CCTV Spring Festival Gala Features Blackface, Again

This year’s CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, the massively popular annual variety show aired since 1983, included blackfaced dancers in a performance titled “African Song and Dance,” alongside belly dancers, flamenco performers, and women dressed as Cleopatra. The Gala has previously been criticized for similar depictions: a 2018 skit featured a Chinese woman dressed in blackface and accompanied by a monkey, proclaiming, “I love China.” At The Associated Press, Joe McDonald described the gala’s latest controversy, and the show’s reach:

The “African Song and Dance” performance Thursday came at start [sic] of the Spring Festival Gala, one of the world’s most-watched TV programs. It included Chinese dancers in African-style costumes and dark face makeup beating drums.

The five-hour annual program, which state TV has said in the past is seen by as many as 800 million viewers, also included tributes to nurses, doctors and others who fought the coronavirus pandemic that began in central China in late 2019.

[…] China’s ruling Communist Party tries to promote an image of unity with African nations as fellow developing economies. But China Central Television has faced criticism over using blackface to depict African people in past New Year broadcasts. [Source]

This year’s offensive skit was choreographed by Zhu Mingying, a long-time member of the Oriental Song and Dance Troupe famous in China for her blackface performances. The South China Morning Post’s Echo Xie reported on comments Zhu gave to Chinese media before the performance aired, and nativist online reactions to the skit:

Zhu said all the performers had their skin painted dark. “Professional make-up artists have carefully observed the skin of the local people. It takes one or two hours to put on the make-up and one hour to remove it,” she said.

“The aim is to be more like [Africans] that Chinese audiences can have an intuitive feeling at first sight, so they can be quickly brought into the atmosphere,” she said.

[…] “Those artists who perform African and Egyptian songs and dances are wonderful but why don’t we show our own performances as the main audience is Chinese?” another wrote on Weibo. “Why must we have to show international integration in the gala?”[Source]

After the 2018 incident, Chenchen Zhang wrote in The Diplomat about the history of the Oriental Song and Dance Troupe and the similarities between depictions of Uyghur and “African” culture:

Revolutionary ideology in the Cold War era influenced the unique Chinese experience with non-black performers playing a black role. At a time when China’s relationship with the Third World – often referred to as yafeila (亚非拉), or Asia, Africa, and Latin America as a unified group of oppressed peoples – was guided by anti-colonial and anti-imperialist ideologies, cultural exchange was a means to enhance international comradeship. Under the advice of former Premier Zhou Enlai, the Oriental Song and Dance Troupe (东方歌舞团) was founded to introduce performing arts from the Third World to Chinese audiences and toured in many yafeila countries. As a member of the troupe, Zhu Mingying’s artistic practice and its reception needs to be contextualized in the political function of the arts and the dominance of revolutionary ideology at the time. In a 2011 interview, Zhu recalled that Premier Zhou had asked the troupe members to “imitate” the arts of the Third World the best they could and not to be “creative” in case foreign friends would take offense. She added that faithful imitation was a requirement of cultural diplomacy and she understood it as a political task.

[…] The similarities between the “Xinjiang skit” and the “Africa skit” are striking. Both open with a dancing performance that appears “exotic” to the eyes of Han Chinese majority. To highlight the exoticness of essentialized cultural others, the Uyghur farmer has a donkey that can bow, and the “African mother” is accompanied by a monkey. Both skits revolve around a Chinese railway project wholeheartedly loved by the local people. The Uyghur farmer was once saved by his “Han brother,” and the Kenyan mother was once saved by a Chinese medical team. In short, both stories turn economically and geostrategically driven infrastructural investment into a glorified and moralized relationship between the altruistic saver/donor and the grateful saved/recipient. [Source]

Reuters reported more online reactions to the skit and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official comment on the backlash:

“The New Year Gala director team is just stupid and vicious,” said one of a number of users who took to Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, to criticise the skit.

[…] China’s foreign ministry said the integration of cultural elements from other countries into Chinese shows was a sign of respect and the inclusion of the African segment was not a diplomatic issue.

