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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach

Chapter 7. Race in China

Frank Dikötter

Note de l’éditeur

The main part of this chapter is based on Dikötter 2002a, reproduced with permission from the publisher.

Texte intégral

The construction of the Han

1Dikötter on his approach to the study of China
I do not generally like to describe myself specifically as a historian of China, as I identify more with the general field of historical practice rather than with any particular geographical location. When we study such global trends as ”nationalism” or ”state formation,” it does not make much sense to confine oneself to ”Chinese history” or ”French history,” as if these subfields somehow stood on their own. It might be more useful, and challenging, to link particular local contexts with global history. In many cases, for instance the history of eugenics or race, it makes more sense to approach history globally and see how particular ideas or practices are domesticated into a local context. ”Global history” does not mean that one has to study the entire world—but it does entail a certain sensibility towards the global context within which social groups have inevitably operated over the past few centuries. ”Global” cannot be reduced either to a study of ”China and the West”: all too often, historians of China tend to view the world in terms of China and its alter ego, namely Europe and Japan: Africa is hardly mentioned, while the tools of research historians of Africa have forged (oral history being a prime example) are rarely taken on board.
The importance of history
If the study of history teaches students anything at all, it would probably be critical thinking, in particular a critical reflection on the present. The object of study of historians is time, in particular changes over time. Who can operate within a framework that ignores time? Whether one is an anthropologist, whether one works on economic theory or studies the politics of China today—one needs to include an understanding of the ”before,” however the ”before” is defined. Our understanding of what happened in the ”past,” however, is all too often based on cliches which often do more to legitimize the ”present” than to question it: many popular notions about the past crumble as soon as one subjects them to closer historical analysis.
The purpose to this chapter is to query a number of notions that appear to be deceptively stable and unproblematic.
For example, as the anthropologist Benedict Anderson asserts, nations never precede nationalism. Nationalism creates nations. Ideology appears first, and not the other way around. Only after a long process of social habituation do people in particular parts of the world start feeling that they are ”Dutch” or ”Chinese.” This is a process that Duara describes in his chapter, The Legacy of Empires and Nations in East Asia.
Denaturalizing race
I would like to denaturalize another notion, namely that of ”race.” As a historian, I do not see ”race” as a straightforward and unproblematic term used to describe ”real” biological differences between groups of people, but as a new—and spurious—social construct which became globally dominant roughly from the 1870s to the Second World War. Racial theories invoked the legitimacy of science to construct boundaries between social groups which were portrayed as rooted in ”nature”: ”race” naturalized social and political divisions, as if political inequalities between Europe and the colonies were not contingent and open to contestation, but based on more permanent evolutionary laws. Many social elites around the globe started classifying humanity into distinct groups on the basis of their skin color, hair, body height, and other morphological features considered to be “typical,” thus justifying differential treatment in the name of ”science.”
The modernist desire to classify, count, and rank may well date roughly from the eighteenth century, but the definitions of ”race” that developed during this particular period have retained their currency to the present day. Until recently, for example, it was common in the social sciences to study ”race” not as a social construct to be questioned, but as a useful classifier in an approach widely known as ”race relations”: one did not undermine the legitimacy of the notion of ”race” by studying how it came into existence, but rather how different ”races” related to each other. Historians and sociologists would study South Africa, for example, by asking how white people related to black people and how apartheid characterized the relationships between these two groups. They did not question the very unit of analysis, namely ”race,” and the ways in which various groups from Europe came to see themselves as ”whites” and lumped very different linguistic, social, and cultural groups in Africa together under the label of ”blacks.” In short, they continued to see the world in ”black” and ”white,” rather than as a mosaic of very different social groups polarized into opposites for reasons related to power.
Very much linked to the ”race relations” approach was a certain vocabulary, much of which is still prevalent today. ”Prejudice” is one such term, meaning quite literally that a judgment is made before any analytical or cognitive faculties have been used. ”Prejudice” is seen as a raw instinct, an emotional dislike of another ”race.” This term is of course very problematic, because in the last few decades a whole body of scholarship has shown that racism is not so much the result of a ”prejudgment” but precisely the outcome of a long process of habituation and education. Racism is part of a social cosmology that has been painstakingly constructed and inculcated by particular social groups via culture. ”Race,” in short, is not a biological reality; it is a social construct.
By that I do not mean to say that there are no real phenotypical distinctions between—say, just to stick to South Africa—somebody who is Zulu, or the son of a Zulu, and somebody who is the son of a Boer, a Dutch peasant, who was born in South Africa. The problem is that the ”phenotypical” differences between these two groups are smaller than the ”phenotypical” differences one can find within each group: the boundaries, in short, are spurious, given the huge amount of variation which occurs between individuals of the human species. A whole body of scholarship from the 1930s onwards questions the justification for making these strict boundaries between human groups. The human species is marked by enormous variety. It is very difficult to say where a ”racial” boundary would start, or what one should take as a measure of ”race”—skin ”color,” hair color, eye shape, body height, etc.
Another important observation is that population geneticists have long found that the surface features racial theorists refer to (the visible traits) represent only a very small portion of the genotype. To put it briefly, appearances cannot be trusted.
What could be done instead of the ”race relations” approach, in the case of South Africa, is to ask how and why a group of immigrants from Europe started to define themselves as ”white,” and how and why they started amalgamating a huge variety of very different people into one homogeneous group referred to as ”blacks,” rather than Zulu or Bantu. The question is how something that we as historians would call ”social” becomes defined as biological: in short, how are social groups biologized, or ”racialized.” ”Racialization” is a convenient term because it so clearly emphasizes the fact that ”races” are not out there to be discovered, but are socially constructed as such within a given historical context for particular political reasons.
What I find particularly interesting is that European theories of race—and many very different ones were proposed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—were taken on board in other parts of the world. I would like to look at China in particular as an example of the local inculturation of a global trend.
The legitimate question is sometimes raised that if one defines ”race” as a social construct, the importance and resilience of racism is somehow played down. My answer is that the fact that ”race” is a social construct does not make it any less real socially and politically: ”races” may not be biologically real, but they are socially all too real, in particular for the many individuals who are socially discriminated, politically excluded, or economically marginalized as a result of racialized practices. Racial discrimination in Europe and in other places around the globe can be experienced on a daily basis. Any person socially perceived to be other than ”white” is very likely to be treated unequally in London today, whether by a bus driver, a police officer, or a formal employer: entire institutions discriminate on a systematic basis. ”Race” may well be a folk notion rather than a viable ”scientific” concept, but its social reality is all too pervasive and tangible for the many it excludes.

2While over fifty different “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu) are officially recognized to exist in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), well over 90% of the population are classified as Han, a term translated in English as “ethnic Chinese” or “Chinese of native stock.” Despite the existence in China of cultural, linguistic, and regional differences which are as great as those to be found in Europe, the Han are claimed by mainland officials to be a homogeneous ethnic group (minzu) with common origins, a shared history, and an ancestral territory. “Han” and “Chinese” have become virtually identical not only within official rhetoric and scholarly discourse in the PRC, but also in the eyes of many foreign scholars. Eric Hobsbawm, in an influential book that highlights the extent to which nations are social constructs rather than universal givens, perpetuates the notion of a Han majority by noting that China is among “the extremely rare examples of historic states composed of a population that is ethnically almost or entirely homogeneous” (Hobsbawm 1990: 66).

