Sunday, March 18, 2007

Asian Racism: Cold Truths Are Beginning to Surface

The human race, according to a Chinese legend, was created by a divine potter who left his clay figure of a man too long in the kiln. When it came out burned and black, he threw it away as far as he could - and it landed in Africa. The second one he pulled out too soon: It was too white. So he threw that one away, more gently, and it landed in Europe. Now he knew the correct timing. The third man was a gorgeous yellow, and from him the East Asian races descended.
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Such fanciful tales are found in many cultures. They assert the primitive, if understandable, proposition that one's own skin color is best. Until recently, many white Westerners have presumed that they are more guilty of such racial prejudices than are the other races of Asia and Africa.
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Research is only now showing what Westerners living in the Third World had guessed: that the formation of racial perceptions, stereotypes and prejudices is common to all civilizations.
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An important breakthrough was the publication this spring of a book about Chinese race perceptions by a Dutch anthropologist, Frank Dikotter. In "The Discourse of Race in Modern China," he shatters conventional notions about China's being relatively free of racism.
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Like India and Japan, China may be charged with "internal colonialism," but it has not attacked other countries or subjugated other races in modern times - not in the wholesale manner European nations have used. This fact may have protected China from accusations of racism. Yet hundreds of young Africans studying in the People's Republic of China have reported ingrained racism.
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Only 90 years ago, the reformist luminary Kang Youwei advocated "Improver of the Race" medals for whites or yellows volunteering to marry blacks in order to purify mankind. Such attitudes developed before the first Chinese-Western encounter. Europe did not introduce anti-black racism into China.
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Mr. Dikotter tells how ugly the Chinese found the "ash white" skin and indelicate hairiness of Europeans. Their large genitals were also noted with disapprobation, and perhaps with envy. As for blacks, they were described in earlier centuries as even uglier - as animals, devil-like and horrifying. "Yellow and white are wise," a Chinese poem ran, "Red and black are stupid . . . "
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In Japan, a black, Harvard-educated anthropologist, John Russell, is publishing research showing that Japanese prejudice against Africans and American blacks is similar to what these groups experience in the West.
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The famous advertisements in Indian newspapers for fair-skinned spouses show that the higher value placed on light skin is widespread. This does not excuse racism. It does suggest that we should define it more tightly while seeking to defeat it from a wider base.
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Of course, not everyone acts on these perceptions in the same way. Mr. Dikotter is careful to note that racial prejudice in China has never led to anything like the Nazis' genocidal killings in Europe or the apartheid system of South Africa.
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But in telling themselves not to act inhumanly toward other races, Westerners have assumed that the very perception of another race as physically different is to be shunned. In fact, none of us can avoid such perceptions, and the sooner we admit them and talk about them the better.
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Mr. Dikotter and Mr. Russell are beginning to melt the ice that had kept this natural aspect of human relationships refrigerated for so long.
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Mr. Wilson is a London-based writer on Asian affairs. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

5 comments:

Ken said...

I don't doubt that racism exists in all societies.

I would however like to know where Mr Wilson heard or saw this Chinese legend about the clay figures. I find the legend offensive.

It is interesting to note that the kingdoms and territories visited by the Chinese expedition led by Zhenghe during the 16th century (before the first European expeditions) were never colonized.

Japan and later China's (in the case of Tibet) imperialistic attitudes were probably due to the influence of Western imperialism (monkey see monkey do), as they were affected by Western attempts to colonize them and were worried that if they didn't colonize weaker Asian states they would not survive or prosper. Keep in mind how the world witnessed the massive wealth generated by the British from its colonies.

On Mr Dikotter's findings, it should be noted that even before the Chinese encountered Europeans, fair white skin had always been regarded as a desirable trait. Ancient Chinese literature had always described beautiful women as having white clear complexions and drawings of ‘good’ deities in human form have always portrayed them as being fair skinned (with the exception of a few that represent justice).

So I would doubt Mr Dikotter's findings on how Chinese found white skin to be ugly. If anything they would have been envious, although it could have been possible that the resultant envy caused them to describe it as ugly, much like Mr Dikotter's postulation of the Chinese disapprobation/envy of "large genitals", which brings us to...

His finding on Chinese being envious of "large genitals" are even more doubtful, as I can't imagine white men parading their privates for the Chinese world to see. How would the Chinese have come to stereotype Europeans as having large genitals then (surely if they had only seen one they would have concluded that the man was a freak of nature)? Some plausible reasons I can think of are (i) a high number of Europeans visiting Chinese doctors for genital ailments or (ii) when they had to deal with the bodies of Europeans who died while on visit there. Even then I would still doubt those.

