The Cultural Roots of Chinese Attitudes Toward Africans (Excerpts)


Taken from The 1988-89 Nanjing Anti-African Protests: Racial Nationalism or National Racism?Michael J. Sullivan The China Quarterly No. 138 (Jun., 1994), pp. 438-457 (article consists of 20 pages)

The Cultural Roots of Chinese Attitudes Toward Africans

The cultural factors that have influenced contemporary Chinese racist attitudes toward Africans have roots that go far back in Chinese history. An important one concerns how Han Chinese treated the peoples of South-east Asia, Africa and Europe within the categories traditionally used to depict the nomadic "barbarians" of the North-Central Asiatic region. In Imperial China, emperors and Confucian scholar-officials propagated the view that China (Huaxia) should use Confucian moralphilosophical standards to determine whether other cultures could be assimilated into it. If non-Chinese peoples failed to adopt these standards, they were considered to be "barbarian" in essence. Another important cultural factor concerns the aesthetic premium placed by Chinese on the lightness of skin colour. Chinese, who perceived their own skin to be white until the early 20th century, considered individuals with lighter skin as having a higher social status than dark-skinned people.13 These cultural criteria have remained important in determining the superiority of Han Chinese over other ethnic groups within and outside China well into the 20th century.

While it is outside the scope of this article to analyse the history of Sino-African relations,14 Chinese racial attitudes towards Africans can be indicated by the initial contacts between Chinese and dark-skinned peoples. As a result of contact with the dark-skinned seafaring peoples of South-east Asia from the fourth century onwards, Chinese held contrasting images of them as both barbarians and embodiments of valour.
Chinese merchants and travellers made contact with Africans and perhaps even with the African continent itself during the Song Dynasty (1127-
1279), and they recorded their positive impressions of Africans and their customs. When a delegation from a state on the East African coast went
to China in the late 11th century, its emissaries were treated with honour equivalent to ambassador status.15

The image of Africans underwent change as African slaves were brought to China by Arab traders after the early 12th century. Chinese referred to these African slaves, especially those that settled in areas around Guangzhou, by the name Kunlun.16 The negative image of Africans and other dark-skinned peoples as sub-human "savages" and "devil slaves" was established by the time China closed itself off from the world in the Ming dynasty.17 It was felt that these supposedly inferior races could not match the superior cultural achievements of the Chinese.

These attitudes have remained an important cultural phenomenon into the 20th century. After African students arrived in China to attend college
in the early 1960s and after 1975, they clashed with ordinary and official Chinese over their efforts to develop relationships with Chinese women.
Chinese authorities and students perceived the African students' behaviour to be immoral and, thus, culturally inferior to the Chinese. 18   Rather than finding female companionship, the African students often ran up

against a wall of puritanism. They were allowed to organize dances, but no Chinese could come. Some of the bolder spirits pressed on regardless. They met a few girls surreptitiously and walked with them in the parks. The girls ended up being questioned by the security police.19

Such cultural conflicts reflects how "black and dark-skinned Third World citizens have to run the gauntlet of racial prejudice" in China and other
East Asian countries.20

The Emergence of a Racially Based Chinese Nationalism

The Chinese reaction to the crises confronting their country in the decades after the Opium Wars resulted in a fusion of racially determined
attitudes towards non-Chinese peoples with the nascent development of Chinese nationalism. This nationalism, which stressed the goal of pre-serving and reconstructing the Chinese nation-state, brought a new hierarchical order of values.21 Chinese intellectuals, politicians and
revolutionaries promoted different solutions to the political and cultural crises confronting China that came from nationalistic impulses and a
reformulated racial distinction between Chinese and non-Chinese cultures.