3Only recently have some researchers started to refute the notion of an ethnic majority and attempted to describe China as a mosaic composed of many culturally diverse groups within the so-called “Han” (Moser 1985, Gladney 1991). While references did exist in traditional China to the descendants of the various Han dynasties (206 BC—AD 220), the representation of the “Han” as an ethnically integrated majority is a modern phenomenon intrinsically linked to the rise of nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century. The idea of a Han majority can be considered to be a modern invention used by nationalist elites to forge a sense of common identity among the various population groups of China in contradistinction to foreign powers who threatened the country and to the Manchus who ruled the Qing empire until its fall in 1911.

4As in many other countries, moreover, racial theories have been essential in the construction of group identity in China throughout much of the twentieth century. As Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925)—founder of the Kuomintang, China’s Nationalist Party, and widely accepted as the “father” of the nation in China and in Taiwan to this day—put it in his famous Three Principles of the People, “The greatest force is common blood. The Chinese belong to the yellow race because they come from the blood stock of the yellow race. The blood of ancestors is transmitted by heredity down through the race, making blood kinship a powerful force” (Sun 1927: 4–5). Sun Yat-sen and other political leaders considered the Han to constitute the absolute majority in China, a distinct people with shared physical attributes and a line of blood which could be traced back to the most ancient period. If socially constructed “races” are population groups which are imagined to have boundaries based on real or imagined biological characteristics, and if they can be contrasted to socially constructed “ethnicities,” which are population groups thought to be based on culturally acquired characteristics, then both were seen to be coterminous by political elites in modern China: ideas of “culture,” “ethnicity” and “race,” in other words, were often conflated by political and intellectual elites in order to represent cultural features as secondary to and derivative of an imagined racial specificity.

5Politics have been an essential factor in the emergence of racial discourse in modern China: in order to legitimize control over the territory which was part of the imperial realm until 1911, the political leaders of the Republic until 1949 and the People’s Republic after 1949 have reinvented subject peoples in border areas as mere subbranches of the Han. This assimilationist vision emphasizes both the organic entity of all the peoples living within the political boundaries of China and the inevitable fusion of non-Han groups into a broader Chinese nation dominated by the Han: the political boundaries of the state, in short, could be claimed to be based on a more profound biological unity between the various peoples of China. Chiang Kai—shek, the effective head of the Nationalist Republic from 1927 to 1949 and the leader of the Kuomintang, clearly expressed this vision of the nation as a culturally diverse but racially unified entity in his important work entitled China’s Destiny, written during the fight against Japan in the Second World War:

Our various clans actually belong to the same nation, as well as to the same racial stock. Therefore, there is an inner factor closely linking the historical destiny of common existence and common sorrow and joy of the whole Chinese nation. That there are five people designated in China is not due to differences in race or blood, but to religion and geographical environment. In short, the differentiation among China’s five peoples is due to regional and religious factors, and not to race or blood. This fact must be thoroughly understood by all our fellow countrymen (Chiang 1947: 39–40).

The new episteme of Western science

6While this assimilationist vision is closely linked to the politics of national unity, its legitimacy has primarily been based on science. Racial theories were only made possible by the advent of scientific knowledge in Europe from the late eighteenth century onwards, as science offered a whole new episteme from which relationship between culture and biology could for the first time be systematically imagined. Racial theories, first in parts of Europe and gradually in other points of the globe, sought to explain cultural differences as natural differences and to represent social groups as biological units: racial theorists appropriated science, from craniology to genetics, in order to present the group boundaries they had constructed as objectively grounded in natural laws. In Europe, China, and many other parts of the globe, negative attitudes about the physical appearance of individuals or population groups can be found before modernity, but these attitudes rarely formed a coherent system that could provide legitimacy to social inclusions or exclusions.

7The politics of nationalism and the episteme of science were both intrinsic to modernity and only appeared in China with the reform movement, which gained momentum after China’s defeat against Japan in 1894–95. Imperial reformers after 1895 proposed to strengthen the country in its confrontation with foreign powers by reforming the thought and behavior of all the people. The first to systematically articulate a distinctly nationalist agenda of reform in which all citizens would participate in the revival of the country, they promoted an alternative body of knowledge which derived its legitimacy independently of the official examination system, based on the Confucian classics. The new knowledge deployed by the reformers—a complex fusion of different indigenous strains of learning with foreign discursive repertoires—was marked by an appeal to ‘science’ as a legitimizing force. It was also influenced by historical developments specific to the Qing dynasty.

The reconfiguration of lineage discourse and the emergence of racial taxonomies

The fallacy of ”culturalism” versus racism

8As noted above, racial theories were dependent on the new episteme of science, which appeared only from the late eighteenth century onwards in parts of Europe before emerging elsewhere across the globe. Attitudes towards out-groups in imperial China have often been described as “culturalist”: lack of adherence to the cultural norms and ritual practices of Confucianism were the principal markers distinguishing outsiders, often referred to as “barbarians,” from insiders. In an assimilationist vision, however, barbarians could be culturally absorbed—laihua, “come and be transformed,” or hanhua, “become Chinese.”

9The Chunqiu, a chronological history of the Spring and Autumn period (722481 BC) traditionally attributed to Confucius, hinged on the idea of cultural assimilation. In his commentary on the Gongyang, He Xiu (129–182 AD) later distinguished between the zhuxia, the “various people of Xia [the first Chinese empire],” and the Yi and Di barbarians, living outside the scope of the Chinese cultural sphere. In the Age of Great Peace, an allegorical concept similar to the Golden Age in the West, the barbarians would flow in and be transformed: the world would be one. Some researchers have questioned the “culturalist” thesis by drawing attention to passages from the Classics of Confucianism which are apparently incompatible with the concept of cultural universalism. Most quoted is the Zuozhuan (fourth century BC), a feudal chronicle: “If he is not of our race, he is sure to have a different mind” (fei wo zulei, qi xin bi yi). This sentence seems to support the allegation that at least some degree of “racial discrimination” existed during the early stages of Chinese civilization.

10Both interpretations, however, have in common the adoption of a modern conceptual framework that distinguishes sharply between “culture” and “race,” a distinction that was not clearly expressed before the advent of modernity. In China and in many other parts of the globe, physical markers and cultural characteristics were rarely separated, nor were perceived bodily differences rationalized into a coherent system that might confer legitimacy to exclusionary practices. A revealing illustration of the lack of distinction between “race” and “culture” appears in a twelfth-century description of African slaves, bought from Arab merchants by rich merchants in Canton:

Their color is black as ink, their lips are red and their teeth white, their hair is curly and yellow. There are males and females ... They live in the mountains (or islands) beyond the seas. They eat raw things. If, in captivity, they are fed on cooked food, after several days they get diarrhoea. This is called “changing the bowels” [huanchang]. For this reason they sometimes fall ill and die; if they do not die one can keep them, and after having been kept a long time they begin to understand human speech [i.e. Chinese], although they themselves cannot speak it (Duyvendak 1949: 24).

