As Russia launched an invasion into Ukraine, bombing airports and apartment buildings, and people around the world watched the grim development with bated breath, some Chinese men thought about something else—Ukrainian beauties.
A viral joke on social media goes that Chinese men would love to provide shelter to Ukrainians caught in the war, but only if they are young, attractive, and female.
“Sheltering homeless Ukrainian girls,” a Weibo user named Niruomeixiongjiubiexiong, for example, posted on Feb. 24, the day Russia began a military assault on multiple Ukrainian cities. The account has been shut down following a subsequent crackdown on war-related jokes. “Priority will be given to those who are young, beautiful, unmarried, and fit. The war is cruel, but people are full of love.”
While people who were sharing the sexist meme might have been in the minority, stereotypes around “Ukrainian beauties” have pervaded the Chinese-speaking world for years. Online posts attribute an abundance of beautiful women in Ukraine to its climate and ethnic composition. On shopping site Taobao, one can pay about $30 to have a customized birthday message read out by a group of Ukrainian women in bunny girl costume, although a vendor said the service was currently unavailable due to the war.
Meilishka, a match-making service that specializes in setting Chinese men up with Eastern European women, said interest in Ukrainian girls saw a bizarre jump during the invasion, from about five inquiries a day to almost 10.
“Now, there are many clients asking for Ukrainian girls,” Pavel Stepanets, a Russian man who owns the business, told VICE World News. “These clients know that these Ukrainian girls are sad and would think of China as a safe place. So the Chinese men think that these girls will consider looking for a Chinese husband.”
The interest in dating Ukrainian women is not unique to Chinese bachelors. Ukraine has a thriving internet romance industry that sets up Western men with Ukrainian women, a process dubbed “mail order brides.” The perception is that Ukrainian women are more gorgeous, less feminist, and would now be willing to marry any average man to get out of the war-stricken, economically-stagnated country.
For Chinese men, the fetish is exacerbated by a desire to “conquer” blonde, white women, seen as a symbol of both the men’s personal success and China’s rising power.
The most prominent example is Mei Aisi, who shot to national fame in around 2014 for marrying a Ukrainian woman 12 years his junior. For many Chinese men, Mei’s life is an enviable story about a working-class underdog winning a Caucasian wife.
Mei later launched a dating club in Ukraine, charging Chinese men tens of thousands of dollars for setting them up with Ukrainian women. On Douyin, China’s TikTok, Mei shares with his 1.6 million followers the couple’s life in their villa in Ukraine. Most of the videos focus on his wife, who was seen dancing, doing catwalks, and swimming in the pool, attracting a flood of jealous comments.
Stepanets launched his dating club in 2017, and charges men between 6,700 to 80,000 Chinese yuan ($1,060 to $12,700) to set them up with women from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—women who can speak Mandarin and are younger and prettier are usually more expensive to access. About 70 Chinese men are currently in the club, and according to Stepanets, about eight to nine couples have gotten married through the service since the club was founded (not all couples who were successfully matched would make it to marriage).
Stepanets said Chinese men prefer Eastern European women because, compared to Chinese women, they are not as demanding about wealth. The men also aspire to sire Caucasian-looking offspring, he said, which is why women with pale white hair and blue eyes are often preferred.
And among Slavic women, said Stepanets, Ukrainians are the most sought-after.
“To be honest, Ukrainian women are considered some of the most beautiful in the world,” he said. “Everyone knows this.”
Lisa, a Canada-based Ukrainian influencer who lived in China for seven years, often puts the hashtag #UkrainianBeauty onto her videos on Douyin, China’s Tiktok. Lisa, who preferred not to disclose her full name, said the term was a friendly one. Through her channel, Chinese men would often ask her to set them up with Ukrainians—anyone would do.
“I think it’s funny. Like, how could you just pick one random girlfriend?” said the 26-year-old. “I don’t feel that it’s something bad to me. I just think that some of them are maybe a little bit naive and really funny.”
