Initially the reformers of Chinese Nationalism during the anti-Manchu 19th century proposed a form of constitutional monarchy that would include the Manchu emperor: their notion of a "yellow race" (huangzhong) was broad enough to include all the people living in the Middle Kingdom. In the wake of the abortive Hundred Days Reform of 1898, which ended when the empress dowager rescinded all the reform decrees and executed several reformer officials, a number of radical intellectuals started advocating the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty: not without resonance to the 1789 and 1848 political revolutions in Europe, the anti-Manchu revolutionaries represented the ruling élites as an inferior "race" which was responsible for the disastrous policies which had led to the decline of the country, while most inhabitants of China were perceived to be part of a homogeneous Han race. In search of national unity, the very notion of a Han race emerged in a relational context of opposition both to foreign powers and to the ruling Manchus. For the revolutionaries, the notion of a "yellow race" was not entirely adequate as it included the much-reviled Manchus. Whereas the reformers perceived race (zhongzu) as a biological extension of the lineage (zu), encompassing all people dwelling on the soil of the Yellow Emperor, the revolutionaries excluded the Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans, and other population groups from their definition of race, which was narrowed down to the Han, who were referred to as a minzu.
Minzu, a key term used interchangeably for both "ethnic group" and "nationality" after 1949, referred to a common descent group with a distinct culture and territory. During the incipient period of 1902 to 1911, moreover, minzu as a term was used to promote symbolic boundaries of blood and descent: "nationalities" as political units were equated with "races" as biological units. In the nationalist ideology of the first decade of this century, minzu was thought to be based on a quantifiable number of people called "Han," a group with clear boundaries by virtue of imagined blood and descent. Sun Yat-sen became one of the principal proponents of a Chinese minzu, which he claimed was linked primarily by "common blood." Minzuzhuyi, or "the doctrine of the minzu," became the term used to translate into Chinese the ideology of nationalism, thus clearly indicating the overlap that was envisaged between nation and race. Nationalism was the first principle of Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People, and both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have adopted it.
Elevating the figure of the Yellow Emperor to a national symbol sealed the myth of blood. The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) was a mythical figure thought to have reigned from 2697 to 2597 BC. He was hailed as the first ancestor (shizu) of the Han race, and his portrait served as the frontispiece in many nationalist publications. From mid-1903, the revolutionaries started using dates based on the supposed birthday of the Yellow Emperor. Liu Shipei (1884-1919), advocating the introduction of a calendar in which the foundation year corresponded to the birth of the Yellow Emperor.
Thus the revolutionaries constructed a new sense of identity that narrowly focused on the Han race, pictured as a perennial biological unit descended from a mythological ancestor. By 1911, culture, nation, and race had become coterminous for many revolutionaries fighting the Qing dynasty.
The Qing empire collapsed in 1911, a momentous political event which was marked by a number of important developments, for instance the rapid transformation of the traditional gentry into powerful new elites, such as factory managers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, educators, and journalists. The result of new economic opportunities created through contacts with Western traders and the closer integration of the country into a global economy, the gradual emergence of new social formations was particularly pronounced in the large metropoles of the coast. Based on a common ground of social values, a sophisticated network of relations webbed intellectuals, urban notables, and financial elites together into a modernizing avant-garde.
With the collapse of the imperial system, moreover, neo-Confucian knowledge rapidly lost its credibility and authority. With the decline of conformity to the moral imperatives enshrined in a canon of Confucian texts, a growing number of modern-educated people believed "truth" to be encoded in a nature which only science could decrypt. Identity, ancestry, and meaning were buried deep inside the body: anthropology or genetics, by probing the body, could establish the "natural" differences between population groups. Modern science, in the eyes of modernizing elites, came to replace imperial cosmology as the epistemological foundation for claims about social order. These elites viewed race as a credible concept capable of promoting national unity after the collapse of the imperial system. Not only was "race" deemed to be an objective, universal and scientifically observable given, but it also fulfilled a unifying role in the politics of the nation: it promoted unity against foreign aggressors and suppressed internal divisions. Even the "peasants with weather-beaten faces and mud-caked hands and feet" could be represented as the descendants of the Yellow Emperor, as "race" was a notion that could overarch gender, lineage, class, and region to conceptually integrate the country's people into a powerful community organically linked by blood.
