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Date: Wed, 12 Aug 1998 15:24:48 +0000
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: Marilyn Levine, Lewis-Clark <mlevine@lcsc.edu>
Subject: H-ASIA: Race in China

Race in China

Part of a dialog from the H-Asia list, August 1998

From: jkirk@micron.net
Date: Mon, 10 Aug 1998 17:53:12 -0700

I was confused by Dikoetter's title, and Sivin's response, because, as I was taught in Physical Anthropology, biologically speaking there is no such thing as race in human populations. If it existed in times past (race: an isolated and inbreeding population), it ceased to exist also in the past reaches of mostly unrecorded time (except for lost tribes so-called, which usually turned out to be lost only to foreign explorers/intruders; thus not lost and not totally isolated in their breeding.) Compare the correct notion: a race of fruit flies. Race, because raised (in the lab) with no breeding outside their group.

Race is therefore a folk/popular/unscientific term for ethnicity. Just because race attributes are often based on phenotypical characteristics does not validate it. Thus, I'm not disturbed that Dikoetter's book made the equation noted by Sivin. I haven't seen the book. I hope that the author does not hold that race is a scientific concept for social analysis, except as an item of popularly shared views (culture).

Jo Kirkpatrick
Independent scholar

Date: Tue, 11 Aug 1998 07:03:38 -0400
From: S.H. Friberg <hakan.friberg@orient.su.se>

No, in his excellent book on _The Discourse of Race in Modern China_, Frank Dikotter does not hold that 'race' is a scientific concept for social analysis. Dikotter's book is very clear on that question. It is perhaps best to quote from the preface:

Race, of course, is a cultural construct with no relationship to objective reality. Phenotypal variations like hair texture or skin colour are subjectively perceived and culturally constructed by social groups: some may focus on skin colour, others on eye colour. These biological differences do not of themselves induce cultural differences, but are utilized to legitimize role expectations: physical features are given social meaning. Classifications based on physical appearance have no scientific foundation. Races do not exist, they are imagined.

Neither does Dikotter systematically confuse race with ethnicity. What he does is that he analyses and describes different ways that race has been constructed in modern China, and the very complex relations between the discourse on race and discourses concerning other (constructed) concepts such as lineage and nation.

Hakan Friberg

Center for Pacific Asia Studies
Stockholm University, S-10691 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46 (8) 16 27 22 Cell: +46 (708) 187 184
Fax: +46 (8) 16 88 10
e-mail: hakan.friberg@orient.su.se

Date: Wed, 12 Aug 1998 15:24:48 +0000
From: Nicholas R. Clifford <clifford@panther.middlebury.edu>

Just to clarify a point raised by Jo Kirkpatrick recently. It's been a while since I read Dikoetter's book, but it deals quite clearly not with Race in China, but with (as the title says) The Discourse of Race in Modern China.

As he says, 'Race', of course is a cultural construct with no relationship to objective reality, and the word generally appears in quotation marks. His point thus is not to study 'race' or even 'ethnicity', but rather race-thinking and race discourse, a phenomenon by no means restricted to the West, and occupying (if you buy his arguments) an important place in modern China. Moreover that race-thinking and race discourse, far from being simply an import from the West, had old, old Chinese roots. James Pusey's _China and Charles Darwin_ also deals with modern conceptions of race in China.

'Race' is one of those many words that must be understood in its historical context, and when we lift the term out of (say) a 19th century or early 20th century text, we cannot assume that it carried the same meaning for readers then that it does today. Race could mean ethnic or linguistic groups (Italians, Welsh, Germans) or even religious groups, for example (Henry Louis Gates claims to have met a member of the House of Lords who told him that any Englishman could tell the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic Irishman, for example). Or even social groups: in _Barchester Towers_ Trollope writes of the race of Tory squires who could never forgive Robert Peel for axing the Corn Laws.

To insist on historical context may seem obvious, but it demands a historical sense, and what the danger of ethnocentrism is to the student of other cultures, the danger of anachronism (usually present-mindedness) is to the historian. And these days, for all the talk about the New Historicism (whatever happened to that, by the way?) present-mindedness is very much with us.

Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.) is full of interesting stuff on the subject, although unfortunately like most writers on the subject, he has very little to say on Euramerican views of the yellow races. If anyone knows some good work on that—and particularly where, in the days when anthropologists and others sought to classify races according to some hierarchical scheme, the Chinese fit in, I'd like to know about it.

Barkan does have one wonderful quotation (p. 227) which I'll pass on because it's too good to be missed. In 1919 Edward M. East of Harvard (!!) and Donald F. Jones, in their book Inbreeding and Outbreeding asserted that the Irish were principally the product of the intermingling of two savage Mongolian tribes.

So that brings Central Asian studies right up to our shores, doesn't it?

Nick Clifford