Hecaitou on Race in China

A couple weeks ago, I sent out an informal survey on race to the emails of many of the Chinese people whose blogs I read. I got nothing in response from anyone (a few “mail delivery failures” was all) until a few days ago when I got a response from a rather unexpected place: Hecaitou.

I hadn’t expected a response from him because the two of us had a bit of a misunderstanding last year after I wrote this post, which he and fellow Chinese author and blogger Wang Xiaofeng took as an accusation that they themselves were racist. We eventually worked it out, but not before he wrote a rather scathing essay condemning me, one that prompted one of my Chinese friends to stop in the middle of reading it, turn to me gravely, and say “This is bad.”

Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful that he took the time to respond to my questions about race again despite all of this. What’s more, I think his responses are quite interesting. I’ve translated my questions and his answers below. For the first time ever, I’m also going to post the original Chinese text, for extra clarity’s sake.


(My questions are translated below in bold, the quoted answers to each question are Hecaitou’s responses.) 原文点此(汉)

1) Following China’s reforms and opening up and its economic development, the number of foreigners coming to China for travel and business is increasing. Because China’s relationship with some African nations is relatively close, recently there have been more immigrants from Africa. Do you believe that in the future, as there are more people of different races in China, there will be any kind of conflict? Is conflict possible or not? Why?

Your question implies something: will Chinese people have a conflict with black people? Obviously, you also know, the chance of there being a conflict between Chinese people and whites is very small. At the same time, you stressed that it’s immigrants from Africa, not Africa descendants from America, England, France, Germany, or other developed countries. So the question is already quite clear, you’re asking whether Chinese people have any particular attitude towards people of color from undeveloped nations. The question has [thus] already changed from race to an economic, cultural, and political question. What they [Africans] will experience in China isn’t very different from what poor people experience coming to a rich neighborhood, or rural children experience coming to the city.

2) Could you explain for us how we should understand the difference between “race” (种族) and “ethnicity” (民族)? What is the difference between a racial conflict and an ethnic conflict? Is “Han chauvinism” (汉族主义) racism?

Generally, “race” is understood to refer to different types of people: black, white, and yellow. “Ethnicity” is understood as a group that shares common culture, language, and customs. But China is a country where Han people make up an absolute majority, and it is at the same time quite separated from the outside world, so there is not a particularly strong conception of race. Instead, the concept of ethnicity is much more pervasive. In history, states founded by Han people have been defeated twice by ethnic minorities; the first was the Mongols, the second was the Manchus. The Manchus founded the Qing dynasty and ruled for 268 years until the modern China emerged. To overturn the Manchu government, the leader of the Han Sun Yat-sen [Sun Zhongshan] raised distinct slogans for minorities, demanded that Manchus and Mongols leave Han places, and China began to change into a nation-state. However, even though it was Sun Yat-sen who came up with the slogan “the 5-ethnicity republic” meaning that Han, Mongol, Tibetan, Hui, and Manchurian ethnic groups would build a republic together, [they] did not persist in following the path of nationalism.

In China, you can obviously tell from physical characteristics that Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Han people aren’t part of the same racial group [人种]. In the past two thousand years the mixing of different ethnicities is very obvious, so nearly all Han people also carry a little bit of the blood of other ethnicities. I understand that instances of refusal of employment, marriage, or school entrance on account of differing ethnicities are extremely rare.

3) Sometimes, foreigners in China receive special treatment. At times, it seems foreigners have more rights than Chinese. Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan once told me “Chinese law gives all kinds of special privileges to foreigners in China.” This is true, however, foreigners living in China are often cheated and encounter prejudices among the people. How should foreigners understand Chinese people’s attitudes toward foreigners?

1. Tell Chinese people you aren’t rich, you’re a fellow worker. 2. If you’ve been cheated, seek the police, they will be happy to help; in terms of their boring jobs, this would be something fresh.

4) Liu Xiaoyuan also told me, “Although much prejudice exists in China, there are no laws concerning racial prejudice.” Do you feel there ought to be? What kind of laws should there be?