Cultural-racist theories were not confined to the ruling elites concerned with the unity of the nation. With the rise of a new print culture, driven by many private publishing houses and by the general growth in literacy after the fall of the empire, a vernacular press appeared which facilitated the circulation of new forms of group identity. Public consumption of new publications that heralded the demise of "primitive races" and the regeneration of the "yellow race" contributed to the spread of racial theories. Racial categories of analysis, disseminated by the new print culture, were consolidated by endless references to science. Chen Yucang (1889-1947), director of the Medical College of Tongji University and a secretary to the Legislative Yuan, boldly postulated that the degree of civilization was the only indicator of cranial weight: "If we compare the cranial weights of different people, the civilized are somewhat heavier than the savages, and .the Chinese brain is a bit heavier than the European brain." Liang Boqiang, in an oft-quoted study on the "Chinese race" published in 1926, took the blood's "index of agglutination" as an indicator of purity, while the absence of body hair came to symbolize a biological boundary of the "Chinese race" for a popular writer like Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who even proclaimed that "on good authority from medical doctors, and from references in writing, one knows that a perfectly bare mons veneris is not uncommon in Chinese women." Archaeologists, on the other hand, sought evidence of human beginnings in China. Like many of his contemporaries, Lin Yan cited the discovery of Beijing Man at Zhoukoudian as evidence that the "Chinese race" had existed on the soil of the Middle Kingdom since the earliest stage of civilization. Excavations supported his hypothesis by demonstrating that migrations had taken place only within the empire. It was concluded that China was inhabited by "the earth's most ancient original inhabitants.
Modernizing elites were instrumental in the dissemination of racial theories among the general public by means of school textbooks, anthropology exhibitions, and travel literature. Print culture even reached the lower levels of education, spreading racial theories via the curriculum. The opening sentence of a chapter on "human races" in a 1920 textbook for middle schools declared that "among the world's races, there are strong and weak constitutions, there are black and white skins, there is hard and soft hair, there are superior and inferior cultures. A rapid overview shows that they are not of the same level." Even in primary schools, readings on racial politics became part of the curriculum:
Mankind is divided into five races. The yellow and Mite races are relatively strong and intelligent. Because the other races are feeble and stupid, they are being exterminated by the white race. Only the yellow race competes with the white race. This is so-called evolution [...] Among the contemporary races that could be called superior, there are only the yellow and the white races. China is the yellow race.
Although it is clear that individual writers, political groups and academic institutions had different ideas about the meanings of physical features, many modern-educated people in China had come to identify themselves and others in terms of "race" by the end of the Republican period.
Some isolated voices in China openly contested the existence of a racial taxonomy in mankind: Zhang Junmai, for instance, wisely excluded "common blood" from his definition of the nation. Qi Sihe also criticized the use of racial categories of analysis in China, and pointed out how "race" was a declining notion in the West. Generally, however, racial discourse was a dominant practice, which cut across most political positions, from the fascist core of the Kuomintang to the communist theories of Li Dazhao. Its fundamental role in the construction of racialized boundaries between self and other, its powerful appeal to a sense of belonging based on presumed links of blood, its authoritative worldview in which cultural differences could be explained in terms of stable biological laws, all these aspects provided racial discourse with a singular resilience: it shaped the identity of millions of people in Republican China, as it had done for people in Europe and the United States.
