It would not be nice, but it would also not be unfair to describe Ivanka Trump, who is tall and blonde with supermodel proportions, as the Platonic ideal of vanilla-flavoured Caucasian beauty — your aunt’s prettiest friend, or the grown-up chapter president of your school’s most popular sorority. That’s how she looks to Western eyes, anyway. But to the Chinese, she’s something else entirely.
For one thing: she looks Chinese.
You might laugh. But posts and comments marvelling at the Chineseness of her features abound online. Commenter Liudehua on question-and-answer-based site Zhihu wrote: “For some reason, her blend of Scottish, German and Czech heritage gave Ivanka an inexplicable Oriental beauty. I'm totally blown away.” The country’s biggest state-run newspaper Xinhua tweeted a photo in February comparing Ivanka’s looks to famous Chinese actress Li Bingbing. Americans may have dismissed the comparison as bizarre, but Chinese readers knew exactly what it was talking about.
Ivanka is currently enjoying widespread positive media in China. She is the subject of tabloids and gossip websites that track her every move in generous, glowing terms (according to Xinhua, she is “elegant and poised”; The South China Morning Post calls her a “charmer-in-chief”). She is called a “goddess” on social media. Because of lenient trademark laws, there are over 250 unofficial Ivanka-branded products in China including milk powder and sanitary napkins. The Instagram video of her daughter Arabella singing in Mandarin was watched 1.7 million times (earning twice the views and 10x the comments her videos typically receive), which is especially impressive considering that Instagram is banned in China.
The praise is especially noteworthy considering how hostile her father, President Trump, has been toward China. In the month before he took office, Trump threatened four decades worth of diplomacy with a phone call to Taiwan, not to mention that his hardline position to label China a currency manipulator was one of the only clear planks of his election platform (he reversed his position on the subject in April).
Ivanka Trump is big — yuge! — in China because she she deftly wields the two things that have granted women power since the beginning of time: beauty and money. The way she looks and the way she interacts with her wealth is especially intriguing because she is, in many ways, a “miracle.” To Chinese citizens, she is the exception to the rule and the break in a curse; she has achieved something that has evaded their own children.
For some reason, her blend of Scottish, German and Czech heritage gave Ivanka an inexplicable Eastern beauty. I'm totally blown away.
Ivanka’s mother Ivana Trump is Czechoslovakian and her father Donald Trump is third-generation Scottish-German. But the features they passed onto her — big eyes; a small face; a thin nose; narrow, but full lips; a large chest; long, slim legs; and a long neck — perfectly line up with contemporary Chinese beauty standards. It’s a rare cocktail of qualities that very few people have, including the Chinese celebrities Western audiences are familiar with. Consider this: actress Lucy Liu, models Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun, and even the Disney version of Mulan are not considered to be particularly beautiful by the Chinese. Their almond-shaped eyes, long faces, chiseled cheekbones, and freckles fall outside of “desirable” qualities.
“Chinese women don’t like to contour their cheekbones — they like to have a rounder, softer, sweeter look, like Ivanka’s” says Liz Goodno, spokesperson for the popular Hong Kong-based photo app Meitu that’s been tracking beauty trends espoused by their 450 million monthly Chinese users. “Fan Bingbing and Angelababy are considered the most beautiful right now. They have an elevated nose bridge. They have the double eyelids. They have a melon-seed face like Fan Bing Bing or a goose-egg face like Ivanka.”
“I think Ivanka is extremely beautiful from both an Eastern and Western,” a patient at a Foshan plastic surgery clinic was filmed saying. The clinic offers a package of procedures promising to transform clients’ features to be more like those of Ivanka — or “Yi Wan Ka,” the Mandarin pronunciation of Ivanka’s name. “She really fits the Asian standards for plastic surgery. [...] I will use her face as a model for my own rhinoplasty.”
While it’s an ordeal to mimic in real life, faking an Yi Wan Ka face is easier online. Goodno notes that 50% of all photos and videos that appear on social media in China are processed by Meitu applications, and the most popular alterations — whitening skin, enlarging eyes, creating a double eyelid, thinning out noses, filling out cheeks, creating a pointed chin, and elongating the neck and legs — are all traits that give users a more Ivanka-like look.
