I've spent a lot of time looking into this and I think it is very clear that broadly speaking it is a mix of local aesthetic values that manifest as a kind of Afro-Phobia e.g. aversion to dark skin, thinking we're dirty, over the top reaction to body odour (something which is actually a real "racial" difference ); as well as a product of originally Western but now essentially global racial stereotypes that can legitimately be called racist in the strong sense of the word.
Personally, I don't think there's any removal of agency in attributing certain aspects of this to Western influence, particularly when it comes the fact that Blacks and Chinese have very little shared history, so when Chinese point out that "Blacks have never had a great civilization" or "Blacks have never contributed anything to American society" they are doing so based off second hand accounts. Because of the huge influence of Western culture on "global culture," many of these "facts" go unchallenged even in places like the US and UK that have taken a great many steps to redress the imbalances of the past. It's no surprise that without any reason to stop and rethink these things, the general trend towards anti-racism has not extended (far in) to China.
I did some work on this recently so I'll give you an overview of what I found (I won't bother with working out how we define "Black" and "Chinese" because I never got that far myself, but it's worth thinking about). If anyone is interested I can share more sources.
(I'm doing this off the top of my head as, unfortunately, I just returned all my relevant books to the library and just finished a dissertation so I'm not up to going all out for this, please excuse any inaccuracies. On the other hand, please excuse the fact that I’m basically posting a mini essay complete with in-line citations. Its pretentious, I know, but please indulge me.)
Part 1 - Early Period and Nation Building
I'm going to speed over the pre-modern period because, personally, I don't think stories of magical slaves etc. have all that great an influence on what we see today. Suffice to say that southern China has certainly had contact with Black Africans for many centuries via the Indian Ocean Slave Trade. Bear in mind that "racial" categories were different back then and African Blacks were often lumped in with other dark-skinned peoples like South Indians, and Indonesians. As Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, became more common in the Indian ocean and eventually settled in Macau, Chinese became more familiar with Black Slaves drawn from their African colonies. With no other specimens except these slaves they were often looked down on, but a certain number did escape their masters and were, if not welcomed, were not turned away. At this time any sense that Africans were a magical people was largely dispelled at least among the educated. They were slave barbarians and not much more (Snow, 1988)
After the Opium Wars and around the turn of the century 20th century, the Chinese were rapidly absorbing as much European or Western learning as they could, first via Japan, and then through Chinese students who went to study in the West. They began to model themselves on Western institutions and scientific practices. This is when terms such as 民族 (ethnie/nation) and 种族 (race) first came into use via Japanese. It's worth noting that in China, Korea, and Japan, 民族 or ethnic group is often treated as synonymous with nation and race. I'm not saying this is wrong, in fact that was probably the popular understanding at the time, and it's only recently that ethnonationalism has fallen out of favour in the West, the difference is that this understanding has persisted to this day.
Now when I say they were modelling themselves on the West, it doesn't mean that they were copying everything wholesale. They were attempting to change their empire into a nation-state along Western lines, but there were always parts of the process where they compromised or, for some scholars, flipped things on their head. In the case of racial theory, social Darwinism and eugenics, they compromised. Thus we get from prominent nationalist scholars such as Liang Qichao gems like this: "All the black, red, and brown races, by the microbes in their blood vessels and their cerebral angle, are inferior to the whites. Only the yellows are not very dissimilar to the whites" (in Dikotter, 1990, p.425). Or this by Tang Caichang, "Yellow and white are wise, red and black are stupid; yellow and white are rulers, red and black are slaves; yellow and white are united, red and black are scattered" (in Dikötter, 1990, p425). Dikotter argues that these intellectuals were denigrating other races in order to boost the collective prestige of themselves and China which had been brought low by foreign invasions. Still other intellectuals sought an amalgamation of the White and Yellow races for the good of both. Kang Youwei, a prominent intellectual and reformer, laid out a vision for the eugenic improvement of the human race in which the Yellows and Whites interbred to produce glorious Eurasian hybrids, while the Blacks and Browns were gradually purged from the gene pool and bred out of existence. It sounds awful but his solution was actually probably kinder than the race wars and outright extermination that was implied by some of his contemporaries (Teng, 2006).
What one needs to realise is that they co-opted the European racial hierarchy and put themselves on an equal footing with Whites, while simultaneously shitting on most everyone else. Although this is the opinion of the elites, it percolated down to common people through textbooks, encyclopaedias and pamphlets. It's important to realise that people often don't question this kind of information when it comes at them in dribs and drabs and has no bearing on their everyday experiences - they're less likely to challenge them. The fact is these views of Black people were largely a by-product of the need to educate and forge a nation from the disparate groups that were the Qing empire. In creating a racial or ethnonationalist state they had to define themselves against others and part of that self-definition included defining what they were not. Based on the information they had at the time they defined themselves as part of the Yellow race (this took persuading as they historically considered themselves "White", there's a good book on this by Keevak (2011)), but even though they accepted the Western labels they rejected the framing and redefined the racial hierarchy to suit themselves. I think the seeds of a lot of racial thinking in China today were set around this time, as they were elsewhere.
Part 2 - Anti-black Racism in the mid to late 20th century
The fact that Chinese intellectuals already had a set racial view of Africans and Blacks is very important because it almost certainly played a key role in the difficulties African students had in China during and just after the Mao era. Despite claiming that racism only existed in the capitalist imperial West, the CCP never did follow through with a proper anti-racist education, leaving much of the "knowledge" of the previous era untouched, merely overlaid with the language of class warfare.