Racial classifications between different population groups were so important that they often preceded and shaped real social encounters. The poet Wen Yiduo, for instance, sailed for the United States in 1922, but even on board his courage ebbed away as he felt increasingly apprehensive of racial discrimination in the West. In America he felt lonely and homesick: he described himself as the "Exiled Prisoner." Wen Yiduo wrote home: "For a thoughtful young Chinese, the taste of life here in America is beyond description. When I return home for New Year, the year after next, I shall talk with you around the fire, I shall weep bitterly and shed tears to give vent to all the accumulated indignation. I have a nation, I have a history and a culture of five thousand years: how can this be inferior to the Americans?" His resentment against "the West" cumulated in a poem entitled "I am Chinese":
I am Chinese, I am Chinese,
I am the diving blood of the Yellow Emperor, I came from the highest place in the world, Pamir is my ancestral place,
My race is like the Yellow River,
We flow down the Kunlun mountain slope, We flow across the Asian continent, From us have flown exquisite customs. Mighty nation! Mighty nation!
It is undeniable that some Chinese students genuinely suffered from racial discrimination abroad, although an element of self-victimization and self-humiliation undoubtedly entered into the composition of such feelings. More importantly, however, they often interpreted their social encounters abroad from a cultural repertoire that reinforced the racialization of others. Even social experiences that had the potential to destabilize their sense of identity were appropriated and integrated into a racial frame of reference. Pan Guangdan, the most outspoken proponent of eugenics in China, expressed his disappointment with the unwillingness of a book entitled The American Negro, edited by Donald Young in 1928, to speak in terms of racial inequality:
But to be true to observable facts, in any given period of time sufficiently long for selection to take effect, races as groups are different, unequal, and there is no reason except one based upon sentiment why we cannot refer to them in terms of inferiority and superiority, when facts warrant us. It is to be suspected that the Jewish scholars, themselves belonging to a racial group which has long been unjustly discriminated against, have unwittingly developed among themselves a defensive mechanism which is influencing their judgements on racial questions. The reviewer recalls with regret that during his student days [in the United States] he had estranged some of his best Jewish friends for his candid views on the point of racial inequality.
Racist Discourse in Communist China
Even in China, where there are no "Jews," the image of the "Jew" assumes increasing importance roughly from the turn of the twentieth century onwards and exemplified by Zhou Xun's Youtai. The Myth of the 'Jew' in Modern China (1997). Reformers like Liang Qichao do not only write about the "black race," the "yellow race", and the "white race." Many write about the "Jews" as well, and even in China today there are plenty of popular books which purport to reveal to the reader all the Jewish secrets to become a millionaire.
Here too the image of the Jew functions as an imaginary mirror of the Chinese: they may not have a nation, but they have survived in the midst of the enemy, which is the "white race": if the Jew can thrive in Europe, can the Chinese not succeed in Asia?
And while the Communist Party appealed to the notion of "class" as a unifying concept, it did not abandon the politically vital distinction between for example a Han majority on the one hand and a range of minorities on the other.
Not only did the CCP perpetuate the generic representation of linguistically and culturally diverse people in China as a homogeneous group called Han minzu, but they also swiftly proceeded to officially recognize 41 so-called "minority nationalities" (shaoshu minzu) who applied for nationality recognition after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, a number which increased to 56 by the time of the 1982 census. As the political boundaries of the country recognized by the CCP corresponded largely to those of the Qing empire, minority populations in the strategically and economically vital border regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, for example, continued to be portrayed as both organically linked yet politically subordinate people in their relationship to the Han.
Although the idea of equality between different minzu was promoted by the CCP in order to combat "Han chauvinism" (Da Han minzuzhuyi), the representation of the Han as an absolute majority endowed with superior political and cultural attributes and hence destined to be the vanguard of the revolution and the forefront of economic development dominated official discourse during the Maoist period. Not entirely dissimilar to the racial taxonomies used by the revolutionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century, "minority nationalities" were represented as less evolved branches of people who needed the moral and political guidance of the Han in order to ascend on the scales of civilization. The representation of the Han as a politically more advanced and better-endowed minzu pervaded the early decades of the Communist regime, while assimilationist policies were also eagerly pursued. "Han" and "Chinese," in other words, were not only seen to be coterminous, but "minorities" continue to be portrayed as mere subbranches of a broader organic web destined to fuse into a single nation.
The emphasis on class struggle at the expense of economic development was reversed after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. After the ascent to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the language of science gradually started to replace communist ideology in a number of politically sensitive domains. Palaeoanthropological research illustrates how the assimilationist vision was reinvigorated by scientific research in the 1980s and 90s.
