Racism, China

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Racism, China





The Chinese people have plural origins. They commonly believe that they are “descendents of Yan and Huang” (Yan Huang zisun). By all accounts, Yan Di (literally Emperor of Fire) and Huang Di (literally Yellow Emperor) were chiefs of two large tribal unions living in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River during the legendary Sage King period (c. 3rd to 2nd millennium BCE). Conflicts between the tribal unions culminated in the War of Banquan, in which Huang Di thoroughly defeated Yan Di and annexed all his tribes. The unified conglomeration of tribes formed the kernel of a growing body of people that would become the Chinese nation. Although Huang Di and Yan Di were hostile opponents, they have been equally remembered as the apical ancestors of the Chinese. Huang Di and his people rose to dominate the drainage areas of the Yellow River known as Zhongyuan, or the “Central Land.” The concepts of “Zhongyuan people” and “Zhongyuan culture” became categories to distinguish “self” from “others”: “Zhongyuan people” were “us”; “Zhongyuan culture” was “ours.” Those who were non-Zhongyuan were “others.”

During the so-called Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE–476 BCE) of the Zhou dynasty (c. eleventh century BCE–256 BCE), while the power of the king dwindled, that of the dukes and marquises grew stronger. They were engaged in constant wars of annexation, and by the end of that period, seven of the most powerful states survived. In 221 BCE, the Qin State finally wiped out the last of the other six states and unified China. With the establishment of the Qin dynasty (221 BCE–206 BCE), the Chinese nation took a definitive shape, which has perpetuated and enlarged itself into the early twenty-first century. The term China, and its equivalents in the other Western languages, derive from the Chinese word Qin (pronounced “chin”).


Ethnographic literature reveals that ethnocentrism seems to be a cultural universal by default. The ancient Chinese were no exception. They took pride in their sophisticated forms of writings, rituals, and music, while looking down upon those of all others. In early Chinese history, however, human differences were understood as cultural attributes that were individually acquired through enculturation. They were therefore changeable rather than innate and fixed biological features. Moreover, the early Chinese understood that cultural attributes of a certain group were not inherent to that group. Rather, they could be adopted by members of different groups. For the early Chinese, while members of barbarian groups could be civilized, members of civilized groups could also become barbarians. It all depended on what one chose to believe and how one chose to behave. All cultures and practices, of course, were judged against the standard of Zhongyuan culture.

The ancient Chinese summarized their ethnic environment into the conception of wufang, or the “five regions”— namely, the Central, East, South, West, and North. The region occupied by the people of Huang Di was called the Central Region, also known as Zhongyuan (Central Land) or Zhongguo (Central State, also the same term for “China” in contemporary Chinese). The people of Zhongyuan or Zhongguo called themselves Xia or Huaxia, with “Xia” meaning “big” or “great” and “Hua” meaning “beautiful” or “glorious.” The Xia called their neighbors to the east Yi, those to the south Man, those to the west Rong, and those to the north Di. The concept of the “five regions” was the Xia’s ethnocentric conceptualization of their ethnic environment. The names of the others were general terms referring to the numerous peoples who lived in those regions, rather than names of any peoples in their own languages.

From the second century BCE up to the early twentieth century, Confucianism was upheld as the orthodox ideology by each and every imperial dynasty of China, regardless of the ethnic origins of the rulers. In Confucian classics, there is a coherent and comprehensive theory regarding human differences. According to Confucianism, all human beings are born undifferentiated. Differences in human ways of thinking and behavior, as well as kinds and levels of ability, are results of differences in education. In Confucius’s own words: “Disregarding origin, everyone has the capacity to be educated. When the Yi-Di come to Zhongguo, they become (the people of) Zhongguo; when (the people of) Zhongguo go to (the regions of) Yi-Di, they become the Yi-Di. If the Yi-Di practice the rituals of the Huaxia, they are the Huaxia; if the Huaxia practice the rituals of the Yi-Di, they are the Yi-Di.”

This open, culturalistic approach to human differences made it possible for the later non-Huaxia rulers of the Chinese Empire to claim to be the legitimate inheritors of the orthodox Chinese tradition. It also enabled members of countless smaller groups to mingle into the ever-growing body of the Chinese nation.


Ethnic differences, however, often entail profound political and economic differences that cannot be easily settled by cultural attraction and voluntary assimilation. Records about conflict and culture-based prejudice and discrimination are replete in Chinese historical materials since earliest antiquity.

The Huaxia feared the Man-Yi or Yi-Di peoples even more for their uncivilized culture than for their brutal force. For the ancient Chinese, if the Man-Yi were unwilling to convert to Huaxia culture, they had to be kept away from the realm of the Huaxia. Confucius pointed out that “the Yi should never covet (the territory of) the Xia and disturb (the culture of) the Hua” and that “(Huaxia culture was so superior that) even a Yi-Di society with a king was lesser than a Xia society without a king.” During the Spring and Autumn period, Duke Huan of the Qi State established his hegemony among the competing aristocrats by touting the slogan “Revere the king and expel the Yi” (zun wang rang yi). After that, alarming cries, such as “those who are not of my group must have a different mind” (fei wo zulei, qixin biyi) and “keep a clear distinction between the Yi and the Xia” (yan Yi-Xia zhi fang), became a recurrent theme.

Chinese history entered a prolonged period of fragmentation in the third century CE, after more than four hundred years of unity. Whereas nomads of various ethnic backgrounds invaded from the north, successors to the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) were driven to the south. It was during this period of great cultural conflict and cross-fertilization that the agriculturalists who had been subjects of the former Han dynasty were generically called “Han” by the nomads. This label has since become the name of the dominant ethnic group in China.

