Should small eyes offend the Chinese? Debate over triggers for a new movie

Chinese animated film I am what I am has been embroiled in controversy since its inception on December 17, simultaneously receiving a tidal wave of five-star reviews and negative comments on Douban, China’s response to IMDb. The harsh words mostly focus on the size and shape of the eyes of the characters in the film.

I am what I am tells the story of a boy and his two friends realizing their dream of becoming lion dancers, artists who perform a ritual dance at Chinese festivals.

The film’s five-star reviews come from netizens praising its realistic portrayal of traditional dance and its place in modern China, along with strong visuals and storytelling.

“It’s a precious film because, in the end, a Chinese director made an animation based on our modern culture instead of mythical stories” wrote a Douban user who gave I am what I am a five-star rating.

Other positive reviews applaud the film’s originality, noting that many animated films made in China – Big Fish & Begonia, Ne Zha, Lotus Lantern – are based on ancient myths, while I am what I am is a new concept: the characters are young people from modern China, but they still practice traditional art.

A promotional image for I am what I am

Despite the vivid storytelling, a vocal segment of viewers are annoyed by the main characters’ small, slanted eyes – physical characteristics considered racist by some Chinese. I am what I am has been accused by some Internet users of playing in the “Western gaze”, a term describing privileged Western audiences projecting their prejudices and preconceived ideas onto non-Western peoples.

“If the main character in a movie has small eyes, it’s reasonable to assume that the creator of the movie is trying to please people in other countries. ” wrote a critical viewer of the film on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site.

Another user accused the film of adopting the tropes of “yellow peril”, comment, “This is how the Chinese people were exaggeratedly portrayed during the colonial period. We’ve been discriminated against for so long that it doesn’t seem so strange to some people. “

Of course, there are valid concerns about the use of outdated and racist Asian stereotypes in cinema. However, it begs the question whether or not attacking a film made in China for presenting different looks is the right approach to addressing these concerns.

The most problematic nuance of this debate: to suggest that the only way to represent Chinese characters is to have large, round eyes is essentially to state that there is a better way of appearing Chinese.

China is a large and diverse country with diverse ethnic groups exhibiting a variety of appearances, body types, and skin tones – each also Chinese. Even over time, the standards of beauty in China have evolved and changed.

In modern China, large eyes and double eyelids are considered by many to be a standard of beauty. Conversely, individuals with small eyes, especially monolids, are often considered less attractive. This threshold to be defined as beautiful led to the double eyelid blepharoplasty (creating an eyelid crease) becoming the most common cosmetic surgery undertaken by people of Chinese descent.

This hasn’t always been the case, however. For long stretches of Chinese history, the small, slanting eyes were called phoenix eyes (凤眼), and they were considered a beautiful facial feature.

“What the eyes of the characters look like does not determine whether [I Am What I Am] celebrates the tropes of yellow peril, and we shouldn’t discriminate against Chinese people with smaller eyes ”, provided feedback from a Weibo user in response to the controversy.

zhou fang painting

Women with small, slanted eyes often appear in a Tang Dynasty (618-690, 705-907) art genre called “beauty painting.” This is a play by Zhou Fang from this period

The online uproar that surrounds I am what I am is the latest in a series of scandals concerning the representation of the Chinese people in the media.

Last month, netizens blew up French luxury brand Dior and Chinese photographer Chen Man for a photo of a woman wearing traditional Qing dynasty clothing while holding a Lady Dior handbag. The image has been accused to comply with Western stereotypes of the Chinese people.

All images via Weibo

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