This is the script of the Point of View talk first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on October 26th, 2012, also available on the BBC News Magazine. Missed the programme? Download it as a podcast or listen again on BBC iPlayer
I was on a taxi journey in Shanghai with a very intelligent young Chinese student, who was helping me with interviews and interpreting. She was shortly to study for her doctorate at a top American university. She casually mentioned that some Chinese students who went to the US ended up marrying Americans.
I told her that I had recently seen such a mixed couple in Hong Kong, a Chinese woman with a black American. This was clearly not what she had in mind. Her reaction was a look of revulsion. I was shocked. Why did she react that way to someone black, but not someone white? This was over a decade ago, but I doubt much has changed. What does her response tell us – if anything – about Chinese attitudes towards ethnicity?
China’s population is huge.
What people aren’t generally aware of, though, is that more than nine out of 10 Chinese people think of themselves as belonging to just one race, the Han. This is remarkable. It is quite different from the world’s other most populous nations: India, United States, Indonesia and Brazil. All recognise themselves to be, in varying degrees, multiracial and multicultural.
True, a country that is the size of a continent has obviously been home to countless different races down the ages. But that is not how the great majority of Chinese see themselves today.
Why is this?
The answer takes us back to the birth of modern China more than 2,000 years ago. China is extremely old – the longest continuously existing country in the world. The eastern half of China – where the vast majority of Chinese live now and lived then – has been more or less united ever since 211BC.
Over that extraordinarily long period – as a result of war, occupation, absorption, assimilation, ethnic cleansing and government resettlement – the sense of difference between the many races that lived in the eastern half of China was slowly eroded.
Fundamental to this process was the gradual emergence of a shared cultural identity.
China, along with part of today’s Middle East, was home to the first settled agricultural communities in the world. They gradually supplanted nomadic culture and ushered in the beginnings of centralised governance.
Over the last two millennia, China has generally been one of the most advanced, often the most advanced, civilisation in the world. It is hardly surprising that, with a rich history like this, the Chinese have a very powerful sense of their cultural identity.
Every country has its own unique story of ethnicity. Take the US. It starts with arrival of the European settlers and the near extermination of the native American population, to be followed later by large-scale African slavery. Not surprisingly, these experiences have profoundly influenced American attitudes and the country’s behaviour as a global power.
How did China evolve? It is essentially the story of the Han and the way in which over a period of two millennia they came to absorb the great majority of other ethnic groups.
Before the victory of the Qin dynasty in 221BC, China was divided into many different states. The process of its subsequent unification was the creation of an empire. But whereas all the other great empires of the world have long since broken up, China remains united. Why? In one word – the Han. The Han identity has served as the glue which has kept a geographically and demographically vast country together. Without that shared identity, China would long ago have fallen apart.
The China I have been talking about is the eastern half of present-day China, where more than 90% of the population lives. What then of the western half? This is a different story. It accounts for over half the territory of China but contains only about 6% of its population.
Whereas the eastern half of China dates back about two millennia, the western part is far more recent, having only been incorporated about 300 years ago.
From the mid-17th Century, large tracts of the western region were conquered by the Qing dynasty in a series of brutal wars. The inhabitants of these lands were not Han. With their different physical appearance, darker skin, distinctive customs and lower level of development, the Han saw them as the Other, as “barbarians”.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government, both imperial and communist, has long had a troubled relationship with parts of the western regions, notably Tibet and Xinjiang.
If the strength of the Han identity is that it has held China together, its weakness, I would argue, has been its relative lack of respect for difference, an underlying assumption that the non-Han should become like the Han – indeed eventually be absorbed into the Han. This attitude is not difficult to understand, it is how the Han became almost, but not quite, synonymous with being Chinese, or, to put it another way, how China was created.
Ethnicity is a powerful determinant of how societies perceive others. So is China, as a global power, likely to view the rest of the world?
Just as with the US, China will naturally tend to see the world in its own image. An unusual feature of China, in this respect, is that its history is so atypical: a huge population who overwhelmingly consider themselves to share the same identity. This helps to explain why the Chinese have tended to think of Africa as one, just like China, rather than a complex mosaic of different ethnicities and cultures.
The fact that China has had little experience of, or exposure to, the rest of the world until very recently – the past 30 years to be exact – has served to reinforce a tendency to see other countries through a Chinese prism.
Bear in mind, too, that the Chinese have a deep pride in their own cultural achievements, many believing that, for understandable reasons, their civilisation, and their history, is greater than all others. Such an outlook also tends to accentuate a China-centric view of the world.
When I first got to know the Chinese, one of the things I most enjoyed about them was their powerful sense of who they were, their confidence in who they were. They did not defer to white people. I liked that and respected them for it. It was as if their remarkable history resided in each and every one of them and made them walk tall.
Despite the fact that for the best part of two centuries China came to suffer hugely at the hands of the West, and to lag badly behind the West, the Chinese never stopped believing in themselves. Such pride and confidence is to be admired. In my view, though, it can also have a downside – a tendency to look down on others. If the Chinese have always considered themselves to be at least the equal of white Westerners, a common, though by no means universal, attitude has been to regard those of darker skin as inferior.
My horrified student friend was a case in point.
But why is this? Its roots are deep. For many centuries, white has had positive connotations in Chinese culture and black negative ones. Perhaps the reason is that those who toiled all day in the fields became dark while the aristocratic elite, protected from the sun, remained pristine white. To this day, interestingly, skin whitening products are enormously popular amongst Chinese women, as they also are in Japan and Korea and elsewhere.
Over the past two centuries, the Chinese have been hugely aware of the fact that white societies around the globe have been dominant while those of colour, especially African, have been poorer and much less developed. Success breeds respect, failure can all too easily attract scorn. Remember, those of African descent, until the past few decades, have been remote and distant from the Chinese, far removed from their knowledge and experience, a situation which can foster ignorance and prejudice.
There are small signs of change.
Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast footballer who now plays for Shanghai Shenhua, has spoken in glowing terms about how the Chinese have received him.
As China becomes increasingly familiar with the world – as is now happening in such a dramatic way, from Africa to Latin America, and South Asia to Central Asia – parochial if deep-seated prejudices will come under growing pressure.