During the period of split between the third and sixth centuries, suspicion and prejudice between the Han and non-Hans ran deep on each side. In a famous essay titled “On the Emigration of the Rong” (Xi rong lun), Jiang Tong (?–310) of the West Jin dynasty (265–317) forcefully states that the threat of the non-Hans is due to their ultimate cultural incompatibility with the Han, and he suggests the expulsion of the non-Hans from the Han-controlled areas. About the same time, several non-Han regimes in the north instituted segregation systems to rule their own people and the conquered Han separately.

In late imperial China, two of the nomad groups from the north, the Mongols and the Manchus, succeeded in establishing rule over the entire empire. Both the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) established by the Mongols and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) by the Manchus claimed their legitimacy based on the Confucian tradition and ruled their empires mainly with the Chinese bureaucratic institutions. At the same time, however, both also took draconian measures of discrimination against the Han in order to safeguard their rule of the minority. People with different ethnic origins had different access to social and political resources. They were also charged taxes and corvee at different rates, and they were subjected to differential criminal codes. Conversely, the Confucian open approach to ethnic differences notwithstanding, both the Yuan and Qing dynasties were overthrown by campaigns of the Han under exactly the same rallying cry: “Drive out the Tartar devils and recover China (quzhu dalu, huifu Zhonghua)!”


The Chinese enjoyed an assured sense of cultural superiority for thousands of years, until it was shattered by the British in the Opium War of 1840–1842. With painful humiliation, the Chinese were forced to assess the causes for the triumph of the Westerners, as well as for their own fiasco. With an urgent sense of desperation, a large number of Chinese intellectuals turned their attention away from the traditional single subject of Confucian classics to the diversified studies of the Western world. Among other Western theories, especially influential were Darwin’evolutionism (popularized in China at the time mostly through a loose translation of part of Thomas H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics) and Johann F. Blumenbach’s fivefold division of human races. In the course of reorienting their world by means of the newly borrowed ideas, the Chinese elites replaced “culture” with “race” as the determinant in their conceptualization of human differences.

Kang Youwei (1858–1927) was the most influential Chinese reformist and thinker by the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Based on a deeply rooted hierarchical conception of culture, and inspired by Blumenbach’racial classification, Kang determined that the “yellow race” should be strengthened through intermarriage with the “white race.” In his book expounding the philosophy of the “great unity” (Da Tong or Ta T’ung), Kang acknowledged the strength and prevalence of the white race. From there he proceeded to suggest that because the yellow race was both populous and wise, an indestructible new race could be produced by intermarriage between the white and the yellow. In addition, the children of this union should be raised in the Western way. According to Kang, while the yellow could be directly whitened, the darker-colored races (except the black) had to first be yellowed, through intermarriage with the yellow race, before they could be whitened. As to the “black race,” Kang thought they were so inferior that they had to first be sent to northern regions, such as North America and Scandinavia, to improve their breed before they could be yellowed and then whitened. According to Kang, the “great unity” of the world could be reached when all races were eventually whitened.

The utopian suggestion to reinvigorate China’s competitiveness by means of intermarriage with the white race was embraced by a considerable number of vanguard elites, and eugenics started to catch people’s imaginations. More and more social and cultural differences were subjected to examination through the prism of racism. In an attempt to understand the world anew, the intellectuals did not hesitate to reinterpret established categories with their newly acquired perspectives. Zhang Binglin (1868–1936), an early nationalist revolutionary and accomplished linguist, went so far as to suggest that while most humans, including the white, had derived from the yellow race, the Di descended from dogs and the Qiang descended from goats. He also reinterpreted culture in terms of consanguinity by proposing that “common culture derives from common blood lineage.”

As the racist perspective became the talk of the nation, the usage of the term race (zhongzu) also spilled out of Blumenbach’s five categories. The Han came to be referred to as the “Han race,” and the Manchu the “Manchu race.” Indeed, the revolution that overthrew the last Chinese imperial dynasty was characterized by the revolutionary leader, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, as a “racial revolution” against the Manchus.

Kang’s suggestion for the yellow to intermarry the white, of course, could be nothing but an unrequited wish. As much as he discriminated against the darker-colored “races,” the Chinese were discriminated against by the white. An epitome of such discrimination was a sign at the entrance of a park in the British concession in Shanghai reading “No Chinese or dogs are permitted to enter.” This sign became one of the best-known materials for patriotic education in China. Becoming victims of racial discrimination, however, did not prompt the Chinese to categorically condemn racism. The notion of the biology-based and hierarchically differentiated races came to China under the rubric of science, and science was a newly found path to modernization. As a proud nation that had just lost its long-standing cultural confidence, the Chinese were too preoccupied with the desire for revival to circumspectly reflect upon the notion of racism. To the Chinese at the turn of the twentieth century, discrimination and oppression by Westerners were simply understood as due to differences in wealth, technology, and military prowess. They believed that if China could strengthen itself in those areas, the nation could rid itself of the humiliation and recover its freedom and glory. Thus, with a strong sense of loss and perplexity, and in a hasty reaction to the adverse reality, the Chinese internalized the concept of racism and justified both the racism of others against themselves and their racism against others.

More than a hundred years later, despite much progress in the social sciences and many changes in official discourse, this racist legacy still lingers among the average Chinese. In a press conference held immediately after the men’s 110-meter hurdles in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the Chinese gold medalist Liu Xiang remarked: “I did not think of many things (to be possible). I did not think I could possibly win the gold medal. … Now that I finished within 13 seconds, it is proven that the yellow-skinned Chinese can also do well in short distance track games. I thought it was a miracle. It was unbelievable” (Hao et al 2004, Internet site). In dispelling the myth of racial inferiority of the yellow-skinned Chinese, Liu also testified to the tenacious presence of racism in China.

SEE ALSO Language.


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Chuan-kang Shih