Chinese Tuesdays: Pale skin, good water


Even after living in China and Korea for more than eight years, being bombarded with ads for skin whitening creams, seeing people wear arm sleeves and carry sun umbrellas, and hearing them constantly compare skin colour, I’m still surprised at just how important women consider pale skin in terms of beauty. There's even a Chinese saying, 一白遮百丑 (yībáizhēbǎichǒu) – “white skin covers up a hundred flaws”.

In Korea, when guys talk about a place with lots of beautiful women, they use the phrase 물이 좋다, the water is good there. The neighbourhood in Seoul where I used to live was well known for this, and when I gave taxi drivers directions home they would often say “Ah, the water is good there” and smile, and I would smile back and agree. I always thought of it as some kind of man code, a less sleazy way of saying, “There are loads of hot chicks there.”

Then a couple of months ago, when my coworkers and I were discussing the water here in Daqing (famously bad due to the oil fields), one of them said, “That’s why Harbin girls are the most beautiful in China, the water is good there.” Korea memories flooded back. “What’s water got to do with beauty?” I asked. She replied, “Harbin girls have good clear pale skin," as if it was obvious.

Later, I was talking to my elderly neighbour about the water quality and she said the same thing, claiming that girls in Harbin have less freckles because the water is purer. I realised that maybe the Korean saying comes from an old East Asian belief that good quality water actually affects how pale and clear people’s skin is, and by extension their beauty.

from Sam Duncan's blog