3 minute read

Race and Racism in Asia

Race And Racism In China

Common ancestry is a common theme in Chinese history. Recognized as having one of the world's oldest civilizations, China's history shows the rise of a common sense of culture and identity early in its history. A common legend believed by many Chinese is that they (Han Chinese who form the dominant ethnic group in contemporary China) are descendants of the "Yellow Emperor" (Emperor Huang-ti), who is said to have ruled in the fifth millennium B.C.E. The focus on patrilineal descent—clearly discernible in the seventeenth century (late Ming, early Qing) but clearly existing before—has been another component of this racial focus. Indeed, Chinese descriptions of themselves as a "yellow" race predated European use of such terms. Evidence from Chinese scholars and common folk notions in the early Qing period suggest that the color harked back to their common descent from the "Yellow Emperor." With connotations of purity and imperial grandeur, this was used to claim the superiority of the Chinese to other races in the early Qing period. Such definitions of the "yellow race" usually included the Manchu and did not threaten the legitimacy of their rule. Both Confucian and folk notions of patrilineal descent supported such racial aspects of Chinese identity.

This theme continued and became central to Chinese debates over identity in the modern era as evidenced by the thought and behavior of nineteenth-century elites. Ideas of some reformers such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) in the late nineteenth century show the extent to which indigenous and Western notions of race shaped his view of domestic and global affairs. Kang selectively appropriated Western racial categories and created a taxonomy of hierarchical races according to "white," "yellow," "red," and "black" skin colors, but presented the former two as superior to the latter two. The use of the same term for lineage and race (zu) aided the combination of both indigenous and foreign concepts. Others, while depending less on the language of scientific racism, conceived of fundamental issues nevertheless in racial terms. For example, Zhang Binglin (1868–1936), a more radical opponent of the Qing regime, understood the problem facing China as caused by the failure to protect the pure descent of the Hanzu (Han lineage-race) from the Yellow Emperor. In this view, the Manchu (Qing) were the culprits responsible for Han degeneration. While Zhang's notion of race differed somewhat from the notions then dominant in Europe focusing on blood purity, it remains language firmly ensconced in the language of ancestry.

Racial discourse continued in republican China after the fall of the Qing in 1911. With the decline of Confucian discourse, science was seen as the new discourse that would establish the nature of things. Clearly imbibing from the scientific racism of the West, intellectuals turned to embryology and genetics to argue for the need to rejuvenate the yellow race. Myths were combined with so-called scientific studies such as craniology to bolster notions of Chinese superiority vis-à-vis their neighbors as well as darker-skinned races. Eugenics would become a dominant part of the discourse during this period.

In the early communist era (starting in 1949), the emphasis on class as a universal unifying concept and the notion of racial theory as a tool of Western imperialism, restrained racial discourse. Still, the state defined the minority groupings as organically connected to the Han race. While on the one hand extolling the equality of groups, Maoist China still relied on the notion of a superior Han race, which would be the vanguard of the revolution and the embodiment of civilization that would lead the less advanced people. After the death of Mao in 1976, scientific discourse on race was granted more legitimacy, this time in the service of Chinese nationalism. Anthropology has sought to show that the earliest ancestors could be found in China competing with common assertions of the original hominid ancestor being in Africa. Serology has sought to show the intimate connections between the minority groups to the Han. Medicine has encouraged eugenics programs. Discrimination against the minority ethnic groups in contemporary China remains significant. While race is only one among many competing and complimentary discourses of nationalism and ethnicity, it remains a significant theme underlying Chinese identity in the modern era.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningRace and Racism in Asia - Race And Racism In China, Race And Racism In Japan, Race And Racism In India