For example the following two paragraphs draw on Frank Dikötter Dikötter, "Reading the Body: Genetic Knowledge and Social Marginalisation in the PRC," China Information, vol. 13, no. 2/3, December 1998, pp. 1-13.):
Prominent researchers have represented Beijing Man at Zhoukoudian as the "ancestor" of the "mongoloid race" (Menggu renzhong). A great number of hominid teeth, skull fragments, and fossil apes have been discovered from different sites scattered over China since 1949, and these finds have been used to support the view that the "yellow race" (huangzhong) today is in a direct line of descent from its hominid ancestor in China. Although palaeoanthropologists in China acknowledge that the evidence from fossil material discovered so far points at Africa as the birthplace of mankind, highly regarded researchers like Jia Lanpo have repeatedly underlined that man's real place of origin should be located in East Asia.
Wu Rukang, also one of the most respected palaeoanthropologists in China, has come very close to upholding a polygenist thesis (the idea that mankind has different origins) in mapping different geographical spaces for the "yellow race" (China), the "black race" (Africa) and the "white race" (Europe): "The fossils of homo sapiens discovered in China all prominently display the characteristics of the yellow race (... ) pointing at the continuous nature between them, the yellow race and contemporary Chinese people." Early hominids present in China since the early Middle Pleistocene (1 million years ago) are believed to be the basic stock to which all the population groups in the PRC can be traced back. Physical anthropologists have also invoked detailed craniological examinations to provide "irrefutable evidence" about a continuity in development between early hominids and the "modem mongoloid race." Detailed studies of prehistoric fossil bones have been carried out to represent the nation's racial past as characterized by the gradual emergence of a Han "majority" into which different "minorities" would have merged. As one close observer has noted, "In the West, scientists treat the Chinese fossil evidence as part of the broad picture of human evolution worldwide: in China, it is part of national history-an ancient and fragmentary part, it is true, but nonetheless one that is called upon to promote a unifying concept of unique origin and continuity within the Chinese nation"
Serological studies have also been carried out to highlight the biological proximity of all minorities to the Han. Mainly initiated by professor Zhao Tongmao, estimations of genetic distance based on gene frequency are claimed to have established that the racial differences between population groups living within China-including Tibetans, Mongols, and Uyghurs-are comparatively small. Serologists have also observed that the "Negroid race" and the "Caucasian race" are closer related to each other than to the "Mongoloid race." Zhao Tongmao puts the Han at the very center of his chart, which branches out to gradually include other minority groups from China in a tree highlighting the genetic distance between "yellows" on the one hand and "whites"and "blacks" on the other hand. The author hypothesizes that the genetic differences within the "yellow race" can be divided into a "northern" and a "southern" variation, which might even have different "origins." His conclusion underlines that the Han are the main branch of the "yellow race" in China to which all the minority groups can be traced: the political boundaries of the PRC, in other words, appear to be founded on clear biological markers of genetic distance.
In a similar vein, skulls, hair, eyes, noses, ears, entire bodies, and even penises of thousands of subjects are routinely measured, weighed and assessed by anthropometrists who attempt to identify the "special characteristics" (tezheng) of minority populations. To take but one example, Zhang Zhenbiao, a notorious anthropometrist writing in the prestigious Acta Anthropologica Sinica, reaches the following conclusion after measurements of 145 Tibetans:
In conclusion, as demonstrated by the results of an investigation into the special characteristics of the heads and faces of contemporary Tibetans, their heads and faces are fundamentally similar to those of various other nationalities of our country, in particular to those of our country's north and northwest (including the Han and national minorities). It is beyond doubt that the Tibetans and the other nationalities of our country descend from a common origin and belong, from the point of view of physical characteristics, to the same East-Asian type of yellow race [huangzhongren de Dongya leixing].
