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Nationalist Myth-making: The Construction of the Chinese Race

April 27, 2001

Deconstructing the received wisdom that China is home to a homogenous ethnic group with common origins and a shared history, Frank Dikötter argues that an ethnically integrated China is, in fact, a modern invention linked to the rise of nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century. 


While over 50 different “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu) are officially recognized to exist in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), well over 90 percent of the population is classified as Han, a term translated in English as “ethnic Chinese” or “Chinese of native stock.” Despite the existence in China of cultural, linguistic and regional differences which are as great as those to be found across Europe, the Han are claimed by mainland officials to be a homogeneous ethnic group (minzu) with common origins, a shared history and an ancestral territory. “Han” and “Chinese” have become virtually identical, not only within official rhetoric and scholarly discourse in the PRC, but also in the eyes of many foreign scholars. Only recently have some researchers started to refute the notion of an ethnic majority and attempted to describe China as a mosaic composed of many culturally diverse groups within the so-called “Han.”

While in traditional China there were references to the descendants of the various Han dynasties (206BC-AD220), the representation of the “Han” as an ethnically integrated majority is a modern phenomenon inextricably bound up with the rise of nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century. The idea of a Han majority can be considered a modern invention used by nationalist elites to forge a sense of common identity among the various population groups of China in contradistinction to foreign powers who threatened the country and to the Manchus who ruled the Qing empire until its fall in 1911.

As in many other countries, moreover, racial theories have underpinned the construction of national identity in China throughout much of the twentieth century. As Sun Yatsen (1866-1925) — founder of the Guomindang, China’s Nationalist Party, and widely accepted as the “father” of the nation in China and in Taiwan to this day — put it in his famous Three Principles of the People, “The greatest force is common blood. The Chinese belong to the yellow race because they come from the blood stock of the yellow race. The blood of ancestors is transmitted by heredity down through the race, making blood kinship a powerful force.” Sun Yatsen and other political leaders considered the Han to constitute the absolute majority in China, a distinct people with shared physical attributes and a line of blood which could be traced back to the most ancient period.

If socially constructed “races” are population groups which are imagined to have boundaries based on real or imagined biological characteristics, and if they can be contrasted to socially constructed “ethnicities,” which are population groups thought to be based on culturally acquired characteristics, then both were seen to be coterminous by political elites in modern China: ideas of “culture,” “ethnicity” and “race,” in other words, were often conflated by political and intellectual elites in order to represent cultural features as secondary to and derivative of an imagined racial specificity.

Politics have been an essential factor in the emergence of racial discourse in modern China: in order to legitimize control over the territory which was part of the imperial realm until 1911, the political leaders of the Republic until 1949 and the People’s Republic after 1949 have reinvented subject peoples in border areas as mere sub-branches of the Han. This assimilationist vision emphasizes both the organic entity of all the peoples living within the political boundaries of China and the inevitable fusion of non-Han groups into a broader Chinese nation dominated by the Han: the political boundaries of the state, in short, could be claimed to be based on a more profound biological unity between the various peoples of China. Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), the effective head of the Nationalist Republic from 1927 to 1949 and the leader of the Guomindang, clearly expressed this vision of the nation as a culturally diverse but racially unified entity in his important work entitled China’s Destiny, written during the fight against Japan in the Second World War:

Our actually belong to the same nation, as well as to the same racial stock. Therefore, there is an inner factor closely linking the historical destiny of common existence and common sorrow and joy of the whole Chinese nation. That there are five peoples designated in China is not due to differences in race or blood, but to religion and geographical environment. In short, the differentiation among China’s five peoples is due to regional and religious factors, and not to race or blood. This fact must be thoroughly understood by all our fellow countrymen.

While this assimilationist vision is closely linked to the politics of national unity, its legitimacy has primarily been based on science. Racial theories were only made possible by the advent of scientific knowledge in Europe from the late eighteenth century onward, as science offered a whole new episteme from which a relationship between culture and biology could for the first time be systematically imagined.

Racial theories, first in parts of Europe and gradually in other points of the globe, sought to explain cultural differences as natural differences and to represent social groups as biological units: racial theorists appropriated science, from craniology to genetics, in order to present the group boundaries they had constructed as objectively grounded in natural laws. In Europe, China and many other parts of the globe, negative attitudes about the physical appearance of individuals or population groups can be found before modernity, but these attitudes rarely formed a coherent system which could provide legitimacy to social inclusions or exclusions.

