Life in China: The Art of Not Tanning

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This installment of Life in China is focused on an aspect of Chinese culture that stands as a fairly stark contrast to our American culture. Read on for a bit of insight into how the interesting people of this vast city of Shenzhen, in this vast nation of China, approach the outdoors. Specifically, we’re focusing on how Chinese women (don’t) tan. That’s right, sun tanning is a no-no here.

Chinese Women and Tanning

Unlike us nutty westerners who like having a good tan, Chinese women don’t like overexposing their skin to UV rays. In fact, they go to great lengths to avoid sun. Why is that? Pale skin is deemed beautiful. We’ve heard a couple of different explanations for this, but for the time being let’s just keep it simple: pale is pretty here in Shenzhen, as well as the rest of China.

Uh oh, a Tan

One day Shon and his students went on an outdoor adventure field trip of sorts, and one of the students complained to him afterward that the SPF50 sunscreen didn’t work.

“Did you get sunburned?” Shon asked, aghast.

“No, look,” she said. She pulled her sock down a half inch, and there, sure enough, her skin was lighter. She had gotten a gentle tan on her legs, and she didn’t like it one bit.

Shon tried to restrain his chuckles and told her he was sure that it would go away in a couple of weeks, and that nobody would notice. She was genuinely anxious about it.

Great Lengths

Truly, this seems a bit humorous to us. Not because we think Chinese folks are foolish for their perception of beauty, but because they go to great lengths to avoid even a slight tan, and that’s such a contrast from what we’re accustomed to. For example, it’s not uncommon to see a woman cover her head with a book or whatever she’s carrying if she has to cross the road and walk through the sun. Parasols or umbrellas are seen as often on sunny days as rainy ones. What’s more, women often have these amazing sun visors that look like a mix of an old-fashioned bonnet and a welder’s mask with the face shield tilted up, and that raised our eyebrows at first. However, we’ve got to admit, they’re effective at keeping pesky rays of sunlight from darkening the skin.

A parasol is a must-have for many Chinese women
A mother and daughter walk along the sidewalk here in Shenzhen, China, parasol in hand.

Head to Toe

Besides headgear or parasols, people of all ages wear very thin jackets even in 35C-degree heat to avoid UV rays. In fact, in hot, sunny weather sometimes women will be covered head to toe, even using face masks. We also spot women wearing what looks like really long fingerless gloves that reach way past the elbow to keep their arms pale.

Women take sun protection very seriously in China
Our little Princess was interested in this lady’s garb. This lady, for her part, was friendly to us.

Extreme, but OK

If you’re thinking this seems a bit extreme, well, we think so too, but let’s admit it–excessive sun is bad for us. We can’t argue that these are all good ways to avoid getting sunburned and also, in the long term, to avoid skin cancer. Yes, yes, some sun is good for us, but too much is harmful.

It may be 90F/31C but the women in China will wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts, and carry a parasol to keep their skin pale
It’s shorts weather from our perspective, with the sun behind a cloud at the moment, but the temperature is still 90F/31C, and this woman is providing us a fine example of the measures some ladies go to in order to stay white.

Skin Products

Pale is pretty goes beyond simply avoiding a sun tan. It also applies to skin products. Whitening skin creams represent the majority of skin products on Shenzhen store shelves. It’s also not uncommon for women to use make-up in tones lighter than their actual skin tone.

Some Products to Protect You from the Sun

(the images are clickable links)

Avoiding a Tan

So, after spending the best part of a year in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, we no longer have much reaction when we see women avoiding the sun. At first all the jackets, masks, and so forth seemed ridiculous. However, as we adjusted to living in China, we stopped thinking it weird. It is simply a part of Chinese culture. Still, it made an impression on us since it represents a vast cultural difference between China and the USA, so we wanted to write about it. As always, we’re not writing to belittle Chinese people or Chinese culture, but simply making an observation and drawing a comparison, as it is cultural differences that make living in Shenzhen, and indeed living in China, such an interesting experience. Sun tanning in China simply isn’t popular. Also, as a final note, while we were outside taking photos for this post today, we noted that roughly half of the women out and about weren’t concerned with special gear of any sort.

For more Life in China, click below.

Life in China: A Series.

A final note: if you’ve traveled through Asia much, you’ve probably seen women taking similar measure to avoid the sun elsewhere. For sure, this isn’t exclusive to China or Chinese culture.

Life in China The Art of Not Sun Tanning
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21 thoughts on “Life in China: The Art of Not Tanning”

  • This is part of the SE Asia culture. I used to date a Filipino woman who used mango soap to bleach her skin a little bit every day. Fashion trends cycle over the years and region by region. I love this observation about Chinese culture.

  • In Japan, it is exactly the same as in China. Being pale is good, being tanned is bad. I have very fair complexion and would love to get a little bit of a tan. But I can’t I go red and then I go white again. I am often complimented by Japanese that my skin is so beautiful pale. I do thank them for the compliment and then I usually try to explain to them that in Europe and the US being pale isn’t desirable. They are as fascinated with that idea as we are about theirs.

  • It is always amazing to read about different cultures and beliefs. This is something new to read. I have seen the Chinese women with those scarfs and always carrying an umbrella but had no idea about their fascination with pale skin. The skin products must be making a very good deal of money.

  • I had no idea that getting some sun in China was such a big deal to women in China. Seems like the SPF clothing market would do really, really well there.

  • Great post! I have always wondered why women from China seem to put clothes on instead of taking it off when the temperatures rise – never knew it was a fashion thing. I thought it was about skin-cancer…thank you for making me wiser.:-) What you describe is what I love about traveling – being introduced to different customs and traditions.

  • One the one hand, it’s very wise that they avoid the sun – it’s damaging the skin and can affect your health (although I love sunbathing!). Since that’s not the reason they are doing it – for them it’s an aesthetic issue – they damage their skin – and probably health – by using, in addition, these terrible bleach cream where they look as if they fell with their face into a bag of flour. If people just stopped ruining their health out of vanity…..

  • It’s crazy how much they want to avoid the sun in China! It’s probably a good thing as the sun is damaging, but I always wish I was more tanned!

  • Yeah we saw this a lot not just in China but all over Eastern Asia. The lengths these women to go are quite extreme and it’s a strange paradox to our western way of encouraging a tan. I think that just shows how we all idealised how other people look rather than just being who we are.

  • Yeah we’ve seen this a lot not just in China but the whole of Eastern Asia. The lengths some of these women go to for whitening is scary, but then again people get cancer to tan in the west! It’s a strange paradox of always wanting to look like someone else rather than accepting who we are.

  • What an interesting read I never knew that about Chinese women but it makes complete sense but I suppose I did not think about it before. I thik that Chinese women look beautiful with their pale skin. I know that women in India do not like to tan and go darker and when I was in New Dehli airport looking for sunscreen I struggled to get one that didn’t allow you to tan.

  • Love your China posts! I spent a year living in Wuhan whilst I was teaching English and feel very nostalgic after reading this. I remember the first time I ever saw women out on the streets with umbrellas – I was so confused. To be fair though, as a redhead I understand what it is like to have a turbulent relationship with the sun. As I wake up today with a sore, tight red face, I can’t help but think they have the right idea! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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