11In popular Daoism, a human had to change bones (huangu) in order to become immortal: by analogy, African slaves were expected to change bowels (huanchang) to become half-human. A physical transformation, in other words, was perceived to be an intrinsic part of cultural assimilation. Even in the nineteenth century, scholar-officials like Xu Jiyu who had extended contact with European traders and were familiar with world geography wrote how “the hair and eyes of some [Europeans] gradually turn black when they come to China and stay for a long time. The features of such men and women half-resemble the Chinese.” If it could be shown that negative representations of physical markers existed in traditional China (Dokötter 1992), no concept of “race” or any systematic attempt to classify population groups on the basis of such markers existed until the emergence of modernity in the 1890s.

12While long-standing attitudes towards physical characteristics may have facilitated the appearance of racial identities in China after 1895, several historical factors were more directly relevant, namely (1) the social institution and cultural discourse of the lineage, (2) the search for wealth, power, and unity by the reformers after the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–5 and (3) the anti-Manchu nationalism of the revolutionaries in the first decade of this century. Lineage discourse under the Qing—a dynasty founded in 1644 by the Manchus after their invasion of China—was perhaps one of the most prominent building blocks in the construction of symbolic boundaries between racially defined groups of people.

The lineage

13The Qing era was marked by a consolidation of the cult of patrilineal descent, center of a broad movement of social reform that had emphasized the family and the lineage (zu) since the collapse of the Ming. Considerable friction arose between lineages throughout the nineteenth century in response to heightened competition over natural resources, the need to control market towns, the gradual erosion of social order and organization disorders caused by demographic pressures. Lineage feuds as well as interethnic conflicts (fenlei xiedou) prevailed throughout the empire, but were more common in the southeast, where lineages had grown more powerful than in the north (Lamley 1977). The militarization of powerful lineages reinforced folk models of kinship solidarity, forcing in turn more loosely organized associations to form a unified descent group under the leadership of the gentry. At court level too, ideologies of descent became increasingly important, in particular with the erosion of a sense of cultural identity among Manchu aristocrats. Pamela Crossley has shown how ethnic identity through patrilineal descent became important in the Qianlong period (1736–95), when the court progressively turned towards a rigid taxonomy of distinct descent lines (zu) to distinguish between Han, Manchu, Mongol, or Tibetan (Crossley 1990). Within three distinct social levels—popular culture, gentry society, and court politics—the common notion of patrilineal descent came to be deployed on a widespread scale in the creation and maintenance of group boundaries.

The reform movement

14Spence on the Chinese Empire in the late 19th century
in The Search for Modern China. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990; pp. 139–141.
China’s Confucian-trained scholars were aware of the moral and economic pressures on their society in the early nineteenth century. Drawing on the intellectual tradition in which they had been raised, they proposed administrative and educational reforms, warned about the rapidly rising population, and urged greater fairness in the distribution of wealth. Some also pointed to the social inequities separating men and women, and pleaded for greater sensitivity toward the status of women in daily life.
The spread of opium addiction posed a particularly complex social dilemma. Scholars, officials, and the emperor himself were torn over whether to legalize the drug or ban it absolutely. At the same time, massive British investments in the drug’s manufacture and distribution, and the critical part that opium revenues played in Britain’s international balance-of-payments strategy, made the opium trade a central facet of that nation’s foreign policy. The Qing, believing the problem to be a domestic one, decided to ban the drug. The British responded with force of arms. Defeating the Qing, they imposed a treaty in 1842 that fundamentally altered the structure of Qing relations with foreign powers, and ended the long cycle of history in which China’s rulers had imposed effective controls over all foreigners resident on their soil.
This new foreign presence in China coincided with—and doubtless contributed to—new waves of domestic turbulence. Uprisings against the Qing had been growing in frequency during the later eighteenth century. The widening social dislocations of the nineteenth century brought even greater unrest, until in mid-century four major rebellions erupted, at least two of which—the Taiping and Nian—had the potential to overthrow the dynasty. The Taiping was based on fundamentalist Christian and egalitarian principles that cut at the heart of Confucian and imperial values; the Nian introduced new patterns of mobile guerilla warfare that threatened the prestige of the state’s basic military institutions. The other two rebellions, both led by Muslims, broke out in China’s far southwest and northwest, and challenged the hold of the Qing over the non-Chinese peoples in its more inaccessible regions. Only an extraordinary series of military campaigns led by Confucian-trained scholars who put their loyalty to traditional Chinese values above all else, and were determined to perpetuate the prevailing social, educational, and family systems, enabled the Qing dynasty to survive.
The irony was that, in winning their great victories, Confucian statesmen were drawn to emulate and adopt certain elements of foreign military technology and international law that were ultimately to undermine the sanctity of the very values they endeavored to preserve. But initially such consequences could not be foreseen, and in the name of self-strengthening the Qing not only established new arsenals for arms manufacture and shipbuilding, they also set up schools to teach foreign languages, hired foreigners to collect customs dues on an equitable basis, tried to hire a small fleet of Western ships and seamen, and established the equivalent of a Foreign Ministry, the first such institution in China.
Relations between Chinese and foreigners remained strained, however. Anti-missionary outbreaks in China were matched by anti-Chinese outrages in the United States, and the flow of Chinese immigrants was ultimately slashed back by a series of unilateral American restrictions. In both cases, misunderstandings of the other’s culture and goals abounded, even though personal efforts made clear the possibilities for tenderness, compassion, and imaginative adaptation between the races.
By the late nineteenth century, despite the foreign pressures and domestic turbulence, it looked as if the Qing might construct a viable new synthesis. But the many achievements in the application of foreign technology to China’s military and industrial needs were shattered by two defeats that the Chinese suffered in brief yet bitter wars—one with the French and one with the Japanese—that left much of China’s vaunted ”modern” navy at the bottom of the sea. When a burst of reforming zeal in 1898 was stillborn because of conservative opposition, the stage was set for the Boxer Uprising of 1900, in which a profound anti-Westernism led to widespread attacks on foreign missionaries and their converts. The Boxers were suppressed by foreign force, but in their wake came the first signs of a growing anti-Manchu Chinese nationalism, expressed in newspaper articles and pamphlets, in economic boycotts, and in a flurry of insurrectionary activity aimed at undercutting the power of the Qing state from within.
The final attempt of the Qing to rally their dynastic forces was a potentially effective mix of political, military, and economic reform: there were experiments in constitutional government on Western models, efforts at rearming and reorganizing the army along Western lines, and a move to gain a stronger hold over China’s economy by developing a centralized railway network. Yet, the combination, instead of bringing stability, brought confrontations and new layers of misunderstanding. The constitutional assemblies established in each province provided a focus for criticism of the Qing and for the emergence of local interests. The vision of a tough, modernized army under skilled Manchu direction could not but be threatening to Chinese nationalists dreaming of their own future independence from the Qing. And the government’s attempts to centralize railways and use foreign loans to do so angered provincial investors and patriots alike. When these flames of dissent were skillfully fanned by radical leaders and their impatient followers, the Qing found its foundations seriously undermined.
Helpless in the face of a military mutiny that erupted in late 1911, the Manchus saw no choice by early 1912 but to abdicate their power and declare the Qing dynasty at an end. There remained a crucial vacuum at the center of the Chinese state and no specially talented leaders were able to fill it, only various groupings with rival ideologies and claims. The legacy of dynastic collapse was not a confident new republic, but a period of civil war and intellectual disorder that, tragically for the Chinese people, was even harsher than the period that had followed the fall of the Ming 268 years before. Yet amid the confusion, the dreams for a strong China held out by statecraft thinkers, self-strengtheners, constitutional reformers, and revolutionaries were never wholly eclipsed. The constructive aspect of the last century of Qing rule was that the idea of China’s greatness was not allowed to die.

