Skin color is difficult to talk about in any language, because it’s easy to offend someone.
One way is not to talk about it, which in many situations is the right solution, especially when skin color has nothing to do with the topic (e.g. A job interview).
But we think in some cases this is not the right solution. Our skin color isn’t all the same, and that’s beautiful. When choosing a piece of fashion, some colors fit some people better than others. The same for make-up, or simply you want to compliment someone on her or his looks. For some people, their skin color is also part of their identity. Some people identify as black, or as other colors. Sometimes, we just want to talk about skin color.
And it is possible to talk about these things in a non-offensive way, elegant even. You can call Asian-shaped eyes “slanted”, but “ching chong eyes” is deeply offensive. “Almond-shaped” sounds better — or as Joanna Ho puts it: “Eyes that kiss in the corners”. The words we choose matter a lot. Language can unite or divide us, and make us feel accepted or excluded.
Yet here’s the thing. Chinese people often use the word “黑人Hēirén” to talk about dark, brown or black skin color. There is plenty of racism in China, especially against people of color. But even for people who don’t mean to be offensive, they don’t see any problem with saying “黑人Hēirén”. To them, this is not discriminating, but many foreigners are shocked when they hear this. Does this responsibility lie with the speaker, or the receiver?
You could say Chinese people have a kind of innocence (or ignorance) to talking about skin color (there is even a toothpaste brand called 黑人牙膏Hēirén yágāo. At the same time, foreigners will translate the word into English and label it inappropriate, but the literal translation does not equal to translation — just like 加油Jiāyóu doesn’t really mean “add oil”. It’s hard for foreigners to imagine what using this word as a Chinese person feels like, because to them it’s not offensive.
In many cases though, our students ask us how, using Mandarin, to call people of color, how to call Asian people, genuinely not wanting to be offensive and respectful instead. So yeah, it’s a very sensitive topic, but here we go.
Skin color in Chinese culture
In Chinese culture, people do prefer fair skin colors, even within their own race. Most Asian make-up companies target at making your skin color look fairer, whiter. Beauty salons advertise that they can make you look ten times fairer in ten days. This applies more with females: “Ms Perfect” or “A dreamy girl” in Chinese is called “白富美”（bái fù měi), which literally means ‘white, rich and good looking’. There is also an old proverb: “一白遮三丑”（yī bái zhē sān chǒu), meaning a white skin complexion is powerful enough to hide several other uglinesses.
The only exception is “肤浅 Fūqiǎn — (it’s one word that means “superficial”, but if you’d cut it into two separate words it’d literally mean light/shallow skin) — so for all the preferences fairer skin color has in China, it’s also possible to scold “light” skin color as superficial.
- 我不肤 ( … ) 浅 (A pun: I’m not superficial/white)
If a Chinese person is very tanned, one connotation could be that this person is very outdoorsy, but another one is that this person has an outdoor job and is pretty poorly paid, and thus makes a poor marriage prospect.
And thus in the summer, you’ll see many girls wear long sleeves and full-face-masks, or carry umbrellas not to get tanned. Or they don’t even want to go outside.
That said, the population of China is pretty homogeneous, with over 91% of the population being Han Chinese, and many never or barely get to meet foreigners in their life. The vocabulary about skin color is thus lacking.
Talking about skin color in Mandarin
Let’s make four categories here.
1: Not OK to say
This whole approach is totally made up by ourselves because any kind of article about this topic is lacking. But how about we just avoid the word “人” (person) when discussing skin color? Because it sounds very aggressive, as if you are this type or person and not that type of person:
- Nǐ bùshì zhōngguó rén, nǐ shì wàiguó rén.
- You are not a Chinese person, you are a foreign person.
This also definitely applies to two of them:
黑人 hēi rén — black person
We advise you to not use this word as a foreigner — even though Chinese people will regularly use it. It lacks elegance, and you don’t have the ignorance or innocence that Chinese people have when using this. Actually the same with “有色人种Yǒusè rén zhǒng” (people of color).
黄人 huáng rén — yellow person
This is deeply offensive to call anyone a yellow person, especially Asians. Even Chinese people don’t use the word “黄人”, but may say (about yourself) “我的肤色有点偏黄Wǒ de fūsè yǒudiǎn piān huáng” (My complexion is a little yellowish), for instance when you compare yourself with others among friends. Although you can say “小黄人Xiǎo huáng rén” when talking about the Disney Minion movies — or LEGO (乐高Lègāo) minifigures.