Chinese people invented a term called “Chinese people” [中华民族], so all ethnicities fall under the term “the Chinese people”; therefore, there is no legal racial difference. Race has never been a problem, but after a law [about racial discrimination] was passed [hypothetically], people would probably suddenly start to be aware of racial differences, and perhaps discrimination would arise as a result.

Lou Jing
5) Have you heard of Lou Jing? Have a look at some of the comments netizens left about her, do you feel they indicate a prejudice against black people, or even constitute racial discrimination?

If her black father was Denzel Washington, I think the comments would be completely different. Although there are this many negative comments, the reason is she’s being seen as an illegitimate child, and the masses believe her father is poor. Chinese people may not be prejudiced against black people, but their prejudice against poor people is real.

6) There are people who say there is no racism in China, and Chinese don’t differentiate between black and white; they say that people who raise this issue are using foreign standards to judge China. But there are also people that say as China becomes a superpower, the people of the world will use international standards to judge China, not Chinese standards. Are these two “standards” [i.e., Chinese standards for what’s “racist” vs. foreign standards] really different? If they’re different, how do you think China should resolve this problem, or does it not need to be resolved?

This isn’t a problem. Chinese people don’t use race as a standard of judgement, they decide themselves if they should show respect or scorn. White people’s North American and European politics, culture, science, and economy are all very developed, but black people’s Africa always seems very backward, so Chinese people show more respect toward whites. At the same time in Asia, Chinese people’s attitudes about Koreans and Japanese are very different from their attitudes towards Vietnamese, Cambodians, and people from Laos. The reason is similar; Japan and Korea are developed, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos aren’t.

If race becomes a problem in China, the proof will be that Chinese people aren’t willing to shake hands with Tiger Woods simply because his skin is a different color. Obviously, this isn’t the case, people fight to be the first to get his autograph. If there is really some international standard, I hope it says: people are all equal, and people aren’t treated differently whether they are rich or poor.

7) If you have anything else to say related to this topic, write it here:

The first time I came in contact with people of another race was when I was 21. At that time, I was in college, and for the first time shook hands with a black student, Mark. I had already received a complete higher education, but after I shook his hand I couldn’t keep myself from secretly looking at my hand — to see if it had become black or not. Reason told me that this kind of thinking is absurd. But because I’d never come in contact with a black person before, my emotions led me to do this baffling thing.

Many years have passed, and I’m happy to say that I no longer look at my hand after shaking hands with black people, because in the intervening years I’ve seen many black people: tall, short, good, and bad. After seeing many black people, as far as I’m concerned, they don’t seem very different, they’re the same as me. It’s just that they happen to be black, as I understand it, it’s because the sun in Africa is too strong.

Africans protesting in Guangzhou

My Thoughts

First off, I want to express my gratitude again to Hecaitou for taking his time to respond. Throughout, he argues that what we might call “racism” is actually more like classism; prejudice against poor people. I’ve heard that argument before, but never expressed more convincingly, and I think he makes a great point. While I remain unconvinced that some Chinese people don’t make judgements based on race, he is absolutely right that in real life people’s behaviors reflect all kinds of prejudices at once. The harsh invective hurled at Lou Jing, for example, contains judgment based on class and also judgment based on cultural mores, not just judgment based on race. Does that negate the existence of judgement based on race? I leave it to you, commenters.

0 thoughts on “Hecaitou on Race in China”

  1. Although I do not completely agree with the survey respondent, I do share his opinion on racism vs classcism. Racism is only an appropriate concept in western cultures due to their prolonged history of slavery and colonization, whereas prejudice against certain race in China is mostly a result of xenophibia and socioeconomic disparity. The latter could be alleviated as more foreigners pour in and mingle with the Chinese population, whereas the latter would be a hard case, because judging people based on class and status is deeply rooted in the traditional, and still in the most part, the contemporary Chinese culture.


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