Sunday, November 06, 2005


Autumn Book Review: DiKötter on Chinese Racism

I asked a simple question: I'm considering investing in China. What are the risks of ethnic fragmentation to that country? Never ask an academic a simple question. My correspondent recommended that I begin with Discourse on Race in Modern China, published in 1992 by Frank DiKötter. And so I soon found myself immersed in the Manchus and the Song dynasty and Haeckel rather than Beta and ROI and Morningstar ratings. But what I found was the sort of treasure that moth does not corrupt. Or at least gets chewed slowly. (see more in comments)
Chinese history and culture is so complex that the mind is left reeling. The big picture is of a patriarchal civilization forged into an empire by warfare, constantly in danger of fragmentation due to oppressive imperial practices. It was such a rich (and smug) prize that it repeatedly suffered internecine struggles, was betrayed from within, and was overrun by aggressive neighbors. The glue that held it together was the bureaucracy and Confucian doctrine.

And the myth of race.

The foundation of the myth was that China was the center of the universe, and that everyone outside the center was not entirely human. The northern Di were dogs, the southern Man and Min were reptiles, the Qiang were sheep, and the Rong birds and beasts. The south was blue-green, the east red, the north black, and white for the west. The north was the dangerous direction, from whence came marauders like the Mongols. White was the color of death. The center was yellow, though perhaps not the same color as we associate with the word. The dividing line between human and non-human was the use of fire to cook food and hair was generally regarded as a sign of barbarian tendencies.
The symbology is difficult to follow. Although black was associated with the north, the Chinese were familiar with Africa early on. Black slaves from Africa were characterized in the twelfth century as "devil slaves." Laborers were called black-headed and slaves were called renli, referring to a scorched cooking utensil. The Chinese regarded themselves as white, although the Middle Kingdom was yellow. Japanese were despised as hairy "dwarf slaves" (an attitude that probably persists today). The Portuguese were described by one commentator as hairy goblins:

"They are seven feet tall, have eyes like a cat, a mouth like an oriole, an ash-white face, thick and curly beards like black gauze, and almost red hair."

The British and their Indian mercenaries were not regarded with any more favor:

"The white ones are cold and dull as the ashes of frogs, the black ones are ugly and dirty as coal."

Now, if the outsider is regarded as a vile animal, and racial purity enforced by imperial dictatorship, it's likely that the barriers to intermarriage or even interaction will be high. And so, as the Enlightenment and Industrialization swept Europe, China's rulers consigned their people to second-class status. While hardy explorers were eventually dispatched to discover the designs of the barbarians, many clearly held the people they were sent to study with contempt. In 1910, students abroad were forbidden to approach foreign women. Chinese in Texas ostracized any member of the community who married a "Mexican" woman.

So, racism was a means of enforcing group solidarity in the face of intrusions by invaders and the threat of acculturation, especially through intermarriage. Chinese suffered from a sense of cultural superiority and an inferiority complex in the face of Western supremacy. Many Chinese abroad developed an aggrieved sense of victimization and humiliation exceeding the very real discrimination they faced.

In the 20th century, racism fused with nationalism. The imperial system, reduced to puppet status, collapsed and was replaced by a system of strongmen beginning with Chiang Kai Shek and continuing through Mao Tse Tung. Intellectuals, relying on racialist and eugenic principles imported from the West, pushed ideas of "race improvement."

In the 1930s, a poem titled "Blood of the Yellow Race" sounds much like the Turner Diaries:

"Hide, frightened European dogs!
Topple, Muscovites imposing high buildings!
Roll, Caucasian yellow-haired heads!
Fearful, the oil oozing from burning corpses..."

And much more in that vein.
With Mao, there was at the official level a reversal of anti-black discrimination in the recruitment of people of color into a struggle against colonialism, "urging that 'we blacks stick together' against the 'white race." The "white race," despite our government's propaganda of a global communist conspiracy, included the Soviets. Despite the Communists's enthusiastic endorsement of racial solidarity, Africans as visitors to China or hosts to Chinese visitors complained of discrimination.

And here is the bottom line:

Signs of an elemental form of racial nationalism, together with some form of re-Confucianization, are already reappearing in the post-Tienanmen era....[R]acial prejudice is hardly peculiar to the Chinese: it was certainly more virulent and widespread in the West. Yet if it is true that this discourse has never been translated into practice with the gruesome efficiency characteristic of certain Western countries, it would be wrong to underestimate its pervasiveness and tenacity.

That's sobering.

It doesn't tell me what ETF to look into, but it defines the questions a little better.
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