Ivanka’s uncannily Chinese beauty is intriguing on its own, but it isn’t the most miraculous thing about her. To understand the sticking power of Ivanka’s persona, you must first understand the “富二代” or fuerdai (pronounced foo-are-die) — the spoiled children of the post-nouveau riche. China’s Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s completely upended centuries-old traditions and violently redistributed wealth; families with any assets were wiped out. But as China began to open up to capitalism and international trade in the ‘80s and ‘90s, some poor families quickly accumulated money, and lots and lots of it.
Without the kind of blueblood blueprint that dictates etiquette that old-monied families in Europe or America follow, the children of these newly rich families (the eldest, who are the same age as Ivanka) have fallen into the trappings of those with too high a credit card limit and not enough taste. If you’re in the mood for some spectacular hate-reads, diving into the antics of the fuerdai is an excellent way to spend some time being both highly entertained and incredibly annoyed.
This collection of viral photos includes pics of a twenty-something woman burning a stack of money for fun. Then there is the online screenshot-war of rich-kid bank accounts showing balances of £400 million. This entire tag on Shanghaiist is addictive, but this story of a spoiled jock knocking a drone out of the sky with a basketball, and the resulting temper tantrum (“Our dog food at home is more expensive than your drone!") was particularly amazing. There is a reality show about super-wealthy Chinese fuerdai in Vancouver that was so obnoxious, it was eventually banned in China for reflecting so poorly on its expats — it was later reported that one of the first-season regulars left the show when her father was arrested for murdering the financer of the family’s lifestyle when they couldn’t repay their debt to him. The national embarrassment over the fuerdai has gotten so bad that the government ordered 70 Chinese heirs to attend a reeducation program to reacquaint themselves with the values of modesty, reciprocity, and filial piety.
“There’s this idea that wealth can buy you out of any trouble you get into,” says Maura Cunningham, writer and historian of Chinese history. “That’s where the problem emerges for people who are reading these stories on their weixin news feeds — it looks like these kids have been given all these advantages, have all this money, and yet they’re not hard-working nor participating in their family’s business. Ivanka Trump is a real contrast.”
The fuerdai in China are skewered in the media for their grotesque displays of wealth and incompetence, which makes the criticism surrounding Ivanka in Western media — that she is complicit in her father’s administration — feel almost boring by comparison.
There’s an old saying in China that seems to have been written for this era — “富不过三代” (fu bu guo san dai) — that roughly translates to “wealth can’t last for three generations.” But, Ivanka is an exception to this rule. She is not only the child of a rich man, but the grandchild of a rich man. Despite the fact that her father has so relished in projecting an image of lavish, flamboyant wealth, Ivanka has not fell into the trappings of what Chinese consider “rich kid” behaviour. To the Chinese, that’s intriguing.
"Ivanka was born with a golden spoon in her mouth, but this princess is not spoiled at all unlike the many fuerdais in China” reads this article on popular news site Gong Zhong Hao. “She's pretty, wealthy, and comes from a great background, but she still works hard for her career and dreams."
Specifically, Ivanka demonstrates three key personality traits that are used to describe “人生赢家” (ren shen ying jia), or “winners” in China — the buzzword equivalent of a “girlboss.” They who are praised for having “双商高” (shuang shang gao, or “equal measures of EQ and IQ”), “颜值高” (yan zhi gao, or “high facial value” — or a colloquial way of saying “high value”), and “气场” (qi chang, or “an authoritative air”). Check any article of Ivanka Trump, and the comments will be littered with these three phrases. Commenters will note how Ivanka handles herself in high-pressure interviews. Her stoicism and ability to deflect and pivot to canned responses might be infuriating to American viewers who are critical of her father’s administration, but there, they’re seen as a sign of grace under fire — no matter what she’s saying (or not saying) in her response. Style is key, substance be damned.