15The 1898 reformers, who championed a radical transformation of imperial institutions and orthodox ideology, understood the notion of “race” on the basis on the lineage. Leading reformers like Liang Qichao (1873–1929) and Kang Youwei (1858–1927) selectively appropriated scientific knowledge from foreign discursive repertoires to invent a new sense of group identity. In search of wealth and power in the wake of the country’s disastrous defeat against Japan, in need of a unifying concept capable of binding all the emperor’s subjects together in a powerful nation which could resist the foreign encroachments which had started with the first Opium War (1839–1842), the reformers used new evolutionary theories to present the world as a battlefield in which different races struggled for survival. They also appealed to patrilineal culture in order to represent all inhabitants of China as the descendants of the Yellow Emperor. Extrapolating from an indigenous vision of lineage feuds, which permeated the social landscape of late imperial China, the reformers constructed a racialized worldview in which “yellows” competed with “whites” over degenerate breeds of “browns,” “blacks” and “reds.”

16Thriving on its affinity with lineage discourse, the notion of “race” gradually emerged as the most common symbol of national cohesion, permanently replacing more conventional emblems of cultural identity. The threat of racial extinction (miezhong), a powerful message of fear based on more popular anxieties about lineage extinction (miezu), was often raised to bolster the reformers’ message of change in the face of imperialist aggressions: “They will enslave us and hinder the development of our spirit and body ... The brown and black races constantly waver between life and death, why not the 400 million of yellows?” (Yan 1959: 22). In the reformers’ symbolic network of racialized others, the dominating “white” and “yellow races” were opposed to the “darker races,” doomed to racial extinction by hereditary inadequacy. The social hierarchy which existed between different groups of people in the empire was expanded into a vision of racial hierarchy characterized by “noble” (guizhong) and “low” (jianzhong), “superior” (youzhong) and “inferior” (liezhong), “historical” and “ahistorical races” (youlishi de zhongzu). The distinction between “common people” (liangmin) and “mean people” (jianmin), widespread in China until the early eighteenth century, found an echo in Tang Caichang (1867–1900), who opposed “fine races” (liangzhong) to “mean races” (jianzhong). He phrased it in evenly balanced clauses reminiscent of his classical education: “Yellow and white are wise, red and black are stupid; yellow and white are rulers, red and black are slaves; yellow and white are united, red and black are scattered” (Tang 1968: 468).

The influence of social Darwinism

17Selectively appropriating social-Darwinian theories, the reformers claimed that racial survival (baozhong) in a context of international competition was the inescapable consequence of profound evolutionary forces. Rather than appealing to Charles Darwin’s emphasis on competition between individuals of the same species, however, most reformers were inspired by Herbert Spencer’s focus on group selection. For reformers like Yan Fu, Liang Qichao, and Kang Youwei, processes of evolution were directed by the principle of racial grouping, as individuals of a race should unite in order to survive in the struggle for existence much as each cell contributed to the overall health of a living organism. Apart from the individualistic basis for competition, the reformers also ignored the neo-Darwinian emphasis on the branching process of evolution.

18Dikötter on social evolutionary theories in China
Although we assume that evolutionary theories took on a life of their own very quickly in Europe and elsewhere, this is not always quite true. In some parts of the world, such as the United States and France, religion played a major role in dampening the spread of evolutionary theories, whereas in China or in Japan, they encountered very little cultural resistance. In the Arab world, some Christian intellectuals adopted popular slogans of struggle for survival, although in general, the theory of evolution was interpreted in terms of Quranic authority: most intellectuals rejected the evolutionist justification of war. Some translators of Darwin, for instance, replaced struggle and competition by cooperation and striving for the happiness of the whole, while others used evolutionary theory to appeal to the idea of mutual aid.
Even where evolutionary theories did spread, one must look at which particular interpretations were appropriated and which ones were abandoned. Evolutionary theories were not homogeneous; in fact, they could be linked to opposite political philosophies. Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, for instance, was quite different from Herbert Spencer’s in three respects—apart from the fact that Darwin never explicitly referred to humans in his theoretical work. First, Darwin emphasized evolution at the level of the individual. Individual giraffes or individual bees were the ones that carried forward evolutionary changes. For Herbert Spencer, the emphasis was on the group instead: entire species underwent an evolutionary process. Secondly, Darwinians viewed evolution as a branching process of diversification as various species evolved over time: the human was a cousin of the ape rather than its descendant. For Spencerians, on the other hand, evolution was portrayed as a unilinear process: fish, pigs, monkeys, humans were all stages of a linear hierarchy. The human fetus went through all these different stages: if one took a human fetus at month two, it looked like a fish; at month eight, it resembled a monkey, with tail and hair; it shed the tail finally to become fully human at month nine. Spencer thus represented evolution as a ladder: some species went up the ladder further than others, but all initially shared the lower rungs.
The third distinction was that Darwin believed evolution to take place in discreet steps. Take the example of the giraffe. Giraffes, according to Darwinians, have very long necks because at some point one particular individual in the giraffe population was born by accident rather than design with a much longer neck. This neck allowed it to eat many more leaves near the top of the trees than others, thus surviving longer and having more descendants. For Spencer, on the other hand, it was not the individual giraffe with a longer neck that mattered. He believed that by stretching their necks all the time, giraffes as a group were born with longer and longer necks. Historians refer to this theory as the inheritance of acquired characteristics: characteristics acquired in a lifetime can be transmitted to the next generation. In the same vein, human groups can educate their children, who will then give birth to morally and physically better-endowed children, thus improving the overall quality of the population.
Needless to say, these are very different views on evolution. Neo-Darwinists emphasized individual competition, a view that became common in England in a climate of free capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century. Successful entrepreneurs could thus portray themselves as “fitter” to survive than others by virtue of an inherent superiority: I am rich and successful, why should I have to pay taxes that allow the poor and unfit to survive and have children, many wondered. I am fit to survive, you are fit to die, could well be one of the conclusions derived from the use of Charles Darwin’s theory to contemporary society.
From Herbert Spencer’s point of view, the group as a whole should fight against another group, regardless of the differences that might exist between the individuals of that group. It was this sort of evolutionary view that Yan Fu and other reformers proposed in China during the late nineteenth century. They emphasized the qun, or the “group,” at the expense of the individual. Individually, the reformers thought, we may be weak in our confrontation with the West, but united as a race we are—to use a currently popular term—youxiu, “superior.”
In this sort of evolutionary view, “race” was not understood to be a “genetically” fixed reality, but rather a very flexible and malleable essence open to improvement. Yan Fu, for example, did not believe that the “yellow race” was doomed to remain on an inferior rung of the ladder. He thought that social and economic progress could be translated into racial betterment. On the other hand, jinhua, or “evolution” (literally “advancement”) faced tuihua, or “devolution” (literally “regression”). His message of change thus carried a warning: if China failed to reform, the country might degenerate even further and descend on the scales of human evolution.