If Mr Dikotter had spoken about the Chinese envy of the white man's height as opposed to genitals it would have been very believable, as masculine Chinese heroes like Guanyu have always been described as being tall.

I would like very much to hear your comments Mr blogmaster! Listening to another person's take on the story is a mind-broadening experience which I enjoy.

AsianRacism said...

Ken;

Chinese (i.e Han Chinese) imperialism existed well before the 16th century. A cursory examination of chinese history will show a large number of (now)ethnic minorities peoples who were subjugated by the Han and / or other chinese and had thier lands stolen, way of life changed etc. It continues today with the push to have Mandarin as the first language of every chinese citizen, "dailect" second.

As for the rest, you'll have to contact the author.

Ken said...

Early Chinese imperialism was more like territorial expansion. Like how the English and French and Scots fought each other, or for that matter like how almost all neighbouring territories did in days of old. It is human nature to want to have larger territories; otherwise most countries now would probably be the size of, perhaps, Switzerland or Belgium. Later expansion involving Tibet, Xinjiang and Vietnam (Vietnam being an unsuccessful attempt) more closely mimicked European colonialism.

Note that the point regarding Chinese imperialism was already mentioned in the original article. “Like India and Japan, China may be charged with "internal colonialism," but it has not attacked other countries or subjugated other races in modern times - not in the wholesale manner European nations have used.” To expand on what I said earlier, when the 16th century Chinese expedition arrived on the shores of South East Asian kingdoms and even as far as East Africa (where modern day Somalia and Kenya are), they did not act imperialistically.

Then again, the first mass expansionists were the Mongols. They however led a nomadic lifestyle and only wanted more land for their herds, never once asserting cultural, ideological, economic or political supremacy over the people of the lands they conquered, only military might was asserted (which by modern standards would still have been unacceptable but was the way the world worked then).

Mandarin pushed as a first language is not racist, unlike how in Indonesia before the fall of Suharto when minorities were only allowed to learn Indonesian and English and prohibited from learning their mother tongues. It’s the way the Chinese government communicates with the people, and a way of letting 1.3 billion Chinese communicate with each other despite having different languages and dialects. The minority languages are not illegal to learn in China and many are thriving. Even among Han Chinese there are many different dialects (Beijing, Minnan, Cantonese, Wu) and Mandarin allows Han Chinese to communicate with each other. If China did not have Mandarin as its official language, it would have to go the way of Switzerland, but I’m sure you can appreciate the difficulty of according all 56 languages (the official number of languages in China) ‘first language status’, where practical difficulties would arise in, for example, radio and TV broadcasts; as opposed to four in Switzerland.

It’s like in the United States where you can learn whatever language you want to but if you want less hassle in daily living then learning English is the way to go. Would you accuse the US government as being racist for making English the first language of the nation?

Just also to let you know you have also confused the concept of “language” and “dialect” in China. There are 56 official languages in China with Mandarin being the official one. The Mandarin language itself can be spoken in different dialects.

As an educated man surely you had your own thoughts when you read this article. Maybe if you tried stating your own take whenever you publish an article with, say, anecdotes about your life in Asia or your personal research into Asian history, your blog would attract more visitors and comments as these articles are easily accessible elsewhere anyway. I was really hoping for more personal input, otherwise it seems like your blog is just a random collection of articles you see as proof of asian racism. I will contact Mr Dikotter with feedback and questions after I have read the book in which he published his findings.

AsianRacism said...

Ken;

I disagree with your intepretation of chinese colonialism being 'internal' expansion. Using the example you gave, the Scot's had a seperate language, differing diet and culture at the time of the various wars they engaged in with the english. To the Scots at the time, it has hardly an 'internal' expansion. Likewise with chinese colonialism.

As for providing ancedotes etc of my own life and travels in asia, i have given it some thought but at this stage i'm simply content to collect articles from reliable new sources that display various issues related to racism in Asia. My main reason for this is invariably any 'personal' posts tend to result in accusations ranging from bias through to xenophobia and / or racism. Thus at this stage i will stick to making this blog a collection point for articles that highlight the problem of racism in asia, both inter-asian racism and racism against non-asians.

Thanks for your contributions.

AsianRacism said...

Oh one more thing, your comments about Indonesia and language are very interesting. Indonesia it's self is one of the worlds worst imperial and colonial powers in modern times (INMHO). Now, as for the issue re: english language in the USA, i'm not an American citizen so i'm not sure of the official language status of English there. I do however, recal with fondess some bus trips around the San Fran area where a traveling partners spanish proved invaluable!