They don’t care that she was raised with all the wealth and privilege in the world. In Chinese, nepotism does not equal corruption — it is the norm, and sometimes even a burden. Arrogance, myopism, and wastefulness plague Chinese scions. Not so for Ivanka, a married mother of three who was running the family business when her father ran for office, in addition to operating a side business of her own. She has not been involved in any scandal nearing the wantonness of killing three women in a car crash, illegally running a gambling house, nor becoming internet-famous for buying your dog £7.5k worth of iPhones and £16k in Apple Watches.
This makes her a success story and a role model. Her appeal has much less to do with what she’s doing, than what she’s not doing. And ethics scandals of the sort that have inundated our Twitter feeds (like this one about her foundation, or this one about her brand, or this one about her trust — not to mention the recent investigation between her husband, Jared Kushner, and Russian intelligence) are just no big deal in China, which has major corruption issues of its own. “The kind of corruption that we might be talking about in the United States [regarding Ivanka] is not as overt as the kind of corruption that President Xi Jinping has been fighting in China over the past couple years,” says Cunningham. “There, you very clearly have government officials and their family amassing literal piles of money in their homes. Ivanka is getting preferential treatment, but that’s not necessarily considered a deal-breaker in China. There, it’s common practice to use your connections and family, and reciprocity is an obligation.”
Some bet Ivanka’s perceived diplomatic nature translates to actual Chinese-American diplomacy. Her children have a Chinese tutor and nanny, her daughter Arabella is proficient enough at Chinese, and Ivanka is close friends with the Shandong-born Wendi Deng Murdoch — all these personal life choices have been incredibly effective in winning the hearts of Chinese people.
“The fact that she’s interested in China is a really powerful depiction of her recognition that China is important, and that it’s a world player,” Cunningham explains. “Chinese educated families want their kids to learn English; that she’s having her kids learn Chinese implies that she recognises that China is the future.”
It seems like it’s working. "I think she tries really hard to mend Chinese-American relations,” writes popular Wechat account Befaner. “She keeps upping China's cultural presence on the international stage. It also helps that one of her best friends is Chinese.”
Whether or not these interests are calculated is up for debate. We reached out to The White House who acknowledged our inquiry, but did not provide a statement. Still, it’s hard to overstate how important this kind of soft diplomacy is for her father’s actual politics. When President Trump neglected to send the customary Lunar New Year greeting to President Xi Jinping, Ivanka and Arabella attended the Chinese Embassy celebrations in Washington D.C., which the Chinese press reported on with delight. Two months later, the American First Family hosted the Chinese First Family at Mar-a-Lago, where Arabella sang “Jasmine Flower,” a song that First Lady Peng Liyuan was known for singing herself in 2005. In that video clip (that also went viral in China), Liyuan and Ivanka stood on either side of Arabella, all three of them wearing prim, knee-length dressing and politely clasping their hands in front. They are obviously not related, but their kinship is palpable.
Her appeal has much less to do with what she’s doing, than what she’s not doing.
In America, Ivanka is no miracle. Depending on who you talk to, and what their politics are, she is either a martyr or a mercenary. But in China, she’s a genetic miracle, a generational miracle, and a Caucasian miracle — a role model to China’s women and children who feel an incredible amount of professional, familial, and societal pressures to earn lots of money and nurture a high-performing family. To them, Ivanka is a singular example of how to use good looks and connections as social currency, and how to invest them. Knowing that, Yi Wan Ka plastic surgery clinics and diet pills begin to make sense.
Her’s is a persona that’s so unflappable, that even her father’s antics don’t have much impact; a phenomenon that many of the experts in Chinese-American relations I spoke to find flabbergasting. But even the President himself gets a pass in China, for the same reason as Ivanka: “The idea that someone who came from a family with no political connections whatsoever could become President of the United States — someone who was a true outsider — was appealing to many Chinese,” says John Osburg, assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Rochester. “It would be unthinkable in the Chinese system. Trump winning was a fantasy that people had about China projected onto the United States.”
And as with all fantasies, no one wants to play dress-up as the orange ogre in the tower — they’d rather be the blond Princess with the long neck and goose-egg face.
Additional reporting by Venus Wong.