing is a typical young woman from Shanghai. Pretty and confident, she speaks Mandarin heavily accented with the lilting tones of the Shanghai dialect and browses the malls of this huge city for the latest fashions.
But there is one thing that distinguishes this 20-year-old from her peers, something that has made her the unwitting focus of an intense public debate about what exactly it means to be Chinese: the color of her skin. Born to a Chinese mother and an African-American father whom she has never met, the theater student rocketed into the public consciousness last month when she took part in an American Idolesque TV show, Go! Oriental Angel.
The marketing gurus for the series could hardly have dreamed of a better promotional gimmick when they started to investigate the backgrounds of the dozens of pop-star wannabes to root out the competitors' mushy stories of triumph over adversity that are a well-worn staple of the genre. Here was a tale guaranteed to attract eyeballs: a girl of mixed race, brought up by a single Chinese mother, struggling to gain acceptance in a deeply conservative, some would say racist, society.
The strategy worked perhaps too well. In August, Lou's appearance on the show not only boosted viewer numbers but also sparked an intense nationwide debate about the essential meaning of being Chinese. Over the past month on Internet chat rooms, where modern China's sensitive issues are thrashed out by netizens long before they reach the heavily censored mainstream media, Lou's ethnicity has been the subject of a relentless barrage of criticism, some of it crudely racist. Many think she should not have been allowed to compete on a Chinese show, or at least not selected to represent Shanghai in the national competition. She doesn't have fair skin, which is one of the most important factors for Chinese beauty. What's more, her mother and her biological father were never married; morally, the argument goes, this kind of behavior shouldn't be publicized, so she shouldn't have been put on TV as a young "idol."
These kinds of posts on the most popular chat rooms have attracted thousands of comments. A few have been supportive of Lou, but the rest range from expressions of fear and ignorance to outright racism. One of the most popular posts about Lou Jing on the KDS Life forum asked in mock seriousness, "Is it possible that she is Obama's daughter?" Another poster said, "I can't believe she's so shameless that she would go on TV." Most of the critics are agreed on one point: that this black woman cannot be regarded as a "real" Chinese.
As recently as the 1970s, foreigners were largely barred from living in China, let alone marrying a local. China does not easily accept mixed-race children as true-blooded Chinese: as soon as a child is born, the parents are required to register with the authorities as to which of the 56 government-approved ethnic groups their child belongs; there are no mixed-race categories. Lou feels she is very much Chinese. "When I meet somebody for the first time, they'd often ask me how I can speak Chinese so well, and I tell them, 'Because I'm a Chinese of course I can speak my mother tongue well,' " Lou says defiantly. "I don't like to be treated differently."
As China undergoes an astonishing demographic shift and more foreigners make their homes in the Middle Kingdom, Lou is by no means the only one being treated differently. Recent decades have seen a surge in the number of mixed-race couples. According to the data offered by Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, from 1994 to 2008, each year there have been about 3,000 more mixed-race marriages in Shanghai. But as the children of that first generation of mixed-race marriages come of age, their moves to gain acceptance in society like Lou's participation in the TV show have exposed a deep-running vein of xenophobia in Chinese society. Last year, Ding Hui, a young man of African-Chinese ethnicity, caused a stir when he was called up to the national volleyball team, prompting much soul-searching about whether the athlete should be allowed to represent China alongside pure-blooded Chinese competitors. Eventually, Ding Hui did go on to play for the national team.
"As China continues to open up, this kind of phenomenon will become ever more prevalent," says David Zweig, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "This is part of the process of internationalization, but we can only hope that Chinese people, including netizens and the people whose views tend towards extremism, can come to accept that there are many mixed-race people, both in China and worldwide."
As for Lou, she found the whole experience more than a little disturbing. She did well in the show, ranking in the top 30 contestants before she was eliminated. Now she's back to her normal life as a college junior with a little new insight into her home. "Through this competition, it's really scary to find out how the color of my skin can cause such a big controversy."