“Am I an African or a European?” a player wants to know on the social network Baidu Tieba. His characters were given to him in a lucky draw for Warship Girls R, a naval battle simulation game from the Shanghai-based gaming company Moe Fantasy.
What the player wants to know is not his character’s nationality or identity. A character is considered “European” if it is good, or “African” if it is weak.
“The use of European and African as synonyms for fortune and misfortune has become so popular among online gamers in China that entering the two words into search engine Baidu will produce a long list of results that have nothing to do with geography or anthropology,” The South China Morning Post reported.
On Baike, the Chinese version of Wikipedia, there is even an entry for “African” as an “online expression” to describe those who are “unlucky” or “do poorly” in online games.
Such descriptions are widely accepted in the Chinese online gaming community, players confirmed to the SCMP. “We say someone who is unlucky has a black face, so we call them ‘Africans’ jokingly,” one explained. “There’s an old Chinese saying that someone is ‘black on the forehead’, meaning that misfortune is coming – that might be where the ‘black face’ comes from.”
Few gamers ever question the use of such racial stereotypes as synonyms. A lucky draw card on the Onmyoji game has a caption saying it is “the last ferry to Europe”. It has become a Chinese meme on social media meaning misfortune to say “the tribal chief asked me to bring you back”.
These racial stereotypes entered gaming language some five years ago, when Chinese players looked for ways to describe black and white faces.
“These terms for ‘black and white faces’ began to surface then,” a player admitted. Players take on the role of an admiral in the game, and began using “African admirals” and “European admirals” to describe those who were unlucky in the characters they got, versus those who were lucky, he noted.
The expression “African tribal chief” is now being used to describe the unluckiest players, while “European emperor” refers to the most fortunate and those who escape their terrible fate are “sneaking into Europe”. In fact, it is often very specific: “Sneaking into Europe from Africa”.
Gamers often post images and videos posted on social media mocking themselves as unlucky. One popular video shows several bad gamers in leopard print costumes with dark make-up and tattooed faces doing a tribal dance and singing about being “African tribal chiefs”.
Western observers complain that it reflects subtle racism among Chinese youth that has potential to spill over into the rest of the world.
Negative stereotypes of African abound in China. A comedy sketch on the country’s biggest and most popular Lunar New Year television show caused uproar for using a Chinese actress in blackface and giant fake buttocks to depict an African character, and a black performer playing a monkey.
But a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang denied that state broadcaster CCTV’s show was racist and said Beijing “has always opposed any form of racial discrimination”.
In 2016, a laundry detergent company apologised for a television commercial showing a young Chinese woman stuffing a black man into a washing machine before he reappeared as a pale-skinned Chinese man.
In September, Beijing will host a China-Africa summit, which “will surely set off a new upsurge of China-Africa friendly cooperation”, the foreign ministry announced last week.