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On Skulls, Origins, and Race in China

Today’s People’s Daily reports Chinese paleoanthropologists have discovered a nearly complete 100,000-year old skull (albeit in 16 pieces) at an excavation site in Henan province:

“It is the greatest discovery in China after the Peking Man and Upper Cave Man skull fossils were found in Beijing early last century, and will shed light on a critical period of human evolution,” said Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

The report in the Shanghai Daily leads off with this little twist:

“Chinese archaeologists have unearthed a 100,000-year-old human skull fossil that may help prove Chinese people originated locally rather than as descendants of Africans.”

Now, most paleoanthropologists accept the out-of-Africa theory as the best explanation currently available for the origins of homo sapiens, but in China it can still be a tough sell. Nationalism and cultural pride are part of it, but it’s also no secret that attitudes on race here, especially towards people of African descent are…interesting, to say the least. This can take the form of innocent, though ignorant, questions directed towards people of color, but can also lead to more offensive manifestations, including Chinese spectators at basketball games making Tarzan and monkey noises at Africans and African-Americans playing in the CBA, the 1988 riots at Nanjing University, or last year’s police sweep in the Sanlitun’r area of Beijing that targeted only men of African descent.

I’ve discussed the subject of human origins with people here in Beijing on a number of occasions. While not a few people accept the “out-of-Africa” theory, or could frankly care less, a surprisingly high number react viscerally at the idea that a) the Chinese might be from someplace else, even if it was hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years in the past, and/or b) that someplace else might be Africa.

What’s ironic is that in the 19th century, foreigners used these same ideas to belittle China, suggesting that the Chinese evolved separately from Europeans, and were used to dehumanize the Chinese, as well as Africans, Native Americans, and other non-White races, in an era when pseudo-scientific ideas supporting White racial superiority were part and parcel of the ideological justification for imperialism.

And what’s more astonishing is that Chinese intellectuals bought it.

Yan Fu (1854-1921) translated Thomas Huxley’s Evolution in Ethics in 1895. Yan’s translations of Huxley, and of Herbert Spencer, injected western notions of race and eugenics into a Chinese discourse of national survival in a world torn apart by imperialism. One notable example of this was the influence of Social Darwinism on the ideas of Liang Qichao(1873-1929). Mutantpalm recently published a great post discussing Liang’s writings regarding “the strife of human races.” Liang Qichao was a smart man with many keen observations about politics and society, but his views on race were sadly indicative of his time. He wrote about how brown- and black-skinned races were inherently less intelligent and civilized. (Liang doesn’t say less than whom, but let’s assume he means “White folk” and, I’m guessing, “Chinese.”) Liang also once blamed “hyper-sexuality” as the reason for African-Americans being lynched in the United States. Liang’s teacher, Kang Youwei (1858-1927), in his famous work The Grand Commonality, advocated many new ideas influenced by eugenics, including the importance of woman’s education and pre-natal care for infants, but he also suggested that interbreeding could ‘whiten’ the Chinese race, and so improve the strength and character of the people. In his other writings, Kang’s descriptions of Africans were as horrific and insulting as anything produced in the contemporaneous American South. In China, as in the West, this sort of racial logic was institutionalized during the1920s and 1930s, with ‘Africans’ even included in one of the first ‘scientific’ works on Zoology published in China in 1923!

Let me be clear: this is not to say that ‘the Chinese people are racist’, an oft-hurled and ill-informed stereotype unto itself, but at the same time, the assertion heard often in China, and occasionally in Western scholarship, that ‘racism is a Western problem,’ needs to be considered critically.

Many people of African descent living in Beijing have become somewhat inured to the occasional pointing, comments, and worse, but there’s a real possibility that among the journalists and athletes coming to Beijing this August, there will be a few who won’t be so thick-skinned. It would be a shame if China’s Olympic image were tarnished by an ignorant or offensive comment made to the wrong person at the wrong time in front of the wrong camera.

