A picture of a customer service assistant on Apple’s website who sports a long hair braid has sparked a tangled debate in China, with some online observers criticising the tech giant for promoting a humiliating reminder of the Qing dynasty.
The controversy began on September 17 after an unidentified online observer said the image of an Apple Watch specialist on the tech giant’s official website was an “insult” to Chinese people, news site ifeng reported.
Between the 1600s and the early 20th century, men of the dominant Han ethnic group in China were ordered by the Manchu emperors to shave their heads and wear a pigtail, or braid, on the back, called a queue.
The hairstyle, regarded as a sign of submission, is a reminder of a humiliating chapter of Chinese history.
The queue hairstyle was also worn by the fictional character Dr Fu Manchu, a supervillain created by the British novelist known as Sax Rohmer, who used the character to propagate “yellow peril”, in which people of East and Southeast Asia were portrayed as a menace to the Western world.
However, ifeng reported that the specialist portrayed on the Apple website is in fact an indigenous person wearing a traditional hairstyle.
The image is featured on various Apple regional websites to promote the company’s employment diversity and is not targeted at Chinese customers, according to the report.
Some online commenters have insisted that Apple should have more “sensitivity” towards its different customer groups. But others ridiculed those who have claimed to be insulted by Apple as overreacting.
“An international company should know the taboos of customers from different countries,” said a person on Weibo.
“Are your hearts made of bubbles?” an observer retorted on Weibo, implying that they were easily insulted.
“Those who think this photo is an insult are the real discriminators,” another person commented.
Apple’s newly released iPhone 15 series is enjoying strong demand in China, with deliveries for some popular models pushed to October or November following September presales.
The company had not responded to the controversy at the time of writing.
Chinese customers who say they are patriotic have little tolerance for content they say is insulting to Chinese people.
Italian luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana is still feeling the heat from a 2018 promotional video that featured a Chinese model clumsily attempting to eat pizza and spaghetti using chopsticks while mispronouncing the brand’s name. The video was labelled a mockery of the Chinese accent.
In 2021, the Chinese snack brand Three Squirrels was berated online over an advertisement that featured a Chinese model with what was perceived as “overly slanted eyes”. Critics blasted the model’s image for playing to Western stereotypes about Asian faces.
In an article, Chinese researcher and commentator Hou Qijiang described such overreactions to certain physical features as a “stress response to historical anti-Chinese racism”.
“We could have gracefully regarded slanted eyes as beautiful, instead we are ashamed of saying that because the Western world has defamed them,” Hou wrote.