Plateau Redness and the Politics of Beauty in Contemporary Tibet (Part 1)

In the first of a two-part series, I translate an essay that was first published in February, 2016 on a popular Tibetan platform on Wechat. The essay, written by a young Tibetan woman currently studying at a prestigious university in interior China, discusses the perceived loss of “plateau redness” (高原红), a reference to rouge cheeks commonly associated with those who dwell at high-altitudes.

As part two will examine, this essay’s exploration of the loss of plateau redness forms part of a wider discussion that has been ongoing for years. The piece generated a very complex array of responses, many of which situate the loss of plateau redness within a wider landscape of globalisation, cultural assimilation, climate change, identity, gender, inland schooling, as well as resettlement and migration.

(This translation is my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original text, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement! All images are from the original essay.)


Tibetan Girls, We are in the Process of Losing ‘Plateau Redness’

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Once upon a time in interior China (neidi), ‘plateau redness’ was a distinguishing mark of Tibetan women. I remember when I was young, during my first trip to Chengdu, standing amid the hustle and bustle of crowds on Chunxi Road, where, no matter what clothes you were wearing or whether you opened your mouth to speak, from the wisps of natural rouge upon one’s face everyone could immediately identify a Tibetan girl.

Yet, today, walking through the streets and lanes of Lhasa, the majority of women are fair complexioned and kitted out in the latest fashion. Were you not to stop and chat with them, you would in fact never know that they were Tibetan. Often it is only on the faces of women coming from other Tibetan counties to Lhasa for pilgrimage and downing sheepskin garments that the dear, familiar wisps of rouge can be seen.

Rongzhongerjia’s (a well-known Tibetan singer) passionate song “Plateau Redness” has long since spread wide and far. This song, known to all, describes the Plateau Redness as follows:

Plateau Redness, 

beautiful plateau redness, 

brewing and brewing once more the barley beer, 

still as thick as it was that year

The lyrics of this song make so many people in interior China really grasp this distinguishing feature of Tibetan women. Yet perhaps what makes many tourists feel disappointed is that, they see the great Potala Palace that they have longed to see and snap shots of devout pilgrims to Jokhang Temple they have longed to snap, but they rarely see the ‘plateau redness’ of Tibetan girls. They suddenly see the difference between the Tibet they have learned about from propaganda and that of reality. But, what has led to the disappearance of this marker of our ethnic group, the plateau redness?

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The lyrics of the song describe the beauty of the plateau redness, but the reality is that, no matter whether we are talking about Tibetan men or women, very few actually think that plateau redness is attractive. Tibetan girls are just the same as Han girls, whose sense of beauty has been hijacked by drama series’ from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, spending so much time pursuing the acquisition of white skin.

Across the highly developed cosmetic beauty industry and the explosive marketing of cosmetic products across Wechat, along with the growing collective consciousness about the need to protect our skin from the sun, Tibetan women are having their wishes fulfilled and continue on in a celebratory manner along the road to fair complexion.

In this era of unitary standards of beauty, many young Tibetan women chose to apply whitening products, matching it up with bright red lips, and constantly engaging in endless cycles of weight loss programs that leave them exhausted. For those few who still have the plateau redness, this culture gives way to feelings of embarrassment and insecurity around this natural look.

A report in the Phoenix Weekly found that ever since the first cosmetic branch opened up in Lhasa in the 1990s, the development of the cosmetic business in Tibet has been a story of unparalleled success. Indeed, cosmetics that get rid of redness and freckles have been the most popular. Apart from cosmetics, daily health care and make-up have are another set of techniques that require mastering.

The author writes this piece hoping that everyone will gain a wider appreciation for the different kinds of beauty out there. Don’t let plateau redness become something that is only seen in movies and pieces of art as a marker of Tibetan-ness, left with no option but to disappear within the narrow-minded desires of the general public.

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It is precisely because of this roof of the world upon which we live, a plateau worth being proud of, that plateau redness is produced, a consequence of natural selection within this very environment. Because of the elevation above sea level across Qinghai, Tibet and other areas, the air is thin and dry, and there is little oxygen. As a result, the skin does not inhale enough, and so the red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen increase. And when the difference in temperatures across the plateau is even more pronounced and ultraviolet rays radiate even more intensively, redness becomes all the more noticeable.

The plateau bestows upon us a superior physicality, stronger lungs and heart, and a bright red face. These natural gifts leave us with nothing to feel embarrassed about. Within this information explosion that characterises our present, so much is demanded, particularly of women. From being a perfect 50kg to the endless whitening brainwashing, we feel completely as though we ourselves are imperfect and are in need to change. In fact, there really is no need to live by the expectations of others.

Keeping a natural heart, and a natural appearance is also a manifestation of beauty.

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