CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


Racial Theories in The China Critic | China Heritage Quarterly

Racial Theories in The China Critic

Frank Dikötter
University of Hong Kong

Human beings display endless ingenuity in devising ways to discriminate against and abase each other, be it in the name of religion, culture, gender, class or nation. Until recently, the notion of 'race' was one of the most effective barriers against equality, as globally prevalent racial theories classified human beings into discrete clusters that ostensibly corresponded to biological units, distributed hierarchically on a scale of evolution with winners at the top and losers at the bottom. Eye colour, skin tone, cranial shape and hair texture were seen as markers of profound biological differences between humans, and used to rationalise such diverse institutions as the transatlantic slave trade, Apartheid and the Holocaust.

The idea that people could be classified according to real or imagined physiological differences took on global dimensions in the nineteenth century. The reason for this explosion of interest in racial theories seems simple enough: that they were, like guns and germs, yet another export product of the European global conquest. Europeans had also used religion to convert, exploit or exterminate the heathens around them, but Christianity failed to reap much of a harvest, notably among Hindus and Muslims. 'Race', unlike religion, was a new approach to ideological domination, one that presented itself as a modern way of understanding the world. The term given to this new worldview was 'science', which invoked reason rather than faith. Science underpinned the astonishing innovations in transportation, communication and manufacturing that were made in the nineteenth century. If science could produce machine guns and predict the movement of celestial objects, surely the division of human beings into distinct biological groups represented an equally objective measure of progress.

Racial theories offered another advantage. Not only did they harness the authority of science, invoking seemingly objective facts grounded in nature, but they were also versatile. Like the ever-evolving idiom of science, the language of race was rich, flexible, complex and fluid. And like the guns of colonisers, they could be turned against their carriers and made to serve different purposes. The Parsees, who had strict rules about marriage outside their own caste in India, had no difficulty in talking about 'purity of blood' and the need to eliminate 'inferior' children at birth in order to preserve the 'precious germplasm of a distinguished race'. They welcomed eugenics, the science of race improvement that had its heyday in Europe and the United States in the 1920s. In Africa, instead of repudiating the idea of a 'black race', leading Pan-Africanists used it to claim that the blood, skin and hair inherent in 'negritude' transcended the continent's many barriers of language, religion and geography.[1]

In China too, racial theories were influential, in particular after the country's devastating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. For the first time, leading reformers like Yan Fu 嚴復, Liang Qichao 梁啓超 and Kang Youwei 康有為 turned away from the Confucian classics to seek enlightenment abroad, hoping instead to find the keys to wealth and power on the distant shores of Europe. They searched the writings of such foreign luminaries as Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer for a unifying concept that could bind all the emperor's subjects together into a modern, powerful nation capable of resisting foreign encroachments. Upon discovering the notion of 'race', they used new evolutionary theories from England to present the world as a battlefield in which different breeds struggled for survival, as 'yellows' competed with 'whites' over inferior 'browns', 'blacks' and 'reds'.[2]

Their message of racial unity in a universe red in tooth and claw was enormously popular, mainly because it resonated so much with traditional ideas about lineage. In late-imperial China, feuds between lineages could be bloody affairs, sometimes involving tens of thousands of villagers. Race held the promise to suppress such internecine strife. Reformers portrayed 'race' as the extension of a grand, ancient lineage, tracing the origins of every Han Chinese back to the Yellow Emperor, a mythical figure thought to have reigned from 2697 to 2597 bce.[3] The very term 'yellow' had many positive connotations. It was one of the five pure colours in China and symbolised the Centre. It was the sacred colour of the emperor of the Middle Kingdom, ancestral home of the 'descendants of the Yellow Emperor' who were thought to have originated in the valley of the Yellow River.

