A History of Nobility
In ancient times, the most prominent cultures in Asia had huge inequality gaps between the rich and the poor. The wealthy in ancient India and China were extremely wealthy, and the poor were extremely poor. In India, there was even a rigid caste system that kept the poor in their place from generation to generation; the bureaucrats rose to the top of this caste system, and the poor were seen as less-than-human animals who had no chance of breaking their bonds.
Especially in ancient India, projecting your caste status with your physical appearance was incredibly important. Everyone wanted to be associated with the Brahmins, and no one wanted to be mistaken for an "untouchable." Therefore, women in the aspiring mercantile class would often put on airs by whitening their skin with makeup or by using skin bleaching methods. This practice has survived to the present day, and many modern Indian women do everything that they can to make their skin as white as possible.
Ancient China didn't have the same unforgiving caste system as ancient India, but there was still enormous wealth disparity in this nation. Upper-class people in China spent most of their time indoors while the peasants they controlled toiled in the fields under the hot sun. Therefore, wealthy Chinese people had pale complexions, and the serfs who they owned were often deeply tanned. Over dozens of generations, these differences took on genetic components, and pureblooded nobility in China were born with whiter skin than the children of peasants who worked in the rice fields. However, each individual's lifestyle choices made a much bigger difference in skin tone than genetics, and this is still the case in modern-day China.
Since India and China were the most developed countries in ancient Asia, the cultural tropes of these nations had an immense impact on neighboring countries. In Vietnam, Korea, and other Asian nations, white skin became the mark of nobility, and every member of society did their best to achieve the whitest skin possible. However, aspiration to whiteness was relegated primarily to the minuscule middle classes in these countries; the nobles were already white, and the downtrodden peasants stood no chance of ever attaining the ability to get out of the hot sun unless they caught the eye of a roving prince and married into nobility.
Even among the noble classes, it was common to use white makeup to appear even whiter. For instance, in Edo-period Japan, it was the style among noble women to cover their faces with thick white makeup and blacken their teeth. This aesthetic was associated with a life of luxury and excess, and everyone wanted to look whiter than everyone else.
The Impact of ColonialismWith the advent of colonialism in Asia, wealthy women had yet another reason to look as white as possible. Western people brought with them incredible technologies and cultural artifacts that were previously unknown even to the Asian elite, and it became the fashion to emulate Western women to the fullest extent possible. While East Asians have a complexion that is quite similar to that of Europeans, the Western mercantile and naval elite who began visiting Asia starting in the 15th century had the whitest skin that anyone had ever seen, and they set a new standard when it came to skin whiteness.
While some would say that many Asian cultures lost their authenticity due to the influence of colonialism, their interaction with Western nations bolstered one trait that is unique to Asian societies: an obsession with whiteness. As time went by, Asian cultures began to mimic the societies of England, Spain, and America more and more, and when the United States rose to global supremacy in the wake of the Second World War, most Asian countries adopted American cultural mores as their basic rubric for social organization. While skin whitening has origins that are thousands of years old, it's obvious that interaction with Western cultures, which was almost always imbalanced in favor of European nations, simply bolstered this social artifact.
The Eurasian Look
As Asia began to become more of a cohesive unit with the advent of technologies such as the telephone, the television, and then the internet, an interesting trend called the "pan-Asian" movement began in a variety of Asian nations. Starting in the early 1990s, many citizens of developed Asian nations became taken by the notion that they should all look like each other, and wealthy citizens of India, Japan, and Korea began sporting hairstyles and makeup habits that made them all look much more similar than they ever had before.
Along with the advent of the pan-Asian style came a similar trend called the "Eurasian look." Partly inspired by popular mixed-race Hollywood figures like Keanu Reeves, this movement consists of thousands of genetic Asians who want to look more like Europeans. They revere people who have at least some European ancestry, and they adopt manners of dress and makeup habits that make them look more European.
While the pan-Asian and Eurasian looks are somewhat different, they both have one central focus: skin whiteness. After all, whiteness is the hallmark of people who have European ancestry, and white skin is a common denominator that all Asians can strive for. These days, the advertisement industry in Asia shows a remarkably preferential focus toward products that supposedly make Asians look more like Europeans; all of the supermodels on billboards in Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul feature smiling Asian men and women with European features, and all of them have exceedingly white skin.
