Recently, browsing through the Chinese blogs in my favorites list, I came across a rather surprising image (click here for full size version, image after the jump), a mockup of “evolution” in several different countries parodying the classic from-monkey-to-man evolution image found in high school textbooks. The reason it was posted in China is that the “evolution” line leads to a picture of a crab with watches on (an internet meme), but the first thing that would strike any American looking at the image would be that Africa’s evolution line ends without evolving beyond apes.
It’s unclear what country this picture originated in. One might be inclined to guess China, since few people from other countries would know, understand, or care about the “River Crab wearing three watches” pun, but the China line may have just been tacked on to a preexisting image, there’s no real way to tell. That two major blogs (不许联想 and 槽边往事) thought to post this at all is telling, given that neither of them even mention the racism. Of more interest, perhaps, are the comments on these posts, though.
Some commenters addressed the issue directly but insensitively: “That Africa one is hilarious!” wrote one. Many more praised the picture generally but didn’t comment on any specifics. One commenter simply wrote: “Ten thousand years!” (a traditional wish of longevity that obviously indicates high praise here). Another wrote, “Fuck, I died laughing! Classic!”
Some commenters were a bit more astute. “That Africa picture [… people will] definitely say you’re racist, do you know?” asked one on 不许联想, the only one of 50-plus comments to really directly address the issue. Commenters on Hecaitou fared much better: “Not funny + Racist,” wrote one. “The part about Africa is a bit too offensive,” wrote another, and someone noted that “the last [figure] in the Africa line should be Obama!”
A couple commenters on Hecaitou also indicated they knew something was going on in the Africa one, though they weren’t quite sure what, writing “That Africa one…” and then not commenting further. The vast majority of commenters though, failed to comment on it at all. Reasons for that can and probably do vary, but one may well be that they simply weren’t aware of the racist implications the image has. In fact, the first direct reference to the Africa part of the image on 不许联想 goes like this:
Commenter 1: How come there’s nothing after “Africa”?
Commenter 2: With an IQ like this you still come to this site? It means there’s been no improvement in Africa, orangutans have just become gorillas.
So is it ignorance or indifference that caused most people (including the bloggers themselves) to ignore the racism and post the image? It’s difficult to tell, and for our purposes here, making that distinction may well be irrelevant. Either way, it’s indicative of one aspect of Chinese culture that’s likely to cause problems as relations between Africa and China get closer and Chinese people have to, well, actually meet Africans.
I’m willing to grant that I may just be, by some people’s standards, taking this too seriously, coming as I do from America, the most race-sensitive nation on the planet. I’m also willing to grant that the internet as an institution is practically overflowing with racism. Still, these are well-respected blogs, not 4chan. That this obvious an issue could make it under so many people’s radars might indicate an impending rude awakening in a country where people will confidently tell foreigners “there is no racial prejudice.” That, I suppose, is where the “China” part of the image fits into this discussion; racial “harmony” is, as most foreigners in China are painfully aware, superficial or downright nonexistent as soon as someone different actually shows up. That Chinese people, as a whole, aren’t racist is as much of a joke as a River Crab wearing three watches.
I don’t mean to suggest that Chinese people are a bunch of torch-bearing clan members, nor do I mean to blame them, per se. As this report points out, one possible reason for Chinese prejudices against dark-skinned people is the negative roles they’re often seen playing in films. For the average Chinese, whose only exposure to dark-skinned people ever might be through the silver screen, it’s probably easy to get the wrong idea, and that’s Hollywood’s fault.
Other influences on Chinese perceptions of Africans include media reports of wars and “backwards” living conditions in African nations, which fuel the idea that Africans are somehow inferior. Since many African nations are poor, some Chinese may also look down on them for being economically inferior.
That’s not to say things aren’t changing. According to the New Yorker report linked above, people living in proximity to the African communities springing up in Southern China have grown to accept them (being allowed to marry someone’s daughter seems as good a measure of acceptance as any). As in all countries, young people in China tend to be more open-minded than their parents, perhaps partially because many of them idolize African American basketball players like Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson, or dark-skinned footballers like Ronaldinho and the rest of the Brazilian national team.
Does the future hold acceptance or increased tension? It’s difficult to say, but one Fudan University sociologist believes there may be trouble ahead: “”Racial issues could become a serious problem as China develops and more foreigners come here seeking a job. Then we would have some conflict,” Yu Hai told the Shanghai Star.
It’s not a difficult scenario to imagine, especially for Americans who have watched centuries of racial prejudices spring from the fear that immigrants may take jobs away from natives for one reason or another. In the States, the reason for this fear is generally that immigrants are often willing to work for less (see: Chinese, Irish, Italian, Mexican, and Puerto Rican immigrants, among others), but in China, the reason might well be that they can appear more attractive to companies than Chinese workers, perhaps offering international connections for business or the convenience of native English speaking skills.
So what do you think? As ever, we invite your comments. (And if you’re wondering about explanations for the other countries, Japan’s is a robot, Korea’s is a StarCraft character, and America’s, well, no one seems to be able to tell. The most popular interpretation among Chinese commenters was “hip-hop guy”)
UPDATE: For those who don’t know already, Hecaitou has responded to this post. He offers five reasons why the post isn’t racist, which include ‘China never had slaves’, ‘black people really do look like monkeys’ and ‘black people in China are not treated differently than Chinese’. All in all, I think it supports what I’m saying in this post pretty well, but you’re welcome to go there to check it — and the comments — out.
UPDATE 2: Things are progressing faster than I have time to follow, given that I have a full time job, but check out 不许联想’s excellent response to this post and Hecaitou has also responded, this time in Chinese. His response, which I’ll translate for the sake of fairness when I get some free time, might best be summed up by this sentence from it: No matter how often you update, there’s still no racism in China. Suffice it to say, I think he’s misunderstood this post as an attack on China or Chinese people, when it’s intended as nothing of the sort.
UPDATE 3: There is a new post about this post and further discussion with Hecaitou and Wang Xiaofeng here: “Race and China: Touching a Nerve”. It includes some correspondence between Hecaitou and me, as well as additional analysis.