Racial theories proliferated after the fall of the Qing in 1911. The reason, again, had to do with politics, as nationalists portrayed the Han Chinese as a people with shared physical attributes and a line of blood which could be traced back to the most ancient period. As Sun Yat-sen 孫中山, the founder of the Nationalist Party, 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.'[4] With the rise of a modern print culture, driven by private publishing houses and by the general growth in literacy, similar ideas appeared in travel literature, scientific publications and even school textbooks. The opening sentence of a chapter on 'human races' in a 1920 textbook for middle schools declares 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.'[5]

Tens of thousands of students used the openness of the Republican era to pursue a higher education abroad. By 1930, Chinese students outnumbered any other foreign nationality at American universities, specializing in a range of disciplines. Many became experts in their fields, from avionics to zoology. Some wrote entire volumes on racial matters, in particular those working in medicine, genetics, geography, anthropology and criminology. Li Chi 李濟 published The Formation of the Chinese People: An Anthropological Inquiry in English with Harvard University Press in 1928, having gathered thousands of measurements of skulls and noses to determine that the Tungus, from Siberia, were responsible for diluting the divine race of the Yellow Emperor through intermarriage. Zhang Junjun 张君俊, who studied psychology at Columbia University but read voraciously on anthropology and eugenics in his spare time, authored two books suggesting that the ancestors of the Han race had O type blood flowing through their veins, a purity subsequently vitiated by racial admixture with barbarian tribes.[6]

Quite a few of these scholars were bilingual. Republican China, as C.P. Fitzgerald has noted, was led by men of double culture, 'and no understanding of China which ignores this fact is possible'.[7] Some published in The China Critic, reaching out to their fellow returnees from Europe and the United States by writing in English while also addressing a more international readership. One such was Quentin Pan (潘光旦, 1898-1967), a graduate in zoology from Dartmouth College who went on to read for a higher degree at Columbia University in 1922. Like many other students from China, Pan was deeply committed to his country. And like many fellow biologists around the world, he tended to interpret lack of national strength as a sign of racial decline. Latching on to the burgeoning field of eugenics, which was widely popular in the academic community in the United States, he hoped to improve his country's heredity through the strict control of human reproduction. In 1931, Pan founded The Chinese Eugenics Institute and published a Eugenics Monthly together with the Chinese Committee for Racial Hygiene. Through his numerous publications, which often combined modern science with a more traditional focus on the genealogies of patrilineal families, he turned eugenics into a household word in China.[8]

Pan was deeply conversant with the international eugenics movement, but he did not simply replicate what he had learned in the United States. One reason why he wrote in English in The China Critic was to take issue with what he believed to be a deplorable drift towards the notion of 'equality of all men'. Thus, in his August 1930 review of The American Negro, a book edited by Donald Young, he opined that some of the contributors to the volume were idealists who were unwilling to speak in terms of racial inequality. This was particularly true of 'many scholars of Jewish origin', Pan claimed, posing himself as an outside observer who benefited from a more objective perspective:

But to be true to observable facts, in any given period of time sufficiently long for selection to take effect, races as groups are different, unequal, and there is no reason except one based upon sentiment why we cannot refer to them in terms of inferiority and superiority, when facts warrant us. It is to be suspected that the Jewish scholars, themselves belonging to a racial group which has long been unjustly discriminated against, has [sic]unwittingly developed among themselves a defensive mechanism which is influencing their judgements [sic] on racial questions. The reviewer recalls with regret that during his student days [in the United States] he had estranged some of his best Jewish friends for his candid views on the point of racial inequality.[9]

Pan believed that each 'racial group', instead of applauding its own achievements, should squarely face its own weaknesses in order to seek self-improvement. And as his own work on eugenics showed, that was the task to which he devoted his career in China.