19They adopted a Neo-Lamarckian theory of linear evolution, which viewed human development as a single line of ascent from the apes: the embryo developed in a purposeful way towards maturity, and this process could be guided by changes to the social and political environment. Neo-Lamarckism offered a flexible vision of evolution, which closely suited the political agenda of the reformers, as human progress in the realm of politics was seen to be conducive to the racial improvement of the species.

Anti-Manchu nationalism

20The reformers proposed a form of constitutional monarchy that would include the Manchu emperor: their notion of a “yellow race” (huangzhong) was broad enough to include all the people living in the Middle Kingdom. In the wake of the abortive Hundred Days Reform of 1898, which ended when the empress dowager rescinded all the reform decrees and executed several reformer officials, a number of radical intellectuals started advocating the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty: not without resonance to the 1789 and 1848 political revolutions in Europe, the anti-Manchu revolutionaries represented the ruling elites as an inferior “race” which was responsible for the disastrous policies which had led to the decline of the country, while most inhabitants of China were perceived to be part of a homogeneous Han race. In search of national unity, the very notion of a Han race emerged in a relational context of opposition both to foreign powers and to the ruling Manchus. For the revolutionaries, the notion of a “yellow race” was not entirely adequate as it included the much-reviled Manchus. Whereas the reformers perceived race (zhongzu) as a biological extension of the lineage (zu), encompassing all people dwelling on the soil of the Yellow Emperor, the revolutionaries excluded the Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans, and other population groups from their definition of race, which was narrowed down to the Han, who were referred to as a minzu.

21Minzu, a key term used interchangeably for both “ethnic group” and “nationality” after 1949, referred to a common descent group with a distinct culture and territory. During the incipient period of 1902 to 1911, moreover, minzu as a term was used to promote symbolic boundaries of blood and descent: “nationalities” as political units were equated with “races” as biological units. In the nationalist ideology of the first decade of this century, minzu was thought to be based on a quantifiable number of people called “Han,” a group with clear boundaries by virtue of imagined blood and descent. Sun Yat-sen became one of the principal proponents of a Chinese minzu, which he claimed was linked primarily by “common blood.” Minzuzhuyi, or “the doctrine of the minzu,became the term used to translate into Chinese the ideology of nationalism, thus clearly indicating the overlap that was envisaged between nation and race. Nationalism was the first principle of Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, and both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have adopted it.

22Elevating the figure of the Yellow Emperor to a national symbol sealed the myth of blood. The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) was a mythical figure thought to have reigned from 2697 to 2597 BC. He was hailed as the first ancestor (shizu) of the Han race, and his portrait served as the frontispiece in many nationalist publications. From mid-1903, the revolutionaries started using dates based on the supposed birthday of the Yellow Emperor. Liu Shipei (1884–1919), for instance, published an article advocating the introduction of a calendar in which the foundation year corresponded to the birth of the Yellow Emperor. “They [the reformers] see the preservation of religion [baojiao] as a handle, so they use the birth of Confucius as the starting date of the calendar; the purpose of our generation is the preservation of the race [baozhong], so we use the birth of the Yellow Emperor as a founding date” (Liu 1968: 1).

23The vision of racial grouping elaborated by the revolutionaries fighting for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty is eloquently illustrated by Zou Rong, one of the more influential nationalists.

24The revolutionaries constructed a new sense of identity that narrowly focused on the Han race, pictured as a perennial biological unit descended from a mythological ancestor. By 1911, culture, nation, and race had become coterminous for many revolutionaries fighting the Qing dynasty.

Racial discourse in republican China

25The Qing empire collapsed in 1911, a momentous political event which was marked by a number of important developments, for instance the rapid transformation of the traditional gentry into powerful new elites, such as factory managers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, educators, and journalists. The result of new economic opportunities created through contacts with Western traders and the closer integration of the country into a global economy, the gradual emergence of new social formations was particularly pronounced in the large metropoles of the coast. Based on a common ground of social values, a sophisticated network of relations webbed intellectuals, urban notables, and financial elites together into a modernizing avant-garde.

26With the collapse of the imperial system, moreover, neo-Confucian knowledge rapidly lost its credibility and authority. With the decline of conformity to the moral imperatives enshrined in a canon of Confucian texts, a growing number of modern—educated people believed “truth” to be encoded in a nature which only science could decrypt. Identity, ancestry, and meaning were buried deep inside the body: anthropology or genetics, by probing the body, could establish the “natural” differences between population groups. Modern science, in the eyes of modernizing elites, came to replace imperial cosmology as the epistemological foundation for claims about social order. These elites viewed race as a credible concept capable of promoting national unity after the collapse of the imperial system. Not only was “race” deemed to be an objective, universal and scientifically observable given, but it also fulfilled a unifying role in the politics of the nation: it promoted unity against foreign aggressors and suppressed internal divisions. Even the “peasants with weather-beaten faces and mud-caked hands and feet” could be represented as the descendants of the Yellow Emperor, as “race” was a notion that could overarch gender, lineage, class, and region to conceptually integrate the country’s people into a powerful community organically linked by blood.

The dissemination of racial theories

  • * This section is based on Dikötter 1992.

27Racial theories were not confined to the ruling elites concerned with the unity of the nation. With the rise of a new print culture, driven by many private publishing houses and by the general growth in literacy after the fall of the empire, a vernacular press appeared which facilitated the circulation of new forms of group identity. Public consumption of new publications that heralded the demise of “primitive races” and the regeneration of the “yellow race” contributed to the spread of racial theories. Racial categories of analysis, disseminated by the new print culture, were consolidated by endless references to science*. Chen Yucang (1889–1947), director of the Medical College of Tongji University and a secretary to the Legislative Yuan, boldly postulated that the degree of civilization was the only indicator of cranial weight: “If we compare the cranial weights of different people, the civilized are somewhat heavier than the savages, and the Chinese brain is a bit heavier than the European brain.” Liang Boqiang, in an oft-quoted study on the “Chinese race” published in 1926, took the blood’s “index of agglutination” as an indicator of purity, while the absence of body hair came to symbolize a biological boundary of the “Chinese race” for a popular writer like Lin Yutang (1895–1976), who even proclaimed that “on good authority from medical doctors, and from references in writing, one knows that a perfectly bare mons veneris is not uncommon in Chinese women.” Archaeologists, on the other hand, sought evidence of human beginnings in China. Like many of his contemporaries, Lin Yan cited the discovery of Beijing Man at Zhoukoudian as evidence that the “Chinese race” had existed on the soil of the Middle Kingdom since the earliest stage of civilization. Excavations supported his hypothesis by demonstrating that migrations had taken place only within the empire. It was concluded that China was inhabited by “the earth’s most ancient original inhabitants.”