I do believe that as China becomes increasingly integrated into the global community, and China’s citizens become more internationally aware and exposed to different peoples and different cultures, old stereotypes will be replaced by understanding and respect. In my conversations on this subject, I’ve noticed a sharp generational difference in attitudes on race and racial prejudice, with younger Chinese far more open-minded than people of middle age or older. Hopefully, the Olympics will be a part of this learning process, and that a few bad apples won’t embarrass China with their backwards attitudes and actions.


Sources and Further Reading:

Struggle for National Survival: Eugenics in Sino-Japanese Contexts, 1896-1945
Yuehtsen Juliette Chung
Routledge, 2002. (p. 105)

The Discourse of Race in Modern China
Frank Dikötter
Stanford University Press, 1992.

For a different perspective, see the Charles Stafford review of Dikötter, 1992
Man, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), p. 609
Dikötter then responded to Stafford in this article:
“Racial Identities in China: Context and Meaning”
The China Quarterly, No. 138. (Jun., 1994), pp. 404-412.

“Anti-Black Racism in Post-Mao China”
Barry Sautman
The China Quarterly > No. 138 (Jun., 1994), pp. 413-437

Liang Qichao and the Mind of Modern China
Joseph R. Levenson
University of California Press, 1953

“Eurasian Hybridity in Chinese Utopian Visions: From “One World” to “A Society Based on Beauty” and Beyond”
Emma Teng
positions: east asia cultures critique – Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2006, pp. 131-163

19 Comments on On Skulls, Origins, and Race in China

  1. So what? Some Chinese intellectuals parroted the eugenics theories popular in the first third of the 20th century? Though seemingly more enlightened than their elders Chinese commonly and stubbornly remain ethnocentric, nationalistic, and frankly boorish towards non-Chinese? And the Chinese fail to recognize this? What else is new? The only new news is the recovery of that 100,000 year-old human skull that will be used, of course, to prove the distinction of those unique beings who are Chinese.

  2. It is true that most Chinese do not believe the “Eve” theory. There is one reason I think most relevant. In the last almost 200 years the pride of Chinese has been reduced to their great history long long ago and nothing more. So it is reasonable not to give up the last hope by accepting some unproved theory. Nevertheless, the “racism” of Chinese just ends there. It is not like, you know, something currently taking placing in the world.

  3. Welcome to your new home.

    The new site seems to have been having a few problems: I could only get into it via a proxy the other day, and it seemed to be down completely today. Teething problems sorted now?

    I fear it could take China a long while to get over its regrettable attitudes towards the black races (in particular) because it just doesn’t have the level of education or the breadth of exposure to overseas peoples that we’ve long had in the West. Uneducated peasants are almost certain to jeer and point when they see a laowai of any skin colour, but especially a black one; and that’s still two-thirds of the country. Of course, at the moment a lot of the more educated urban dwellers aren’t that much better, but we might see faster improvements in that population.

    However, it’s not like we’re so very far ahead on this in the West. Ignorant racism seemed to be almost universal in my parents’ generation in England, and is still alarmingly prevalent in much of the white working class population.

  4. I am Chinese, and I know Chinese are racists. Not just in the good old days, but right now.

    You can see it in everyday lives. People of different races get different treatment from shops, hotels, restaurant, etc. everyday. Even a Chinese from US gets worse treatment than a white. And local Chinese the next. The black and South Asians suffer the worst.

  5. @Jeremiah: “He wrote about how brown- and black-skinned races were inherently less intelligent and civilized. (Liang doesn’t say less than whom, but let’s assume he means “White folk” and, I’m guessing, “Chinese.”)”

    Small point: Dikötter has argued Liang and Kang did say it explicitly, and Kang suggested eliminating darker people through dietary changes, migration, sterilization and intermarriage, though he thought the last one was too icky to work (it’s in that Sautman paper).

    That Stafford review of Dikötter is interesting, but I can’t help thinking that arguing about Dikötter’s semantic interpretations being too narrow kinda misses the point. But then again, I obviously skew Dikötter’s way to begin with.

