Sinology Sunday: Chinese elements in Chen Man’s Rihanna photoshoot

Rihanna, fondly known in China as The Queen of Shandong, has once more collaborated with photographer Chen Man in yet another gorgeous photoshoot that represents the best of Chen Man.

Last time, their photoshoot was wildly loved by most but criticized by some for cultural appropriation even though it was work by a Chinese photographer for a Chinese magazine that was only using Rihanna as a model. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration since it’s also promoting her stuff, but it undoubtedly also work of Harper Bazaar China. Using traditional Chinese elements to create new looks is both one of Harper Bazaar China and Chen Man’s favorite themes (ex: Chen Man’s Chinese steampunk  ). These people are essentially saying Chen Man should only be able to photograph “Asians” or lose her signature style.

But I digress.  Even worse, this article from Bustle complains the photoshoot isn’t just problematic for being Chinese, but also for not being Chinese. The claim is that it’s too pan-Asian. Here’s a quote:

Rihanna’s hairstyle in this shoot, with blunt, slicked-down bangs and a bun, is reminiscent of a geisha’s traditional up-do. Although she’s not wearing a kimono, the image of Rihanna standing on a wooden foot bridge holding a paper umbrella further invites the comparison. There are also some shots where she is holding a fan.

While Chen Man does often have Japanese influences in her work, all of the elements used here can also be traced to China. I feel like most readers here will recognize the obvious elements used in the two photoshoots, but here’s an introduction to elements used in this photoshoot in case someone was searching about them and was misled. 

Tang Dynasty Hair and Makeup

I love, love the makeup and hair in this. The Tang Dynasty influenced butterfly lip shape and eyebrows are stunning. While the colors are likely unconventional for the period, the tribute is obvious without looking tacky ( ex. Disney’s Mulan).

Peking Opera influences

As stated by the magazine itself, Rihanna’s hair in the photoshoot is mostly inspired by Peking Opera.  The use of a center bang in Peking Opera is a new innovation invented by Mei Lanfang inspired by historical hairstyles. Even back then it was hip to be more “historically accurate”.

The use of a center bang,   as shown here by Yin Zheng in upcoming series Winter Begonia, is  invented by Peking Opera artist Mei Lanfang.


The blue hairpins are diancui, a traditional jewelry made from bird’s feather that decorates headdresses in Peking Opera. Because the process of getting the feathers is widely decried as cruel, they are no longer being made.

Diancui used in Ruyi's Royal Love
Imitate diancui pieces used in Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace


Wow, has this person even seen Disney’s Mulan? Everyone has a man-bun there. Buns are definitely not exclusive to geishas or Japan.

Silver jewelry 

The silver jewelry of ethnic groups in Guizhou and Yunnan is another element Chen Man uses often, such as in this photoshoot with Zhao Wei and this photoshoot with Fan Bingbing or the photoshoot below that literally made Chen Man’s name on the map.

Drawing inspirations from across China, this collections of covers Chen Man did for i-D was one of her early big hits. It’s easy to see how she incorporates the type of jewelryused in this collection  into Rihanna’s hairstyles.

Folding Fans

The first Chinese fans were rigid fans made of first bamboos, palms, feathers, silk, cloth, and paper. ,  While the folding fan was first introduced to China via Japan when it was offered as a tribute back in 988 AD, it has become a common part of Chinese culture in the millennia since.  There are records of Chinese folding fan makers since at least the Song Dynasty, and by the late Ming Dynasty folding fans had become the mainstream fan-style among both men and women. Paper folding fans are used to showcase calligraphy and art.  They’re very commonly used in other Chinese art forms such as dance, xiangsheng, and Chinese operas. They’re also commonly used in modern pop culture.  For example, the popular fan dance with SING girl group or this figure skating program by Sui Wenjing and Han Cong or to hit people in xiangsheng.

Artifacts of Chinese fan over the years.

Oil-paper umbrellawiki page

The spread of oil-paper umbrellas was started by the invention of Yun (雲氏), wife of Luban (魯班). “Chop bamboo sticks to thin strips, covered in animal fur, closed to become a cane, opened as a cone.” But early umbrella materials were mostly feathers or silks, later replaced by paper. When oil-paper umbrellas first appeared is unknown. Some estimate that they spread across to Korea and Japan during the Tang dynasty. It was commonly called the “green oil-paper umbrella” during the Song dynasty. The popularity grew and the oil-paper umbrella became commonplace during the Ming dynasty. They are often mentioned in popular Chinese literature, most notably as the way the leads of Madame Lady Snake met.

7Sense’s umbrella dance inspired by Madame Lady Snake,  

Wooden foot bridge

 Every civilization that has met timber has those. I have walked across make-shift wooden bridges  in America.

Wooden bridges depicted in The Forbidden Palace Museum’s  phone game inspired by  Song-dynasty painting The Thousand Li of Mountains and Rivers .

Mechanical dragons  

Mechanical Chinese mythical creatures are one of Chen Man’s signature looks (see here). Here’s a photo for Zhang Ziyi with the same dragon model and even the same hat style.

The only other main elements are the use of a costume from lion dance and folding screens.

Folding Screens

Screens date back to China during the Eastern Zhou period (771–256 BCE). These were initially one-panel screens in contrast to folding screens. Folding screens were invented during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).
Even though folding screens were known to have been used since antiquity, it became rapidly popular during the Tang dynasty (618–907). During the Tang dynasty, folding screens were considered ideal ornaments for many painters to display their paintings and calligraphy on. Many artists painted on paper or silk and applied it onto the folding screen.

Pretty well-cited Wikipedia article

additional sources consulted: Qian, G. (2004). Chinese Fans: Artistry and Aesthetics. United States of America: Long River Press.

3 thoughts on “Sinology Sunday: Chinese elements in Chen Man’s Rihanna photoshoot

    • Yes, Rihanna. her sponsors and extended teams are courting the ever-growing C market share. Chase the money. Like Disney’s Mulan, the Guan Xiao Tong Barbie.

      At least they did some homework via collaboration with local experts for this spread. Or is that taking a short cut? It depends on your specific point of view.

      While I see why the average consumer is attracted by outer gloss, beauty, and fine aesthetics in general, I do find the overall societal focus to aesthetics is overly done. Like a multi-course meal where the weight of the final sweet course far exceeds the main course itself.

      I like the jewel tones myself, but this particular combo isn’t my thing. Especially the red cutout dress.

      It’s good to see multinational collaborations though. People can learn from each other.

      • China is a big market so it’s understandable why everyone is trying to jump in and get some of that $$$. However, imo, this photoshoot feels a bit tacky like they’re trying super hard to get everyone’s attention. When I look at the cover, it basically screams “Hey look Rihanna is wearing a Chinese designed dress. She’s SO COOL NOW BUY this magazine!!”. Just feels very awkward..

Leave a Reply