While Chinese women who date foreign men are often accused of betraying their country, Chinese men are hailed as heroes for marrying foreign women and making them part of the nation.
Internet users’ interest in seeing Caucasian women learning Mandarin Chinese, cooking Chinese dishes, and meeting their Chinese in-laws has prompted many Chinese-Ukrainian couples to start making these kinds of videos.
A 27-year-old Guangzhou man, who goes by the screen name Xiao Hei, said he and his Ukrainian wife Yana began making vlogs in October. The two met when they were working at a zoo—Xiao Hei as a host and Yana as an actress—and Xiao Hei picked up English and a bit of Russian just to date her. They married in 2019.
Xiao Hei said the most common comment he gets from viewers, even during the current invasion, is “can you set me up with Ukrainian girls as well?”
Many Chinese men have complained about not being able to find a local match. China has a skewed gender ratio, largely caused by the selective abortion of female fetuses. And Chinese women have become more educated and financially independent, making them unwilling to settle for an unhappy marriage.
“Demographically, there are millions of Chinese men being ‘squeezed out’ from the local marriage markets in China in part due to China’s one-child policy and the engrained son-preference culture. They are struggling to find a partner,” said Pan Wang, who teaches Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of New South Wales.
“At the same time, the skewed sex ratio in Ukraine (more women than men) makes women willing to find a husband outside of Ukraine or be married out themselves.”
But there are two sides to Chinese men wanting foreign wives. While Caucasian wives are seen as trophies, non-white women—Southeast Asian wives, for instance—are often perceived as a sign that the man is too poor to attract local or white women, Wang said. That’s even if there may well be Ukrainian women looking to marry their way to China to escape poverty at home.
Many Chinese women have expressed anger online over the joke about sheltering Ukrainian women. In a video posted last week, a Chinese student in Ukraine said the insensitive remarks about “Ukrainian beauties” have contributed to an anti-China sentiment and put overseas Chinese in danger.
Social platforms including Weibo, Douyin, and WeChat then moved to delete jokes about Ukrainian women. State media say the vulgar remarks were only made by a few but were then amplified by anti-China quarters.
Mei, the influencer famous for having a Ukrainian wife, got his accounts suspended after he posted war clips viewers said were not from Ukraine.
“It suggests to me that the derogatory language was only recognized as damaging when it was seen as posing a threat to the Chinese people, rather than seen as offensive and discriminatory towards Ukrainian women,” said Elena Barabantseva, a University of Manchester scholar who has studied Ukrainian wives in China.
Barabantseva said Chinese men started posting the “Ukrainian beauties” joke during the 2014 conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, which is being controlled by pro-Russian separatist groups. In reality, Chinese-Ukrainian couples remain a rare phenomenon and are often viewed with curiosity by the public.
The Chinese government has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion and blamed the conflict on the U.S.-led Western bloc. The Chinese internet has come to be dominated by pro-Russian voices, and many people who support peace in Ukraine are staying silent.
Ukrainian influencers in China, some of them wives of Chinese men, are among the rare voices providing an alternative perspective. They have talked about the bravery of Ukrainians, shared the pain of having families caught in the war back home, and advocated against the invasion.
Lisa, the Douyin influencer, said after the war broke out, she had been getting aggressive messages such as “I hope you will die” and “go to Ukraine and die with them together”—before she was even posting news about the invasion. Many others continued asking her to set them up with Ukrainian women.
The hate left Lisa puzzled, since she had always found people to be polite and friendly during her time in China. She has since started posting videos advocating against the invasion and the killings of ordinary Ukrainians and Russians.
Lisa said she is getting support from followers and her Chinese friends in Canada, although pro-Russia comments still get thousands of upvotes on her page. “Russia must win!” says the most liked comments under her latest video.
But she is not about to give up Douyin just because of the hate. “I don’t mind if these people are doing this shit to me because I want that more people can see the truth and what's going on,” she said. “Even if it will affect only two or three people, it’s okay.”
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