    @Liyang: “In the last almost 200 years the pride of Chinese has been reduced to their great history long long ago and nothing more.” I agree, but one reason that Chinese people lack pride in the now is because they keep comparing themselves to non-Chinese unfavorably, and there’s a racial quality to a lot of it. Not to mention there’s a racial whiff to how Chinese people often talk about how badly they treat one another (compared to non-Chinese).

    If Liu Xiang gets beat in the 110m hurdles this summer by a dark guy like Anier Garcia Ortiz, or a newcomer from Kenya, you really think there won’t be any hei gui comments?

    @Froog: no one here is saying the West is “very far ahead”. But is there as much airing of racial dirty laundry in China as there is in the US/UK? Ugly as it may get, with the discussion of race vis-a-vis Obama in the US, there’s at least open recognition that people make racial judgments. Contrast that to China’s general denial that any such thing ever happens here.

  6. Scottloar,

    I guess I’m an optimist. Hopefully, increased contact with different peoples and culture will less these tendencies, especially among the younger generation.

    You know the old saying: Hope, like mildew, springs eternal.

  7. Liyang,

    I agree that nationalism and China’s justifiable pride in its long history and civilization is certainly a considerable factor. But I’ve also heard people express special distaste in regards to Africa as the place of origin.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Froog,

    As always, a pleasure to have you comment here.

    Certainly it’s a process, and a slow one at that. Furthermore, I absolutely agree that this continues to be a serious problem in Europe and especially the United States. Are things better now than 30 years ago? I’d like to think so. Do we have a long way to go yet? Absolutely.

    But what troubles me is the assertion, heard a bit too much here in China, that racism is solely an issue of western societies. It is this assertion that needs to be thought about a little more carefully and critically.

    I’ve been running tests and such, and the website is generaly up and unblocked. That said, I too have had some trouble accessing it. Ryan believes that there may be ISP-level blocks on the site based on certain words or phrases in past posts. I’m looking into that today and hopefully we can resolve the bugs.

    Thanks for letting me know.

  9. Ching Ping,

    I don’t doubt that there are racist Chinese people, but I wouldn’t say that the Chinese people are racist. See the distinction?

    Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Dave,

    Always a pleasure to have you comment. I’ve read Kang and Liang’s explicit statements on this issue and I passed them up in order to add a little joke.

    In fact, I was going to include some more quotes from Kang and Liang (as well as a few other writers) in the post but I took them out in the editing process.

    1) At some point, it’s just piling on.
    2) Some of their statements are so racist that I was worried about having them on my site, even in the context of this post. God only knows what the search engines would have brought me…I’d end up on some Aryan Nation member’s technorati aggregator or something. Not good times. Bad times.

    I admit that I lean toward Dikötter as well. But I do think there is validity to the argument that we can’t assume western notions of race/ethnicity apply in the pre-19th century period. Kang and Liang are different, because they were very much influenced by western ideas on ethnicity, eugenics, etc. But did Huang Zongxi or Wang Fuzhi see the Manchus the same way as, say, Sun Yat-sen or Zou Rong saw the Manchus? Maybe, maybe not. But the writings of Sun and Zou are more than a little influenced by western notions of ethnic nationalism that were not current in Chinese thought two centuries earlier.

    I’m not going to step into the whole “Manchu ethnicity” question right now, but I do think we need to be mindful of the assumptions western scholars bring when looking at ethnicity in pre-19th century China.

  11. “…but it’s also no secret that attitudes on race here, especially towards people of African descent are…interesting, to say the least.”

    Important though such discoveries are in terms of anthropological significance, when they are made in China these finds are all too often spun as ‘evidence’ that the Chinese originated in their own backyard.