With eugenics came the hope of improving the race: each generation could be better than its parents', leading to gradual racial perfection. Races were not fixed entities determined entirely by their genetic make-up, but plastic entities responsive to the environment. In a review of Griffith Taylor, author of Environment and Race, Quentin Pan argued that neither Nordic nor Teutonic races were inherently superior (their 'cephalic index', or cranial size, for one, was supposed to be too low). Not only that, but Griffith Taylor held a high opinion of the Chinese. As Pan quoted approvingly, 'In many respects the Chinese are worthy of the highest respect of the student of race'. Taylor even sanctioned racial intermingling, and specifically praised 'Anglo-Mongolian marriages', seen to produce healthier children. The reason why the Chinese were lagging behind, despite their natural endowment, were to be found in a deteriorating environment, in particular the educational system.[10]

Other writers touched upon similar issues in The China Critic. Frederick Hung, for instance, wrote on 'The Racial Superiority and Inferiority Complex' in January 1930. He warned against two extremes:

Most of the [Chinese] people, however, continue to think of our race as inherently superior to that of our neighbors of lighter or darker skin. Indeed there is very often a set of superiority and inferiority complexes stirring within those who have constant or occasional contacts with foreigners. He constantly persuades himself of his unexplainable superiority over the foreigner, but frequently has to rationalize in order to disperse the inferiority complex.[11]

Hung believed that the 'principal Mongolian and white races' all had enviable physical attributes, including skin tone and brain size, as well as longstanding civilisations. Africans did not enter his debate.

The China Critic was not substantially different from many other publications at the time with regards to the opinions on race found within its pages. By the 1930s many educated people had come to identify themselves and others in terms of 'race', even if they varied enormously in the meanings they attributed to real or imagined physical markers of difference. In fact, only a few isolated voices in republican China openly refuted the existence of a racial taxonomy in the human species. Zhang Junmai 張君勱, for instance, wisely excluded 'common blood' from his definition of the nation. Qi Sihe 齊思和, a noted historian, also criticised the use of racial categories of analysis by some of his colleagues and pointed out how 'race' was a notion in decline in parts of Europe.[12] But in general, racial ideas were so versatile that they cut across most political positions, from the fascist core of the Nationalist Party and the communist theories of Li Dazhao 李大釗 to the more liberal voices included in the China Critic.

Race was a fallacy, but it offered a powerful sense of identity and an authoritative worldview in which endless human differences could be explained in terms of stable biological laws. It was also an effective barrier against claims for human equality. And science endowed it with a singular resilience, one that continues to this day.


[1] On the global spread of racial theories, see Frank Dikötter, 'The Racialization of the Globe: An Interactive Interpretation', Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31, no.8 (November 2008): 1478-1496; on Pan-Africanism, see Kwame A. Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[2] A longer analysis appears in my book The Discourse of Race in Modern China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

[3] For current scholarship on 'Han' as an ethnicity and critical category, see: Thomas S. Mullaney, et. al. eds., Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China's Majority, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.

[4] Sun Yat-sen, Sanminzhuyi (The Three Principles of the People), Shanghai: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1927, pp.4-5.

[5] Fu Yunsen, Renwen dili (Human geography), Shanghai: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1914, pp.9-15.

[6] Li Chi, The Formation of the Chinese People: An Anthropological Inquiry, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928; Zhang Junjun, Zhongguo minzu zhi gaizao (The reform of the Chinese race), Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1935.

[7] C.P. Fitzgerald, review of Y. C. Wang, Chinese Intellectuals and the West in Pacific Affairs, 40, no.1 (Spring 1967): 140.

[8] Dikötter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China, pp.174-185.

[9] Quentin Pan, review of Donald Young, ed., The American Negro in The China Critic (28 August 1930): 838.

[10] Quentin Pan, review of Griffith Taylor, Environment and Race in The China Critic (31 May 1928): 19. On Chinese attitudes toward racial 'hybridity', see: Emma Teng, 'Eurasian Hybridity in Chinese Utopian Visions: From "One World" to a "Society Based on Beauty" and Beyond', positions: east asia cultures critique 14.1 (Spring 2006): 131-63.

[11] Frederick Hung 洪紱, 'Racial Superiority and Inferiority Complex', The China Critic (9 January 1930): 29.

[12] Dikötter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China, pp.153-5.