28Modernizing elites were instrumental in the dissemination of racial theories among the general public by means of school textbooks, anthropology exhibitions, and travel literature. Print culture even reached the lower levels of education, spreading racial theories via the curriculum. The opening sentence of a chapter on “human races” in a 1920 textbook for middle schools declared that “among the world’s races, there are strong and weak constitutions, there are black and white skins, there is hard and soft hair, there are superior and inferior cultures. A rapid overview shows that they are not of the same level.” Even in primary schools, readings on racial politics became part of the curriculum:

Mankind is divided into five races. The yellow and white races are relatively strong and intelligent. Because the other races are feeble and stupid, they are being exterminated by the white race. Only the yellow race competes with the white race. This is so-called evolution [...] Among the contemporary races that could be called superior, there are only the yellow and the white races. China is the yellow race.

29Although it is clear that individual writers, political groups and academic institutions had different ideas about the meanings of physical features, many modern-educated people in China had come to identify themselves and others in terms of “race” by the end of the Republican period.

30Some isolated voices in China openly contested the existence of a racial taxonomy in mankind: Zhang Junmai, for instance, wisely excluded “common blood” from his definition of the nation. Qi Sihe also criticized the use of racial categories of analysis in China, and pointed out how “race” was a declining notion in the West. Generally, however, racial discourse was a dominant practice, which cut across most political positions, from the fascist core of the Kuomintang to the communist theories of Li Dazhao. Its fundamental role in the construction of racialized boundaries between self and other, its powerful appeal to a sense of belonging based on presumed links of blood, its authoritative worldview in which cultural differences could be explained in terms of stable biological laws, all these aspects provided racial discourse with a singular resilience: it shaped the identity of millions of people in Republican China, as it had done for people in Europe and the United States.

31Racial classifications between different population groups were so important that they often preceded and shaped real social encounters. The poet Wen Yiduo, for instance, sailed for the United States in 1922, but even on board his courage ebbed away as he felt increasingly apprehensive of racial discrimination in the West. In America he felt lonely and homesick: he described himself as the “Exiled Prisoner.” Wen Yiduo wrote home: “For a thoughtful young Chinese, the taste of life here in America is beyond description. When I return home for New Year, the year after next, I shall talk with you around the fire, I shall weep bitterly and shed tears to give vent to all the accumulated indignation. I have a nation, I have a history and a culture of five thousand years: how can this be inferior to the Americans?” His resentment against “the West” cumulated in a poem entitled “I am Chinese”:

I am Chinese,
I am Chinese,
I am the divine blood of the Yellow Emperor,
I came from the highest place in the world,
Pamir is my ancestral place,

My race is like the Yellow River,
We flow down the Kunlun mountain slope,
We flow across the Asian continent,
From us have flown exquisite customs.
Mighty nation! Mighty nation!

32It is undeniable that some Chinese students genuinely suffered from racial discrimination abroad, although an element of self-victimization and self-humiliation undoubtedly entered into the composition of such feelings. More importantly, however, they often interpreted their social encounters abroad from a cultural repertoire that reinforced the racialization of others. Even social experiences that had the potential to destabilize their sense of identity were appropriated and integrated into a racial frame of reference. Pan Guangdan, the most outspoken proponent of eugenics in China, expressed his disappointment with the unwillingness of a book entitled The American Negro, edited by Donald Young in 1928, to speak in terms of racial inequality:

But to be true to observable facts, in any given period of time sufficiently long for selection to take effect, races as groups are different, unequal, and there is no reason except one based upon sentiment why we cannot refer to them in terms of inferiority and superiority, when facts warrant us. It is to be suspected that the Jewish scholars, themselves belonging to a racial group which has long been unjustly discriminated against, have unwittingly developed among themselves a defensive mechanism which is influencing their judgements on racial questions. The reviewer recalls with regret that during his student days [in the United States] he had estranged some of his best Jewish friends for his candid views on the point of racial inequality.

33The myth of the Jew
A few words on a curious aspect of the contemporary fascination with biopolitics in China, which is discussed in Zhou Xun’s Youtai: The Myth of the ‘Jew in Modern China (1997). Even in China, where there are no ”Jews,” the image of the ”Jew” assumes increasing importance roughly from the turn of the twentieth century onwards. Reformers like Liang Qichao do not only write about the ”black race,” the ”yellow race”, and the ”white race.” Many write about the ”Jews” as well, and even in China today there are plenty of popular books which purport to reveal to the reader all the Jewish secrets to become a millionaire.
The image of the ”Jew” is used in very contradictory ways in the writings of the nationalists. For Liang Qichao, for instance, the Jew represents the fate of the individual without a nation, a foreboding of what might happen if China does not stand up and fight to defend the homeland: the Chinese might become like the stateless Jew. On the other hand, Liang Qichao also views the ”Jew” in highly positive terms: Jews are a resourceful and economically successful ”race,” however dispersed they may be over the globe. Here too the image of the Jew functions as an imaginary mirror of the Chinese: they may not have a nation, but they have survived in the midst of the enemy, which is the ”white race”: if the Jew can thrive in Europe, can the Chinese not succeed in Asia? Another recurrent image is that of the dirty Jew, which appears frequently in the republican period, although some writers point on the contrary at the unique intelligence of the Jew. Pan Guangdan, a popular author who wrote on eugenics in the 1930s, even conducted a study on the Jews to show that they had voluntarily applied a form of eugenics which accounted for their superior intelligence.
The conclusion of Zhou Xun’s article is that the ”Jew” attracts all sorts of extremely contradictory images in China. The ”Jew” is a racialized ”other” who functions as a distant mirror in the construction of a national ”self” in modern China. Her work is also interesting because it shows that a cultural representation, which fulfils important cognitive functions, such as boundary demarcation, may appear without a social encounter necessarily taking place. In other words, a discourse about ”Jews” can very well develop in a part of the globe that has no Jewish community.

Racialized identities in contemporary China

34Racial theories were attacked as tools of imperialism following the Communist takeover in 1949 (Ubukata 1953), and university departments in such fields as genetics and anthropology were subsequently closed for political reasons in the early 1950s (anthropologists, for instance, were accused of having used disrespectful anthropometric methods that insulted the minority nationalities). While the CCP appealed to the notion of “class” as a unifying concept, it did not abandon the politically vital distinction between a Han majority on the one hand and a range of minorities on the other.

