Copyright The Guardian
Earlier this year, China picked Ding Hui, a young man from Hangzhou, for its national volleyball team. Last month a 20-year-old Shanghainese, Lou Jing, made the last 30 in the Chinese version of Pop Idol. Neither event would have attracted unusual notice but for the one thing the two young people have in common: they are in a small, and for China, novel category of mixed-race citizens, children of black fathers. Their emergence into the limelight has forced the country into an uncomfortable and often shocking debate about what it means to be Chinese.
Both have been widely discussed on the Chinese internet in terms that have not been publicly acceptable in the US or Europe for half a century. Both Lou Jing and Ding Hui have been treated as frank curiosities: netizens comment on their white teeth, Ding Hui’s athleticism and Lou Jing’s sense of rhythm. On the show, the presenters repeatedly referred to Lou Jing as “chocolate”. Contributors to the nation’s websites indulged in altogether cruder epithets, indulging their imaginations on the subject of sex between a black man and a Chinese woman.
Lou Jing was brought up by her mother, a single parent, after her African American father had left China for reasons not explained. The crude abuse directed at her mother on the internet uncovered a deep well of prejudice that comes as no surprise to foreigners living in China, but which for years has been papered over by the official rhetoric of socialist solidarity with the developing world, including Africa.
Solidarity, however, does not necessarily denote acceptance or equality, let alone full citizenship. China has not been a country of immigration: its ethnic diversity has come from expanding borders rather than inward migration. Who is really Chinese is not the easiest question to answer in a country that officially has 56 ethnic groups â€šÃ„Ã¬ and in reality many more â€šÃ„Ã¬ but in which one group, the Han Chinese, is so dominant that it has the power to define the cultural and racial content of nationality.
The non-Han citizens â€šÃ„Ã¬ Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, Koreans and the many other cultural and ethnic groups â€šÃ„Ã¬ suffer accordingly: they are regarded as “civilised” to the degree that they come to resemble the Han majority. Many among that majority regard the relationship between the Han and the others as one of frank tutelage in preparation for assimilation. The Han, in other words, have a civilising mission to the more backward corners of the empire.
For decades following the revolution in 1949, marriages between foreigners and Chinese were rare and, in the xenophobia of the Cultural Revolution, they were banned. It wasn’t until as recently as the mid-70s that the first petitions for permission were accepted, and such marriages remained relatively unusual for a further two decades.
Racism in what has thought of itself as a monocultural society is certainly a large element in the discussion. But the ambivalence about race is a reflection of profound and unresolved questions about the identity of modern China, as the world’s most populous state reaches for a role in the 21st century after the painful dislocations of more than a century of political and social upheaval.
The government that relies for its legitimacy on the twin pillars of economic growth and resurgent nationalism has crafted a national story of an unbroken line of political and cultural descent that stretches, implausibly, for 5,000 years. China, the story goes, is immutable as the current rulers invoke the mystique of past imperial dynasties to bolster their own authority.
There are many difficulties in this narrative for China today, not least the fact that the modern idea of the Chinese nation, expounded by Sun Yat-sen 100 years ago, rested on overthrowing the hated Qing dynasty and expelling China’s Manchu rulers. National purity would be restored and China would be strong again. Once the emperors had gone, though, China’s new rulers found that retaining the territories the Manchu had conquered demanded a different narrative â€šÃ„Ã¬ that of a multinational state. The imperatives of the nation state and the realities of contemporary China have been in conflict ever since.
Today this fragile construct is threatened by what for China is a new phenomenon â€šÃ„Ã¬ that of inward migration. In Lou Jing’s home town of Shanghai, for instance, there have been some 3,000 mixed-race marriages each year for the past decade and in Guangzhou, according to local reports, as many as 100,000 Africans have settled in what is known locally as “chocolate city”.
If China continues on its current trajectory, there will be many more cases like those of Lou Jing and Ding Hui, Chinese citizens whose appearance and personal history will force the world’s most populous nation to confront the ambiguities of its own identity.
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Isabel Hilton – The Guardian
Copyright The Guardian