The politics of nationalism and the episteme of science were both intrinsic to modernity and only appeared in China with the reform movement which gained momentum after China’s defeat by Japan in 1894-5. Imperial reformers after 1895 proposed to strengthen the country in its confrontation with foreign powers by reforming the thought and behavior of all the people. The first to systematically articulate a distinctly nationalist agenda of reform in which all citizens would participate in the revival of the country, they promoted an alternative body of knowledge to that which was the focus of the official examination system, the Confucian classics.

The new knowledge deployed by the reformers — a complex fusion of different indigenous strains of learning with foreign discursive repertoires — was marked by an appeal to “science” as a legitimizing force. In search of wealth and power in the wake of the country’s disastrous defeat against Japan, in need of a unifying concept capable of binding all the emperor’s subjects together in a powerful nation which could resist the foreign encroachments that had started with the first Opium War (1839-1842), the late Qing reformers used new evolutionary theories proposed in Europe by followers of Charles Darwin to present the world as a battlefield in which different races struggled for survival. They also appealed to patrilineal culture in order to represent all inhabitants of China as the descendants of the Yellow Emperor. Extrapolating from an indigenous vision of lineage feuds, which permeated the social landscape of late imperial China, the reformers constructed a racialized worldview in which “yellows” competed with “whites” over degenerate breeds of “browns,” “blacks” and “reds.”

Thriving on its affinity with lineage discourse, this notion of “race” gradually emerged as the most common symbol of national cohesion, permanently replacing more conventional emblems of cultural identity. The threat of racial extinction (miezhong), a powerful message of fear based on more popular anxieties about lineage extinction (miezu), was often raised to bolster the reformers’ message of the urgent need for change in the face of imperialist aggressions: “They will enslave us and hinder the development of our spirit and body... The brown and black races constantly waver between life and death, why not the 400 million of yellows?” In the reformers’ symbolic network of racialized others, the dominating “white” and “yellow races” were opposed to the “darker races,” the latter doomed to racial extinction by hereditary inadequacy. The social hierarchy which existed between different groups of people in the empire was expanded into a vision of racial hierarchy characterized by “noble” (guizhong) and “low” (jianzhong), “superior” (youzhong) and “inferior” (liezhong), “historical” and “a historical races” (youlishi de zhongzu). The distinction between “common people” (liangmin) and “mean people” (jianmin), widespread in China until the early eighteenth century, found an echo in Tang Caichang (1867-1900), who opposed “fine races” (liangzhong) to “mean races” (jianzhong). He phrased it in evenly balanced clauses reminiscent of his classical education: “Yellow and white are wise, red and black are stupid; yellow and white are rulers, red and black are slaves; yellow and white are united, red and black are scattered.”

The reformers proposed a form of constitutional monarchy which 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 reformist officials, a number of radical intellectuals began 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 elites 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 Yatsen 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 which was envisaged between nation and race. Nationalism was the first principle of Sun Yatsen’s “Three Principles of the People,” and it has been adopted ever since by both the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The myth of blood was sealed by elevating the figure of the Yellow Emperor to a national symbol. 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), for instance, published an article advocating the introduction of a calendar in which the foundation year corresponded to the birth of the Yellow Emperor. “They [the reformers] see the preservation of religion [baojiao] as a handle, so they use the birth of Confucius as the starting date of the calendar; the purpose of our generation is the preservation of the race [baozhong], so we use the birth of the Yellow Emperor as a founding date.”

The vision of racial grouping elaborated by the revolutionaries fighting for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty is eloquently illustrated by Zou Rong, one of the more influential nationalists, who proudly proclaimed: “When men love their race, solidarity will arise internally, and what is outside will be repelled. Hence, to begin with, lineages were united and other lineages repelled; next, lineages of villages were united and lineages of other villages repelled; next, tribes were united and other tribes were repelled; finally, the people of a country became united, and people of other countries were repelled. This is the general principle of the races of the world, and also a major reason why races engender history. I will demonstrate to my countrymen, to allow them to form their own impression, how our yellow race, the yellow race of which the Han race is part, is able to unite itself and repel intruders.” 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 which could overarch gender, lineage, class and region to conceptually integrate the country’s people into a powerful community organically linked by blood.

Racial 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 which 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, “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 white 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 Guomindang 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.

Although racial theories would disappear from the surface after 1949, as “class” became the major form of group identity with the rise of the CCP, they have emerged again in a very powerful form with the “economic reforms” initiated by Deng Xiaoping after 1978. As during the Republican Period, the language of science gradually started to replace communist ideology in a number of politically sensitive domains in the 1980s. 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 which can be traced back to the Yellow Emperor.

Since the erosion of communist authority after the Tiananmen incident in 1989, moreover, 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 supercede 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.

Frank Dikötter is Director of the Contemporary China Institute and Senior Lecturer in History at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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