35Not only did the CCP perpetuate the generic representation of linguistically and culturally diverse people in China as a homogeneous group called Han minzu, but they also swiftly proceeded to officially recognize 41 so-called “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu) who applied for nationality recognition after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, a number which increased to 56 by the time of the 1982 census. As the political boundaries of the country recognized by the CCP corresponded largely to those of the Qing empire, minority populations in the strategically and economically vital border regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, for example, continued to be portrayed as both organically linked yet politically subordinate people in their relationship to the Han.

36Although the idea of equality between different minzu was promoted by the CCP in order to combat “Han chauvinism” (Da Han minzuzhuyi), the representation of the Han as an absolute majority endowed with superior political and cultural attributes and hence destined to be the vanguard of the revolution and the forefront of economic development dominated official discourse during the Maoist period. Not entirely dissimilar to the racial taxonomies used by the revolutionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century, “minority nationalities” were represented as less evolved branches of people who needed the moral and political guidance of the Han in order to ascend on the scales of civilization. The representation of the Han as a politically more advanced and better-endowed minzu pervaded the early decades of the Communist regime, while assimilationist policies were also eagerly pursued. “Han” and “Chinese,” in other words, were not only seen to be coterminous, but “minorities” continue to be portrayed as mere subbranches of a broader organic web destined to fuse into a single nation.

Polygenic theory: a Chinese homo sapiens

37The emphasis on class struggle at the expense of economic development was reversed after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. After the ascent to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the language of science gradually started to replace communist ideology in a number of politically sensitive domains. Palaeoanthropological research illustrates how the assimilationist vision was reinvigorated by scientific research in the 1980s and 90s (the following two paragraphs draw on Dikötter 1998). Prominent researchers have represented Beijing Man at Zhoukoudian as the “ancestor” of the “mongoloid race” (Menggu renzhong). A great number of hominid teeth, skull fragments, and fossil apes have been discovered from different sites scattered over China since 1949, and these finds have been used to support the view that the “yellow race” (huangzhong) today is in a direct line of descent from its hominid ancestor in China. Although palaeoanthropologists in China acknowledge that the evidence from fossil material discovered so far points at Africa as the birthplace of mankind, highly regarded researchers like Jia Lanpo have repeatedly underlined that man’s real place of origin should be located in East Asia.

38Wu Rukang, also one of the most respected palaeoanthropologists in China, has come very close to upholding a polygenist thesis (the idea that mankind has different origins) in mapping different geographical spaces for the “yellow race” (China), the “black race” (Africa) and the “white race” (Europe): “The fossils of homo sapiens discovered in China all prominently display the characteristics of the yellow race (...) pointing at the continuous nature between them, the yellow race and contemporary Chinese people.” Early hominids present in China since the early Middle Pleistocene (1 million years ago) are believed to be the basic stock to which all the population groups in the PRC can be traced back. Physical anthropologists have also invoked detailed craniological examinations to provide “irrefutable evidence” about a continuity in development between early hominids and the “modern mongoloid race.” Detailed studies of prehistoric fossil bones have been carried out to represent the nation’s racial past as characterized by the gradual emergence of a Han “majority” into which different “minorities” would have merged. As one close observer has noted, “In the West, scientists treat the Chinese fossil evidence as part of the broad picture of human evolution world-wide; in China, it is part of national history—an ancient and fragmentary part, it is true, but nonetheless one that is called upon to promote a unifying concept of unique origin and continuity within the Chinese nation” (Reader 1990: 111).

Anthropometric and genetic studies

39Serological studies have also been carried out to highlight the biological proximity of all minorities to the Han. Mainly initiated by professor Zhao Tongmao, estimations of genetic distance based on gene frequency are claimed to have established that the racial differences between population groups living within China—including Tibetans, Mongols, and Uyghurs—are comparatively small. Serologists have also observed that the “Negroid race” and the “Caucasian race” are closer related to each other than to the “Mongoloid race.” Zhao Tongmao puts the Han at the very center of his chart, which branches out to gradually include other minority groups from China in a tree highlighting the genetic distance between “yellows” on the one hand and “whites” and “blacks” on the other hand. The author hypothesizes that the genetic differences within the “yellow race” can be divided into a “northern” and a “southern” variation, which might even have different “origins.” His conclusion underlines that the Han are the main branch of the “yellow race” in China to which all the minority groups can be traced: the political boundaries of the PRC, in other words, appear to be founded on clear biological markers of genetic distance.

40In a similar vein, skulls, hair, eyes, noses, ears, entire bodies, and even penises of thousands of subjects are routinely measured, weighed and assessed by anthropometrists who attempt to identify the “special characteristics” (tezheng) of minority populations. To take but one example, Zhang Zhenbiao, a notorious anthropometrist writing in the prestigious Acta Anthropologica Sinica, reaches the following conclusion after measurements of 145 Tibetans:

41In conclusion, as demonstrated by the results of an investigation into the special characteristics of the heads and faces of contemporary Tibetans, their heads and faces are fundamentally similar to those of various other nationalities of our country, in particular to those of our country’s north and northwest (including the Han and national minorities). It is beyond doubt that the Tibetans and the other nationalities of our country descend from a common origin and belong, from the point of view of physical characteristics, to the same East-Asian type of yellow race [huangzhongren de Dongya leixing].

42As a theory of common descent is constructed by scientific knowledge, the dominant Han are represented as the core of a “yellow race” which encompasses in its margins all the minority populations. Within both scientific institutions and government circles, different population groups in China are increasingly represented as one relatively homogeneous descent group with a unique origin and uninterrupted line of descent that can be traced back to the Yellow Emperor. Contemporary China, in short, is not so much a “civilization pretending to be a state,” in the words of Lucien Pye (Pye 1994: 58), but rather an empire claiming to be a race.


43Medical circles, on the other hand, have been instrumental in the promotion of a eugenics program. On 25 November 1988, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of Gansu Province passed the country’s first law prohibiting “mentally retarded people” from having children. Further laws for the improvement of the “gene pool” have been enforced since June 1995: people with hereditary, venereal, or reproductive disorders as well as severe mental illness or infectious diseases (often arbitrarily defined) are mandated to undergo sterilization, abortion, or celibacy in order to prevent “inferior births.” As Chen Muhua, Vice-President of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and President of the Women’s Federation, declared a few years ago: “Eugenics not only affects the success of the state and the prosperity of the race, but also the well-being of the people and social stability.” Although eugenic legislation in itself does not inevitably entail the promotion of racial categories of analysis, since it focuses on the genetic fitness of individuals within a country rather than between population groups, some publications in demography none the less make claims about the “biological fitness” of the nation and herald the next century as an era to be dominated by “biological competition” between the “white race” and the “yellow race.” The mastery of reproductive technologies and genetic engineering is seen to be crucial in this future battle of the genes, and the government has given much support to medical research in human genetics. A research team was even set up in November 1993 to isolate the quintessentially “Chinese genes” of the genetic code of human DNA.