While most people see skin whitening as a largely East Asian phenomenon, this practice also has a huge following in India. In the last few decades, the movie industry in India, which is called Bollywood has exploded into popularity, and these days many Asians from a number of different countries have seen just as many Bollywood movies as they have Hollywood films. Almost all of the most popular Bollywood actresses use skin whitening products, and many of them have also signed lucrative advertising deals in which they promote the benefits of these products onscreen.
The cultural makeup of India makes skin whitening in this country especially interesting. India as a country is made up of many different ethnic groups, and these groups all have widely varying skin tones. Many of the members of the ruling caste in India are the descendants of the Indo-Aryans, which was a group of marauding conquerers that swept through Asia and the Near East thousands of years ago. They left their genetic lineage in their wake, and many of the peoples descended from the Indo-Aryans still occupy the ranks of the ruling classes throughout India and other countries to this day. However, most of the other people in India are from other genetic lineages, and they are much browner than their Aryan rulers. Despite this fact, every ethnic group in India seems to revere whiteness, and even the most poverty-stricken people in this country of over a billion souls look up to Bollywood icons as behavioral and moral models.
The Korean WaveOver the last few decades, South Korean pop culture has gained a powerful foothold throughout the minds of people across Asia. While the Korean feature film industry is still relatively small in scope, Korean pop stars have taken the world by storm, and this divided nation has become one of the world's epicenters for catchy pop music. Korean TV dramas are also popular throughout Asia, and these two industries often intermingle in the form of popular Korean music idols appearing in advertisements that air across Asia.
In these advertisements, prominent Koreans extoll the virtues of skin whiteness. Plenty of native Korean companies make skin lightening products, but Western companies like The Body Shop also produce these items for Korean and pan-Asian audiences. The immense popularity of Korean culture throughout Asia is known as the "Korean Wave," and it has brought with it an indisputable validation of the preference for white skin that has been a part of Asian culture for millennia.
An Ideal for Both Genders
While white skin was traditionally seen as a mark of nobility primarily in Asian women, skin whitening is becoming increasingly popular among affluent Asian men as well. The influence of American social trends and pop culture has been affecting traditional gender roles the world over, and this effect has made itself apparent in Asia in the form of skin whitening products that use men as their main poster models.
In some instances, men in Asia have whitened their skin in the past; Japanese theater performers are one prime example. However, the idea of men lightening their skin for the purpose of aesthetics is still relatively new even in Asia. Partially to appeal to a wider audience, manufacturers of skin whitening creams have recently begun marketing these products as promoting skin "fairness." For example, some advertisements make claims such as, "Fairer skin in four weeks or less," and it's possible that this rebranding has also been inspired by the public backlash against the glorification of whiteness. No matter what associations Western people make with whiteness, however, skin whitening is only becoming more popular with both men and women in Asia.
Skin Whitening in Asia: The Bottom LineSince many Korean and Indian skin care products are available on multinational eCommerce giants like Amazon, people from all around the world are now gaining access to skin whitening products that were once entirely limited to Asia. While revering whiteness is relatively taboo in Western countries, many Asian immigrants and expatriates to America and Europe incorporate whitening products into their skin care routines, and these products are also gaining popularity among other ethnic groups.
However, using Asian skin whitening products comes with a number of risks. While products made in Korea or India are usually safe to use, Chinese skin care products often contain potentially lethal ingredients. Anyone who uses skin whitening products made in Asia should pay special attention to the country of origin of these products, and they should shy away from counterfeit cosmetics made in sub-par manufacturing conditions.
While Western women might scoff at the practice of skin whitening, it's important to remember that envying white skin is a perennial tradition in the East. Asian people don't view whiteness the way we do; they have their own cultural milieu through which they perceive the supposed social benefits of whiteness versus the social detriments of darkness. It's unlikely that many Westerners will get on board with the skin whitening trend, but it's also important to understand the cultural validity of pursuing whiteness in Asian cultures.