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
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”
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”
positions: east asia cultures critique – Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2006, pp. 131-163