The reform-minded Liang Qichao, perceiving the crisis within Social Darwinist racial categories, exemplified this tendency. Liang argued that the world was divided into five different races - the black, the red, the brown, the yellow and the white - that have had contact over the course
of history. Rather than living in harmony, these groups were continuously engaged in a fierce Darwinian struggle for racial survival. Liang considered them to be divided into two categories. The white and yellow races, Liang argued, are "historical races" since they "formed coercive
groups and hence developed capacities to play an important role in human history."22 The "unhistorical races," such as the black race, were historically destined to be subjugated by others since they had failed to form into cohesive national groups. In making such a distinction, Liang
and other intellectuals perceived the Chinese race as technologically inferior to the white race, but, like the white race, culturally superior to "the black barbarians in India, Africa and Southeast Asia...."23 Liang's analysis reflects the tendency of many Chinese to regard Africa and the Third World as symbols of China's backward past which they wish to escape.

This hierarchical categorization directly influenced not only Sun Yatsen's anti-Manchu nationalism and Mao Zedong's anti-imperialist nationalism, but also the post-Mao leadership's "assertive nationalism.'"24 Besides asserting China's national interests through more internationally accepted norms of behaviour, the post-Mao leadership has increasingly relied upon nationalist sentiments to bolster its domestic political legitimacy and rule.

This hierarchical categorization directly influenced not only Sun Yatsen's anti-Manchu nationalism and Mao Zedong's anti-imperialist nationalism, but also the post-Mao leadership's "assertive nationalism.'"24 Besides asserting China's national interests through more internationally accepted norms of behaviour, the post-Mao leadership has increasingly relied upon nationalist sentiments to bolster its domestic political legitimacy and rule.

Reform-minded intellectuals,25 in challenging the regime through the promotion of human rights and democracy, have been less successful in
contesting the official discourse of nationalism. Their arguments for an opening to the West, rather than relying on Third World support, 26 as the
means to restore China's greatness has only reinforced popular notions of the cultural superiority of the Chinese race over Africans and other non-Western peoples. The penetrating television documentary River Elegy, 27 which shows how the heritage of China's past constrains China's historical destiny to be a great world power, exemplifies how nationalistic appeals can reinforce negative perceptions of Africans within China. The appeal of this documentary for many Chinese is how it expresses the sense of humiliation they have about China's backwardness, which is poignantly expressed through a comparison of China's great past with images of dancing African tribes. The sense of humiliation for Chinese to be equated with the so-called inferior African culture leads them to feel that the government has failed to realize that their destiny lies with the progressive West rather than with the "backward" peoples of the Third World.

10. Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power, p. 19.
11. See Edward Friedman, "New nationalist identities in post Leninist transformations: the implications for China," Universities Service Centre Seminar Series No. 4 (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1992).
12. Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power, p. 19.
13. See Dick Wilson, "A paler shade of yellow," New Society, 11 October 1984, p. 50.
14. For a more detailed study on the history of Sino-African relations, see Philip Snow, The Star Raft (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988).
15. Ibid. pp. 16, 19-21.
16. For a detailed explanation on the evolution of this term, see ibid. pp. 16-17.
17. Ibid. p. 19.
18.On the conflicts between Africans and Chinese over male-female relations and them myth of African licentiousness within Chinese society, see ibid. pp. 200-201.
19. Ibid. p. 197.
20. Wilson, "A paler shade of yellow," p. 52.
21. See Yii-sheng Lin, The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness, pp. 10-11.
22. Hao Chang, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and the Intellectual Transition in China, 1890-1907
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 156-57.
23. Ibid. p. 195.
24. See Whiting, "Assertive nationalism" and Oksenberg, "China's confident nationalism."
25. While there exist salient theoretical and political differences among reform-minded Chinese intellectuals, this article only refers to those intellectuals who advocate political democracy.
26. Reform-oriented political elites also shared similar views. Ex-Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, for example, was willing to forego Third World interests in China's foreign policy in order to move China into the Western camp. See Samuel S. Kim, "China and the Third World," in Kim (ed.), China and the World (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), pp. 148-178.
27. See "Heshang" Lun (Discussions on "River Elegy") (Beijing: Wenhuayishu chubanshe, 1989).


[0] Message Index