As a theory of common descent is constructed by scientific knowledge, the dominant Han are represented as the core of a "yellow race" which encompasses in its margins all the minority populations. Within both scientific institutions and government circles, different population groups in China are increasingly represented as one relatively homogeneous descent group with a unique origin and uninterrupted line of descent that can be traced back to the Yellow Emperor. Contemporary China, in short, is not so much a "civilization pretending to be a state," in the words of Lucien Pye ( 1994), but rather an empire claiming to be a race.
Medical circles, on the other hand, have been instrumental in the promotion of a eugenics program. On 25 November 1988, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of Gansu Province passed the country's first law prohibiting "mentally retarded people" from having children. Further laws for the improvement of the "gene pool" have been enforced since June 1995: people with hereditary, venereal, or reproductive disorders as well as severe mental illness or infectious diseases (often arbitrarily defined) are mandated to undergo sterilization, abortion, or celibacy in order to prevent "inferior births." As Chen Muhua, Vice-President of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and President of the Women's Federation, declared a few years ago: "Eugenics not only affects the success of the state and the prosperity of the race, but also the well-being of the people and social stability." Although eugenic legislation in itself does not inevitably entail the promotion of racial categories of analysis, since it focuses on the genetic fitness of individuals within a country rather than between population groups, some publications in demography none the less make claims about the "biological fitness" of the nation and herald the next century as an era to be dominated by "biological competition" between the "white race" and the "yellow race." The mastery of reproductive technologies and genetic engineering is seen to be crucial in this future battle of the genes, and the government has given much support to medical research in human genetics. A research team was even set up in November 1993 to isolate the quintessentially "Chinese genes" of the genetic code of human DNA.
The racialization of AIDS
Other aspects of racial nationalism could be noted, for instance the revival of the official cult of the Yellow Emperor, although it is important to note that outside the realm of science, many different and competing approaches to nationalism often coexist, invoking territory, language, history, or culture (Unger 1996): "race," in other words, is a far less visible component of nationalism in contemporary China by the end of the century than it was before the Second World War. Only occasionally is racial nationalism expressed in a fairly unambivalent way, as during the anti-African riots on university campuses (Sullivan 1994). Far from being a manifestation of a vestigial form of xenophobia, these events belong to the racial nationalism that has been so diversely used in China since the end of the nineteenth century. Articulated in a distinct cultural site (university campuses) by a specific social group (university students) in the political context of the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping since 1978, campus racism demonstrated how contradictory discourses of "race" and "human rights" could be harnessed together in politicized oppositions to the state: six months after their mass demonstrations against Africans in Nanjing, alleged to have violated the purity of Chinese girls, students were occupying Tiananmen Squart in the name of the nation.
Negative images of foreign sexuality, to a lesser extent, have contributed to the racialization of encounters between African and Chinese students, and have played a role in the spread of collective anxieties about STDs.(See also Dikötter, "Race in China," in David Theo Goldberg and John Solomos (eds.), A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies. Oxford: Blackwell 2002, pp. 495-510.)
On popular levels, the myth of "international syphilis" (guoji meidu) has contrasted the pure blood of Chinese people to the polluted blood of outsiders, said to have become immune to syphilis after centuries of sexual promiscuity. Official discourse and popular culture have also explained AIDS as an evil from abroad, and prostitutes who offered their service to foreigners were singled out for severe punishment in the late 1980s. This official line of thought elicited a law on the mandatory testing of all foreign residents; African students in particular have been singled out for the AIDS test. From calls for the replacement of modern lavatories by Chinese-style toilets in the West, where excrement on toilet seats is claimed to be the main cause of AIDS, to pseudo-scientific studies of the "Chinese immune system" (thought to be inherently superior to the damaged bodies of Westerners), dubious theories of cultural and racial superiority articulated by some voices in the field of medical science have perpetuated a complacent attitude which does little to alert the population to the real dangers of infection. Instead of a virus which can potentially be contracted by every sexually active person, HIV/AIDS is represented as a fair retribution for sexual transgressions which mainly afflicts racial others. In their racialization of the disease, many of the publications on STDs produced by government circles and by medical institutions carry images of white and black AIDS sufferers; they interpret gay demonstrations in America as a sign of the imminent collapse of "Western capitalise society." "Primitive societies" in Africa are also criticized for their lack of moral fibre, in contrast to the virtues of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Besides student demonstrations, even opponents to the regime have occasionally been eager to deploy racial categories of analysis as a unifying concept against the threat of "Western culture." To take but one example, Yuan Hongbing, a lawyer at Beijing University who was briefly detained in February 1994 and has become a well known figure in the public dissident movement, recently called for a "new heroicism" in order to save "the fate of the race" and for a "totalitarian" regime which would "fuse the weak, ignorant, and selfish individuals of the race into a powerful whole." According to Yuan, only purification through blood and fire would provide a solution to China's problems: "on the battlefield of racial competition the most moving clarion call is the concept of racial superiority (...) Only the fresh blood of others can prove the strength of one race" (See Geremie R. Barmé,In the Red. On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.)