“If anyone wants to seize on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala programme to make a fuss, or even sow discord in relations between China and African countries, they obviously have ulterior motives,” it said in a statement to Reuters. [Source]

There have been other insensitive portrayals of Africa, and blackness, in Chinese popular media. The wildly popular action film “Wolf Warrior 2” was criticized for portraying an unnamed African country as a war-torn catastrophe, furthering anti-African stereotypes. A bizarre 2016 detergent commercial featured a black man getting stuffed into a washing machine and emerging Chinese. At NPR, Emily Feng chronicled the first Chinese-language staging of “A Raisin In The Sun” and the history of blackface in Chinese theater:

The first documented Chinese-language production of a foreign play was in 1907 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the actors in midnight black face paint and curly wigs. Later, Chinese theaters would add chin or nose prosthetics to actors playing foreigners.

[…] In the end, Ying settled on lightly bronzing the actors’ faces and added wigs full of curls and cornrows. The look is more impressionistic than realistic: it signals the characters’ Blackness while simultaneously acknowledging the theatrical artifice. The one white character gets a snow white wig.

[…] “No!” he exclaims several times, when I ask him about whether the current global discourse about anti-Black racism led him to choose this moment in particular to stage A Raisin in the Sun. “It’s not that important here. This is probably a terrible thing to say to Americans.”

[…] Asked in 1959 about whether her renowned play A Raisin in the Sun was written in order to be universally relatable, playwright Lorraine Hansberry replied firmly in the negative. “In order to create the universal you must pay very close attention to the specific,” she patiently explained. “It’s definitely a negro play before anything else.” [Source]

In spring 2020, a small coronavirus outbreak in the “Little Africa” neighborhood of Guangzhou sparked a rash of racist online commentary and the mass eviction of black residents, images of which went viral on social media. At The New York Review of Books, April Zhu wrote about the mutually reinforcing dynamics of censorship and racism, and how racist comments are widely tolerated in China’s tightly controlled information environment. Referring to the incidents amid the pandemic last year, she wrote:

[…] Chinese diplomats advised their African counterparts not to let certain media outlets exaggerate the situation and “drive a wedge between China and Africa.”

These officials may have failed to understand how much of the controversy was driven by a surge of popular outrage and demands for accountability from netizens in Africa and the black diaspora. They also seem to have under-estimated the groundswell at home: even as the Chinese state appealed to Sino-African comity, a wave of nativist, anti-black rhetoric in China swept it away. In response to an address given by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian that was posted by the People’s Daily, the top online comments were overwhelmingly anti-immigrant and racist, many even criticizing the Chinese government explicitly for bending over backward to please foreigners. It was “a rare moment in China,” as journalist Tony Lin noted, “when nationalism lost, to racism.” Censorship regimes with as much experience and sophistication as China understand the physics of discourse: they know how nationalism, like a flywheel, once set in motion, can generate great force and be difficult to stop. An information ecosystem “curated” by censors is inherently imbalanced: it is the distorted remnant after some things have been actively removed and others passively left intact. Content even remotely related to independent popular mobilization, say, is swiftly censored, while rhetoric that falls within the approved discourse—sometimes anodyne, but sometimes dangerous and hate-filled—is tolerated.

[…] Today, the flywheel has gained inertia. The Chinese diplomatic community’s attempts to assure African governments of goodwill, to pin blame on Western media, have failed to paper over the racist, anti-immigrant invective on Chinese social media, exposing how potent nativist ideas are, once set in motion. The human wounds of humiliation, ostracization, and hatred will endure longer than the official communiqués. [Source]

Although the Gala is a staple of Spring Festival celebrations, many young viewers dismiss it as boring. Racism and an indifferent audience are not the only controversies facing the show. Zhu Jun, the show’s former host, currently faces civil charges over the sexual assault of Xianzi, a prominent feminist activist. The show has also been roundly criticized for sexist and clunky attempts to push marriage onto female viewers, possibly in response to falling national birth rates.


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