Red Star

Cai Niangniang

Model who is pushing beauty boundaries


When some old advertisements featuring a Chinese model began spreading online late last month, they soon whipped up a storm. The problem (according to nationalist netizens) was that the model’s eyes were ‘too small’.

The 2019 campaign (see photo) for Chinese snack brand Three Squirrels, was not the first to be targeted for the offence of perpetuating Western stereotypes of Chinese facial features. But what made this episode a little different is that the model, Cai Niangniang, pushed back at the complaints. “Do I not deserve to be Chinese just because I have small eyes?” she asked on the Sina Weibo social media platform.

Who is Cai?

Cai Niangniang is a pseudonym for the model, who is 28 years-old and from Leshan in the western province of Sichuan. And in her weibo statement, she said she did not deserve to be cyber-bullied because of her appearance. “My looks were given to me by my parents,” she wrote. “I’m just an ordinary worker doing my job.”

Netizens had attacked her for days, with some accusing her of being “unpatriotic” and “uglifying Chinese people”. Such was the public interest that Three Squirrels removed the ads online and apologised, saying the model’s makeup had been chosen to suit her features, not to make her appear in a certain way.

“Regarding the opinion that the model does not fit the mainstream’s aesthetic taste and makes the public feel uncomfortable, we are sincerely sorry,” the company pleaded.

What’s the problem?

Angry Chinese netizens users have recently accused several – mostly Western – companies of promoting racist stereotypes through their ads. Prominent fashion photographer Chen Man was forced to apologise for her “ignorance” in November amid a similar controversy over an ad for the French luxury brand, Dior, that featured another ‘narrow-eyed’ model. Mercedes-Benz and Gucci have also been targeted for similar situations.

State media has often weighed in too – as did the China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, in an opinion piece on the Cai Niangniang saga in late December.

“As a domestic brand, Three Squirrels should have known about the sensitivity of Chinese consumers to how they are portrayed in advertisements,” it said. “For too long, Western criteria for beauty, and Western likes and dislikes have dominated aesthetics.”

Many netizens have argued that ad campaigns should feature models with rounder eyes and fairer skin – more typical ideals of beauty in China. Others, however, expressed an alternative view: that such ‘ideals’ are themselves Western imports and that narrower eyes should be considered equally beautiful.

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