Such voices, however, remain marginal, and it would be wrong to misinterpret the intense nationalism that has characterized the reform era as being exclusively "racial." The notion of race is heavily dependent on the language of science, which no longer carries the same prestige and credibility as it did before the Second World War. Group identity in the PRC, as in many other parts of the world, including the United States and Europe, is no longer predominantly constructed on the basis of perceived phenol-typical differences and legitimized by references to the presumed objectivity of "science." Outside the relatively new scientific circles that have appeared in the wake of the economic reforms, notions of race may be common among educated people but play a less explicit role in the politics of nationalism. It is precisely the lack of clear distinction between nation, ethnicity, and race, encompassed in the powerful but protean term minzu, which has come to distinguish nationalism in the post-Mao era on a far larger scale. Racial frames of reference have become implicit rather than explicit: as such, they are more difficult to attest and hence even harder to dispel.
Thus the term "Chinese," whether referring restrictively only to the Han or more inclusively to the people of China, is a generic category comparable to the Victorian notion of "Anglo-Saxon": it is assumed to be a race, a language, and a culture, even when its members are dispersed across the globe. Symptomatic of this phenomenon is the inclusion of Taiwan in most discussions of China, despite the radically different history, politics, cultures, and languages of the island-nation: it would be roughly comparable to a contemporary textbook on England which would expatiate on Australia and the United States. Not only is it assumed that "Chinese" is a shared language by most inhabitants of "Greater China," despite ample evidence to the contrary, but also that all the "Chinese" are linked by virtue of descent.
It could be concluded that the racialization of identity has been central, rather than peripheral, in the politics of nationalism in China since 1895: precisely because of the extreme diversity of religious practices, family structures, spoken languages, and regional cultures of population groups that have been defined as "Chinese," ideolo gies of descent which play on the notion of race have emerged as very powerful and cohesive forms of identity, used by the late Qing reformers, the anti-Manchu revolutionaries, the Kuomintang nationalists, or, more recently, by a number of educated circles in the PRC. The notion of race, while heavily dependent on the language of science, has undergone many reorientations since the end of the nineteenth century: its flexibility is part of its enduring appeal, as it constantly adapts to different political and social contexts, from the reformist movement in the 1890s to the eugenic policies of the CCP. It is not suggested here that race was the only significant form of identity available in China, but that notions of ethnicity, nation, and race have often been conflated in the politics of nationalism.
Since the erosion of Communist authority after the Tiananmen incident in 1989, nationalist sentiments have found a wider audience both within state circles and within relatively independent intellectual spheres. Intense nationalism arising in a potentially unstable empire with an embattled Communist Party could have important consequences for regional stability in that vital part of the world, as it reinforces the portrayal of frontier countries, from Taiwan to Tibet, as "organic" parts of the sacred territory of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor that should be defended by military power if necessary. Similar to the first decades of this century, moreover, the multiplication of regional identities and the emergence of cultural diversity could prompt a number of political figures to appeal to racialized senses of belonging in order to supersede internal divisions. In contrast, multiple identities, free choice of ethnicity, and ambiguity in group membership are not likely to appear as viable alternatives to the more essentialist models of group definition which have been deployed by a one party state in charge of an empire.