The racialization of AIDS

44Other aspects of racial nationalism could be noted, for instance the revival of the official cult of the Yellow Emperor, although it is important to note that outside the realm of science, many different and competing approaches to nationalism often coexist, invoking territory, language, history, or culture (Unger 1996): “race,” in other words, is a far less visible component of nationalism in contemporary China by the end of the century than it was before the Second World War. Only occasionally is racial nationalism expressed in a fairly unambivalent way, as during the anti-African riots on university campuses (Sullivan 1994). Far from being a manifestation of a vestigial form of xenophobia, these events belong to the racial nationalism that has been so diversely used in China since the end of the nineteenth century. Articulated in a distinct cultural site (university campuses) by a specific social group (university students) in the political context of the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping since 1978, campus racism demonstrated how contradictory discourses of “race” and “human rights” could be harnessed together in politicized oppositions to the state: six months after their mass demonstrations against Africans in Nanjing, alleged to have violated the purity of Chinese girls, students were occupying Tiananmen Square in the name of the nation.

45Negative images of foreign sexuality, to a lesser extent, have contributed to the racialization of encounters between African and Chinese students, and have played a role in the spread of collective anxieties about STDs (Dokötter 1997). On popular levels, the myth of “international syphilis” (guoji meidu) has contrasted the pure blood of Chinese people to the polluted blood of outsiders, said to have become immune to syphilis after centuries of sexual promiscuity. Official discourse and popular culture have also explained AIDS as an evil from abroad, and prostitutes who offered their service to foreigners were singled out for severe punishment in the late 1980s. This official line of thought elicited a law on the mandatory testing of all foreign residents; African students in particular have been singled out for the AIDS test. From calls for the replacement of modern lavatories by Chinese-style toilets in the West, where excrement on toilet seats is claimed to be the main cause of AIDS, to pseudo-scientific studies of the “Chinese immune system” (thought to be inherently superior to the damaged bodies of Westerners), dubious theories of cultural and racial superiority articulated by some voices in the field of medical science have perpetuated a complacent attitude which does little to alert the population to the real dangers of infection. Instead of a virus which can potentially be contracted by every sexually active person, HIV/AIDS is represented as a fair retribution for sexual transgressions which mainly afflicts racial others. In their racialization of the disease, many of the publications on STDs produced by government circles and by medical institutions carry images of white and black AIDS sufferers; they interpret gay demonstrations in America as a sign of the imminent collapse of “Western capitalist society.” “Primitive societies” in Africa are also criticized for their lack of moral fibre, in contrast to the virtues of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

46Besides student demonstrations, even opponents to the regime have occasionally been eager to deploy racial categories of analysis as a unifying concept against the threat of “Western culture.” To take but one example, Yuan Hongbing, a lawyer at Beijing University who was briefly detained in February 1994 and has become a well—known figure in the public dissident movement, recently called for a “new heroicism” in order to save “the fate of the race” and for a “totalitarian” regime which would “fuse the weak, ignorant, and selfish individuals of the race into a powerful whole.” According to Yuan, only purification through blood and fire would provide a solution to China’s problems: “on the battlefield of racial competition the most moving clarion call is the concept of racial superiority (.) Only the fresh blood of others can prove the strength of one race” (Barme 1995). Such voices, however, remain marginal, and it would be wrong to misinterpret the intense nationalism that has characterized the reform era as being exclusively “racial.” As indicated in the introduction to this chapter, the notion of race is heavily dependent on the language of science, which no longer carries the same prestige and credibility as it did before the Second World War. Group identity in the PRC, as in many other parts of the world, including the United States and Europe, is no longer predominantly constructed on the basis of perceived phenotypical differences and legitimized by references to the presumed objectivity of “science.” Outside the relatively new scientific circles that have appeared in the wake of the economic reforms, notions of race may be common among educated people but play a less explicit role in the politics of nationalism. It is precisely the lack of clear distinction between nation, ethnicity, and race, encompassed in the powerful but protean term minzu, which has come to distinguish nationalism in the post-Mao era on a far larger scale. Racial frames of reference have become implicit rather than explicit: as such, they are more difficult to attest and hence even harder to dispel.

Chinese: a problematic category

47The term “Chinese,” whether referring restrictively only to the Han or more inclusively to the people of China, is a generic category comparable to the Victorian notion of “Anglo-Saxon”: it is assumed to be a race, a language, and a culture, even when its members are dispersed across the globe. Symptomatic of this phenomenon is the inclusion of Taiwan in most discussions of China, despite the radically different history, politics, cultures, and languages of the island-nation: it would be roughly comparable to a contemporary textbook on England which would expatiate on Australia and the United States. Not only is it assumed that “Chinese” is a shared language by most inhabitants of “Greater China,” despite ample evidence to the contrary, but also that all the “Chinese” are linked by virtue of descent.

48It could be concluded that the racialization of identity has been central, rather than peripheral, in the politics of nationalism in China since 1895: precisely because of the extreme diversity of religious practices, family structures, spoken languages, and regional cultures of population groups that have been defined as “Chinese,” ideologies of descent which play on the notion of race have emerged as very powerful and cohesive forms of identity, used by the late Qing reformers, the anti-Manchu revolutionaries, the Kuomintang nationalists, or, more recently, by a number of educated circles in the PRC. The notion of race, while heavily dependent on the language of science, has undergone many reorientations since the end of the nineteenth century: its flexibility is part of its enduring appeal, as it constantly adapts to different political and social contexts, from the reformist movement in the 1890s to the eugenic policies of the CCP. It is not suggested here that race was the only significant form of identity available in China, but that notions of ethnicity, nation, and race have often been conflated in the politics of nationalism.

49Since the erosion of Communist authority after the Tiananmen incident in 1989, nationalist sentiments have found a wider audience both within state circles and within relatively independent intellectual spheres. Intense nationalism arising in a potentially unstable empire with an embattled Communist Party could have important consequences for regional stability in that vital part of the world, as it reinforces the portrayal of frontier countries, from Taiwan to Tibet, as “organic” parts of the sacred territory of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor that should be defended by military power if necessary. Similar to the first decades of this century, moreover, the multiplication of regional identities and the emergence of cultural diversity could prompt a number of political figures to appeal to racialized senses of belonging in order to supersede internal divisions. In contrast, multiple identities, free choice of ethnicity, and ambiguity in group membership are not likely to appear as viable alternatives to the more essentialist models of group definition which have been deployed by a one—party state in charge of an empire.


* This section is based on Dikötter 1992.

Table des illustrations

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Frank Dikötter

Frank Dikötter is Professor of the Modern History of China at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
He is interested in the intellectual, cultural, and social history of twentieth-century China, in particular in questions of ‘race’, sexuality, gender, eugenics, criminality, and penology. His publications include The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Stanford, 1992), Sex, Culture and Modernity in Modern China (Hawaii, 1995), Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge and Eugenics in China (Columbia, 1998), and Crime, Punishment, and the Prison in Modern China, 1895–1949 (Columbia, 2002).

© Central European University Press, 2005

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