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Face masks and prejudice: Why we need to understand symbolic difference

There is a second pandemic brewing in Australia that has the potential to wreak far more havoc on our economy than Covid-19. Contagious racism and xenophobia spread in deep insidious ways and we should all be part of the conversation about causes and solutions.

This seeping prejudice is directly related to public health. All our health decisions are made in a cultural context. This is no more clear than in the very real conversations that many of our Chinese Australians and Chinese International Students are having right now with their families and each other – do I wear a face mask when I am out in public in Australia?

Understanding why Chinese people choose to wear masks and why some Australians seem to frame this behaviour in terms of fear is important now as we come to terms with a reported rise of racist and discriminatory behaviour in our country. There is an urgent need now for Australia and China to understand the large cultural division between different understandings of health, illness and wellbeing.

In today’s China, and indeed across many countries in East Asia, understanding health and wellbeing is deeply connected with historical experience and with Taoism. Breath and breathing are essential to Taoism’s traditional Chinese medicine. Understanding breath or ‘Qi’ is essential to understanding how and why wearing face masks is part of everyday life in China today.

Qi has numerous meanings in Chinese including ‘air’ [kong qi], atmosphere [qi fen], odour [qi wei], strength [li qi] and pathogen [xie qi]. When bodily ‘qi’ is depleted, pain and disease develop. So, breath is critical in order to maintain good ‘qi’ in the body. Meanwhile, the intake of ‘feng’ or noxious wind, is considered the most potent cause of disease in traditional Chinese medicine. The predilection toward face covering to prevent exposure to bad air is something that predates the germ theory of disease and extends into the very foundations of East Asian culture (Yang 2014).

Traditional Chinese Medical practitioners have studied epidemics since ancient times. Over China’s long history, there have been many epidemics, and many thousands have lost their lives. During the 1918 influenza epidemic, for example, China suffered along with the rest of the world. Local governments at the time issued public health instructions including to “wash your house in limewater”, “drink mung bean soup” and “cover your mouth and nose”. At that time, Chinese health was still based solely on Traditional Chinese Medicine. And health instructions were issued by local authorities and followed. While it is unknown how many people died in China during that time, we do know that morbidity rates were lower than other parts of the world. (Cheng and Leung 2007). This example is not put forward to demonstrate the effectiveness or not of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but rather to demonstrate the long history of a very different understanding of health and the body and the relationship between local authorities and private health behaviour.

The wearing of facemasks is deeply connected relationships between the understandings of ‘Qi’ and Chinese medicine and how people relate to their local environment. For example, in the northern part of China, seasons vary abruptly between very hot summers and icy cold winters. According to traditional Chinese medicine, this abrupt intake of cold air can cause not only immediate sicknesses, but also is negative long term health impacts. This is the same logic with that is used when Chinese people drink warm or hot water, rather than cold water – shocking the body with coldness is believed to be dangerous for the body. In many places in north China people wear thick face masks in winter and wash and change them often. The mask is a part of daily life in their community.

In contemporary China, there are multiple motivations for wearing surgical masks in public including protecting against rising pollution levels. Masks also have beauty functions. In many Asian countries, skin condition is considered a very important beauty standard connected to social status and privilege. In order to have smooth and fair skin, many females, especially in urban areas, wear masks when it's windy, dusty or even too sunny. Again, the power of the air, of ‘qi’ is critical to the maintenance of health, wellbeing and beauty. A Chinese student recently told me “My mum recommended me a kind of large face mask that's made by silk just a few weeks ago. Because she thinks the strong sunshine in Australia could be bad to my skin and makes me look old.”

Facemasks are worn by many Chinese people for diverse and deeply complex cultural reasons. All these reasons can be traced to family advice, public health advice and the expectations of community and society. Wearing a facemask is for the common good and it demonstrates common sense for many. Many Chinese people living in our cities are wearing surgical masks as a form of what they consider civilized public behaviour. They are protecting not only themselves, but others from suspected contaminants and bad ‘qi’.

Meanwhile, the deep historical and cultural understandings of people in Western countries – and particularly in Australia, goes some way to understanding our fear of surgical facemasks. While the coronavirus might be new, reactions to it – and stories and narratives surrounding people from “other” countries who are “disease carriers” is far from new in the West.

The 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak offer us many lessons here. Discussions about the geographical origins of disease fuel racism. People, their behaviours and social practices become stereotyped and used as a means to marginalise and cast doubt on others (Benton 2020). In our cultures we have learned over many years to associate face masks with contagious illness and to build and confirm suspicion of others. The facemask is – albeit innocently - perceived as representing a division between “them” (those with communicable disease) and “us” (essentially disease-free but now needlessly threatened by the unclean world) (Aronson 2010). This ‘reading’ of the facemask contrasts starkly with the way it is understood in China as a sign of courtesy and civil social behaviour.

Narratives of cultural otherness and the fear of the other are often framed around discourses of dirt, disease and moral disfunction. ‘The West’ is built on understandings of difference in these terms. It was ‘healing’ and ‘civilising’ and ‘saving’ projects that built empires and colonial justifications for oppression for the last few hundred years. These notions continue to be alive and well – just hidden as a part of our background cultural identity.

In Chinese cities, facemasks are used to protect against pollution, when preparing food and to protect others and to be protected from others. It is a display of urban courtesy. In Western cities, facemasks are seen as symbolic of the wearer being ill and contagious and for many, they are understood as signs to steer clear.

When the travel ban is over, and our universities open their doors again to Chinese students, this will be a moment where we have an important role to play. For many Chinese students, coming from a traumatic time with family, they will feel safer wearing a mask. Doing so is part of their socio-cultural understanding - not only of how best to protect oneself and others from illness - but how to best behave in society.

Many Australians at the same time will react negatively to symbolic ‘otherness’ of facemasks in their urban landscapes. This reaction is part of a socio-cultural understanding of difference – it’s a historically informed ‘reading’ of the symbolism of a facemask as representing disease and contamination. They will be afraid.

We all carry history and culture within us. Interpreting and empathising with the history and culture of others is important now. There is a role here for our Australian communities and universities to ensure that our Chinese international students, and our Chinese Australian communities feel safe, understood and welcome as we all come together to rebuild after this crisis. Welcoming returning Chinese international students and Chinese tourists to our country by telling them they do not need to wear a face mask in public will not make them feel either welcome, understood nor safe.


Aronsen, S. (2010). ‘Racism and the threat of influenza’. Medicine and Health Rhode Island. Vol. 93(1): 3.

Benton, A. (2020). Race, epidemics and the viral economy of health expertise: The coronavirus is new, but not the toxic narratives around it. The New Humanitarian. Online at:

Cheng, K. and Leung, P. (2007). ‘What happened in China during the 1918 influenza pandemic? International Journal of Infections Diseases. Vol. 11(4): 360 - 364

Yang, J. (2014). A quick history of why Asians wear surgical masks in public. Quartz. Online at:

Education Analyst at The Lygon Group Australia's Chinese international students are part of our communities. Well-meaning efforts to 'reassure' students that they don't need to wear face-masks might not be the best way to help them feel safe. Instead, we should try to interpret and empathise with the history and culture of others #


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