    In itself it shouldn’t be a problem if it is shown that Peking Man was the father of all Chinese people and the rest of us wandered out of Africa. But the question in the collective mind of the Chinese is not one of discovery about the origins of the human species, it is the pursuit of proof positive that they are one thing and the rest of us are something else. In the context of modern history’s lamentable record of mass human rights violations on racial grounds, this tendency should be taken very seriously indeed.

    One need only consider their growing influence on the African continent to see how China’s deeply ingrained sense of being western imperialists’ ‘victims’ could be turned on its head.

    With that in mind, I sincerely hope that there will be a team of respected anthropologists from around the globe working on such discoveries, lest the phantom of demand characteristics interferes with the scientific process.

    Nevertheless, I echo Jeremiah’s hopes that continued exposure to people from around the world, particularly in this Olympic year, will help the less open-minded Chinese to truly embrace the idea of “One World, One Dream.”

    I also harbour davesgonechina’s fears that, in the nationalistic frenzy of August, some Chinese will be unable to contain their racial prejudices. As Dave also pointed out, importantly I feel, such incidents are not open to discussion in China, where racism, like prostitution, is something that doesn’t officially exist.

  12. Stuart,

    I agree that when we start claiming different origins, it leads to all kinds of unpleasant conclusions. Not the least of which I mentioned in my post, the use of such theories to dehumanize other races.

    Good comment. Thanks for stopping by.

  13. One of the more disappointing aspects of the Olympics celebration is the complete absence of the international flavour of this event. Its clear from deconstructing the advertising messages that this event is all about Chinese glory and less about international participation. I think the Nike work is exemplary in that at least they use black American athletes even if its Basket Ball focused.

    Ironically Hip Hop is very popular with a lot of Chinese youth and its this which is probably a healthy indicator of future sentiment.

  14. That’s one reason I’ve always felt the English translation of the Beijing Olympic slogan is a little off. My Chinese friends ask why, and I usually reply that in the West, we like to think that there might be more than one dream for everybody.

    I agree about the ad campaigns. I’ve seen some ads that include non-Chinese, but it’s usually as a token, a backdrop, or a beaming admirer.

    Then again, growing up in the States and watching NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, you’d almost never know that athletes born outside the USA actually competed in the Games.

    Finally, there is a sense of progress, though one that may find itself in its own cul-de-sac. Basketball and Hip Hop are very popular among Chinese youth, and both are heavily associated here with African-Americans, but it does lead to a lot of confusion. A Chinese friend of mine expressed shock and disbelief when an African American associate told him that he neither liked dancing in clubs nor did he play basketball.

    Some stereotypes may die harder than others.

  15. On a semi-related note, I was recently intrigued by the language on a package of some Chinese snack I bought at 7-11: “黑皮是快乐, 快乐就是黑皮.” I wondered whether the idea of happiness being black skin might not be a bit of a distortion, all things considered…

  16. Unfortunately, Jeremiah, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Slogan was made from English under an international competition. [1] Which is why the Chinese is even MORE awkward than the English version.

    On Chinese racial prejudice: perhaps you might want to look at this essay on Africans in Guangzhou. [2] Despite Chinese not liking them very much, they are still rather contented about life in Guangzhou. Some even think that eventually the barrier will break down, albeit very slowly.

    “The firm that ultimately came up with the winning proposal has the improbable name of China Click2 International Consulting, and it is headed by an American-Chinese woman named Susan Pattis.”
    News Source:


  17. Admittedly, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek about the Olympic slogan, but thanks for the info.

    I saw the Guangzhou piece over the weekend, it’s things like that that reinforce the hope expressed in my post that things are likely to improve with time.

  18. Leah,

    Perhaps from the same fellow who invented the popular and oft-mentioned Darlie toothpaste (formerly spelled with a “k”), known in Chinese as 黑人牙刷.

  19. The title says it all:

    The Migration History of Humans: DNA Study Traces Human Origins Across the Continents
    DNA furnishes an ever clearer picture of the multimillennial trek from Africa all the way to the tip of South America

    See Scientific American Magazine, July 7, 2008,

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