Apple recently found itself in the midst of a cultural debate in China due to a seemingly innocuous image of an Apple Watch specialist sporting a long hair braid on its official website. For many in China, this hairstyle evokes memories of the Qing dynasty, a period in which men from the predominant Han ethnic group were mandated by the Manchu rulers to shave their heads, leaving only a pigtail or braid known as a queue.
Dating from the 1600s to the early 20th century, this hairstyle wasn’t just a fashion statement. It was a symbol of submission and a poignant reminder of what many consider a degrading era in Chinese history.
This queue hairstyle gained notoriety in Western culture through the fictional character Dr. Fu Manchu. Created by British novelist Sax Rohmer, Dr. Fu Manchu epitomized the “yellow peril” trope, a narrative where individuals from East and Southeast Asia were portrayed as threats to Western civilization.
However, the debate surrounding Apple’s image might have been based on a misunderstanding. A report from news site ifeng highlighted that the individual in the image is an indigenous person showcasing their traditional hairstyle. The portrayal is part of Apple’s initiative to emphasize employment diversity across its regional websites and isn’t China-specific.
The controversy underscores the balancing act global companies like Apple face in an interconnected world. While the aim might be to highlight diversity or share a message of inclusivity, cultural nuances can lead to unintended interpretations. Several online users expressed that Apple should demonstrate greater cultural sensitivity towards varying customer groups. One comment on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging platform, read, “An international company should know the taboos of customers from different countries.”
Yet, not everyone agreed with the sentiment of cultural insensitivity. Some users considered the backlash an overreaction. One user quipped, “Are your hearts made of bubbles?” implying that some were too easily offended. Another user responded, “Those who think this photo is an insult are the real discriminators.”
This isn’t the first time a brand has encountered criticism over cultural representation in China. Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian luxury brand, faced backlash in 2018 for a promotional video that was seen as mocking Chinese accents. The advertisement depicted a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza and spaghetti using chopsticks. Similarly, in 2021, Chinese snack brand Three Squirrels faced online criticism for an advertisement showcasing a Chinese model with eyes that were deemed “overly slanted.” Many believed the image catered to Western stereotypes about Asian facial features.
Chinese researcher and commentator Hou Qijiang, delving into the nuances of such reactions, attributed them to historical prejudices against Chinese physical attributes. He expressed, “We could have gracefully regarded slanted eyes as beautiful, instead we are ashamed of saying that because the Western world has defamed them.”
Apple’s recent product launch, the iPhone 15 series, is seeing significant demand in China. However, at the time of the report, Apple hadn’t commented on the hairstyle controversy. In the era of globalization, such incidents spotlight the importance of cultural sensitivity and the challenges businesses face in navigating diverse consumer sentiments.