2: OK to say
In English, it is OK to say “brown skin colour”, depending on the context. Within the Chinese language, it’s OK to say:
白色báisè – white skin colour
Just like nobody has really “brown” skin colour, nobody has really “white” skin colour. In the vast majority of cases, this is not racist (unlike other skin colours). You can add nuance by saying “冷白lěng bái” (Cold white) or “暖白nuǎn bái” (warm white).
In Chinese, a person with albinism is often referred to as 白化病Báihuàbìng, but would you feel nice if someone keeps labelling you with a 病bìng (illness)? You can also use the word 白子Báizǐ.
暖艳Nuǎn yàn — warm colour
This literally translates into “warm colour”, but 艳yàn can also mean gorgeous, beautiful, colourful — so it’s a really nice name. For a bit darker, you can also use “暖深 nuǎn shēn” which literally means ‘warm’ and ‘deep’.
棕色 zōng sē — brown
This is fine to use, we think. The same with “褐色 hè sè”, which means brown as well but signals a slightly darker/deeper brown.
巧克力色 qiáokèlì sè — chocolate brown
The native Chinese in the GoEast team think this is the best way to talk about darker skin colour in Chinese, because it’s something positive and sweet.
咖啡色 kāfēi sè — coffee brown
Coffee is a deeper brown. Think about the colour of roasted coffee beans rather than black coffee. We also think this is fine to use. If you want to talk about an even darker colour, you can use “摩卡色 mókǎ sè” which is almost black.
亚裔 & 非洲裔 Yà yì & fēizhōu yì — Asian & African heritage
Lastly, it’s also fine to describe someone’s heritage. This goes beyond skin colour but also describes face shape and culture.
You can try to translate colors from English like “Hazelnut” (榛子色Zhēnzi sè) or caramel (焦糖色Jiāo táng sè) and this also works, especially in written Chinese.
Advanced / more poetic
- 米白色mǐ bái sè, white with a slightly beige tone
- 小麦色 xiǎo mài sè, brown skin like the whole wheat flour, regarded as healthy and natural
- 古铜色 gǔ tóng sè, antique brass, bronze. Brown skin is like many bodybuilders. It’s deemed healthy and sexy. Usually used to describe tanned skin.
- 黝黑 yōu hēi, dark skin, a shiny kind of tanned color, is also commonly used among bodybuilders.
- 桃花 táo huā, peach blossom. Pink or light red. The color of a girl’s face, like drinking some wine. Usually one says “面
- 若桃花” miàn ruò tǎohuā, the face is pinky and as beautiful as peach blossoms.
- 胜雪shèng xué, more white than snow, white. This talks about the healthy color of skin. Usually one says “肤白胜雪” fū bái shèng xué, the skin color is even more white than the snow. Very similar is “凝脂 níng zhī”, congealed cream, creamy white — meaning smooth and shiny. Usually one says “肤如凝脂” fū rú níng zhī, the skin color is like congealed cream. Then another one is “冰肌玉肤 bīng jī yù fū”, skin like ice and jade. Like 凝脂, means the skin i, smooth and shiny. These three words are about the highest praise (especially) a girl can get — which all show the point we made in the beginning: In Chinese culture, white skin color is seen as preferable.
- Lastly is freckles. We’re not sure if this is skin color but you can say 雀斑Quèbān as in “你的雀斑好漂亮 Nǐ de quèbān hǎo piàoliang” (Your freckles are so pretty).
3: Another option (probably the best option):
Ask a person how best to describe her or his skin color in Chinese. It feels a bit weird but in the proper context, it’s unlikely to offend someone. And it may make for a very lively discussion. We try the same with this article. We don’t know if our answers are the best, but we’re trying to table a new point about people and language, both of which we care a lot about.
Extra: Skin colors in negative contexts
- 苍白cān bái, pale white. Looks ill or lifeless.
- 灰暗 huī àn, gloomy grey. Looks not good.
- 蜡黄 là huáng, wax yellow. Looks very ill.
- 他面有菜色 tā miàn yǒu càisè, “He looks like vegetables”, means “malnutrition”
- 他面红耳赤 tā miànhóng’ěrchì, his face, and ears are red, means “he’s very angry”
- 青一块儿紫一块儿Qīng yīkuài er zǐ yīkuài er, meaning black and blue, means bruised
- 面如死灰Miàn rú sǐhuī, a white and bloodless complexion just like ashes, means someone is really scared