Sanne van Oosten
When in China a friend showed us a cigarette box from Hong Kong. Like in so many countries the cigarette box featured a warning message about the effects of smoking. Some countries use shocking texts, some countries use pictures. This particular cigarette box had opted for the picture which was meant to portray that you will become ugly if you smoke. But this definitely wasn’t what I saw. I saw two women looking at each other with a mirror in between. One woman is a fair-skinned Chinese woman, but the woman staring back at her is a dark-skinned African woman. The message I see is that the ugliest thing the designers of this warning message could think of was a black person. So, smoking turns you ugly i.e. black?
Traveling through China as a white person is a lot of fun. People want to be in pictures with me and are constantly telling me that I am beautiful. My male travel partner even got complemented on his handsomeness by two young Chinese men. Nothing flirtatious was meant by it, they just wanted to give him a compliment. Whenever we look lost, so many people are willing to help us find our way and all of this contact is accompanied with smiles and respect.
Alas, this would not be the case if we were of a darker skin tone. The Chinese see anyone with a darker skin tone as abhorrently repulsive, and people with such skin are almost akin to animals. That explains the warning message on the cigarette box. The worst thing that could happen to your appearance is a shift towards African-like blackness.
This brings me to the concept the Chinese have of their race and their place within the world. The word China is most likely derived from the Qin dynasty, under whose rule the country expanded to approximately the current size (The Q in Qin is pronounced the same as the Ch is China). However, the Chinese refer to themselves with a completely different name, Zong Guo, which translates into the Middle Kingdom or Middle Country. This shows how they have seen themselves as the middle of the universe for a very long time. Everything that is far away from this Middle Kingdom was historically seen as inferior, and even barbarian.
China is relatively racially homogenous, 91 percent of China’s population sees themselves as Han Chinese. This “race” is an imagined construct that actually lumps together a large amount of ethnic groups. The Han Chinese see themselves as a race that dates back to the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) who lived about 5000 years ago, at the beginning of Chinese civilization. The name Han was chosen because this was the first dynasty to start off with the shape China has today, a shape acquired by the Qin dynasty, but since this dynasty only lasted a short period of time they decided to settle for the word Han.
As we’ve seen, China sees themselves as a relatively homogenous racial block that has hardly had to deal with concepts of difference and ethnicity. But when China rises as a economic and cultural superpower, how will it address issues of racial difference? In the end, they will probably think of their own race as superior, even superior to their white counterparts. I’m not so worried about how this will be for white people like myself. I am worried for all the others they see as immensely inferior to them. How will Africans working for the many Chinese companies in Africa be treated? How will immigrants to China who have a dark skin tone be treated?
Much of this is already happening and the answer is not good. Africans are looked down upon as a disgusting race and the few African immigrants coming to China are seen as deserving horrible treatment.
When talking about the rise of China most Westerners are worried about China’s lack of democratization, the ruling of the Communist party and its growth as an economic superpower. I think these worries don’t compare to the worry about how Chinese will treat peoples of races they see as their inferiors.