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Daily Drip

China’s Massive Spring Festival Gala TV Show Featured Blackface. Again.

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Once again, CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala has been roundly criticized internationally for its use of blackface and offensive stereotyping. Often hailed as “the most-watched TV show on earth,” Chinese state TV’s annual extravaganza of dance, music and nationalism kicked off its 2021 edition with a section featuring “African, Egyptian, Spanish and Russian song and dance” including a host of performers with darkened skin.

Unfortunately, despite widespread condemnation, there’s recent precedent for such performances. In 2018, the same show caused outrage after a Chinese performer appeared in blackface and fake buttocks as part of a skit on China-Africa relations. Either the lessons were not learnt, or the producers apparently saw nothing wrong with it. CCTV never apologized for that incident.

While the star-studded Gala often leads to a series of memes and trending social media hashtags in its immediate aftermath in China, much of this year’s discussions so far seem focused on how boring the show was or on rating the attractiveness of its various performers.

The use of blackface did kick off some commentary on Chinese social media, but it was largely limited. “I felt dizzy watching that opening performance,” one commenter wrote on a Weibo post calling out the use of blackface, “but I didn’t want to say anything publicly as I knew I’d get abuse.”

In a discussion on entertainment review platform Douban, which was largely characterized by disbelief that CCTV had done this again, one commenter wrote, “The Spring Festival Gala is so arrogant that it doesn’t care about the aesthetics of the domestic audience or the feelings of ethnic people in other countries.”

Others complained that the segment should not have opened the show and that something presenting “traditional Chinese culture” would have been more appropriate. Nevertheless, discussions around this particular section of the show were still relatively few and far between on Chinese social media, with the main Gala-related hashtags focused on disappointment at Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou only appearing in a pre-recorded slot and on celebrating a sketch based around Wuhan’s coronavirus lockdown.

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Unfortunately, tokenization and stereotyping are nothing new on the Gala, which regularly treats China’s ethnic minorities in a similar manner. That it is a familiar trait of such an influential TV show makes it all the more depressing. As Black Livity China put it in a tweet on this year’s opening performances, “We cannot stress enough the impact scenes such as these have on African and Afro-diasporic communities living in China.”

Cover photo: a screenshot of the 2021 Spring Festival Gala on CCTV

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of RADII and Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for the Associated Press, The Wire, the Financial Times and more.