During the Mao era the CCP reached out to newly decolonised African nations in the spirit of third world brotherhood. The official propaganda was somewhat paternalistic, but there was nevertheless real effort to assist with money and infrastructure projects, as well as educational opportunities. Between 1959 and 1961, China admitted 125 African scholarship students. After this date numbers fell sharply as the Africans protested their unequal treatment when compared with Europeans; they complained of small dormitories, low stipends, and discrimination when off campus. Bear in mind that this was under high communism, the Africans were inundated with politics to the exclusion of everything else. Despite the fact that most had come on scholarships to receive technical educations, they found themselves asking how to say “water” in Chinese after 3 months of language courses because all they learned was political jargon. It's no surprise that they showed little aptitude for such "studies" but unfortunately this may have appeared to confirm stereotypes of their low intelligence. Furthermore, they complained of discrimination, some fights broke out, especially when they were accused of dating Chinese women. Most of the students were male and naturally relationships flourished, but they were strongly discouraged by the regime and the women were often carted off to the countryside or imprisoned for having relations with foreigners. At the time the regime claimed that unrest was caused by discontent about the lavish stipends foreign students received, but Europeans actually received more than Africans and were not targeted. (Liu, 2013)
The situation only worsened in the reform period with multiple instances of public riots where African students were attacked. Anti-black racism would meld with nationalist discontent and the desire for the Chinese government to raise the profile of the nation. The spark for such violence was almost always incidents of African men dating Chinese women – although there were often multiple grievances. It is important to bear in mind that at this time there were foreign students of all kinds, including whites, but it was Africans who drew the most ire (Sautman, 1994, p416-417). Beginning with an incident at the Shanghai Textile Engineering Institute in 1979, the period ended with the 1988-89 Nanjing Anti-African protests that fed directly into the pro-democracy movement and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Lufrano (1994) argues that these events cannot be separated and the racial violence and nationalist fervour are closely linked.
The takeaway from the student violence is that all of the allegations levelled at Africans could be said of White students as well, but it was blacks who were deported for having relationships with Chinese women, and it was Blacks who received insulting messages about their "jungle manners." In the following period polling data about attitudes towards foreign groups was conducted and African's were consistently rated lowest on almost all categories (Sautman, 1994). Of the groups polled, students in particular had a very dim view of Africans. I think this is important because I would say that the strongest vein of racism in Chinese society is actually among the educated classes who - in the stark absence of personal experience - have greater access to the "evidence" of black inferiority both foreign and domestic. The middle classes and intellectuals have a bigger stake in defining the nation and Chineseness in a way that excludes Blacks, just as nationalist intellectuals did in the late 19th century.
Part 3 - African Traders, International Students, and "Cyber-racism"
In the third and most recent period, from the millennium onwards, there are two big differences from the previous two. The first is the big increase in reciprocal migration between China and Africa on a large scale, places like Guangzhou and Yiwu have become hubs for African traders and Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa have brought thousands of Chinese to Africa's shores. For the first time there is a large number of Chinese and Blacks interacting in daily life within China itself, and this has changed the racial dynamics there. Chinese are developing their own stereotypes of Blacks, but these are coloured by historical western stereotypes that exist as part of global culture. The second, is the advent of the internet and the opportunity for Chinese people to access huge amounts of information, this includes news about racial problems and racial conflict around the world. For example, when many Chinese see the racial problems in America, such as the Baltimore protests a few years ago, they don't see the result of hundreds of years of oppression that went well beyond lynching, but included systematic exclusion from political, economic and cultural life; all they see is a group of Black people causing trouble again. When they see the news about the failure of African countries to develop they don't see the aftermath of colonialism coupled with a broken system of international institutions that force them into development plans that have basically never worked, they just see the consummate failure of all Black countries to develop. So, blacks are and always have been failures. It's a very neat narrative and plenty of Chinese people have joined these dots, just like others have.
When one combines Afro-phobia with global racism, Chinese have very few reasons to like black people, but nevertheless I think these things come together in different people and in different ways. For example, Shanshan Lan (2017) conducted a study of African migrants in China and found what she called "uneven racialization." I won't bore you with the academic jargon, but she found that African traders in Guangzhou made many connections to their Chinese business partners, and there was a much more nuanced understanding on both sides. In particular, rural to urban Chinese migrants had a lot in common with illegal immigrants because they're both marginalised communities that operate outside state control. The African men often hire young Chinese to work in their shops or as their translators, providing young rural workers with an unlooked-for connection to a different culture and chances to improve their foreign language and business skills. Because the Africans are relatively well off, more than a few migrant women consider marrying an African trader to be a step up in the world, and nothing cements a business relationship like marriage. There are tensions of course, Chinese traders say the Africans are unreliable, and the Africans say Chinese are too inflexible at times, sometimes Chinese women are taken aback by how forward some African men are in their courtship, but overall, Lan didn’t find any serious ethnic conflict. This is important and supports a very commonly used and well supported hypothesis, the contact hypothesis which suggests that prejudice can be reduced with contact. Unsurprisingly, the most prejudiced group was not the people who had a lot of contact with Africans, but middle- and upper-class keyboard warriors who couldn’t stand the sight of Africans using the metro in their city, or worse, dating Chinese women.
The connections made between those on the bottom of Guangzhou society, stand in contrast to the rather toxic situation online. If you've spent any time paying attention to what gets said about Blacks online in China, you'll know what I'm talking about. Lan also did an analysis of many of the biggest online platforms like 天涯, looking at how people discussed Africans and Black people – the users of such platforms are usually students or the moderately well off. She concluded that overall the online discourse was very negative, full of what she called the "Black Threat narrative" and Afro-phobia. As I mentioned above, Afrophobia seems to stem mostly from more straight-forwardly Chinese beliefs about size, skin colour, and body odour. People find the sight of Africans scary, and they find some of them to be smelly. The Black threat narrative is much more insidious and it was the focus on my dissertation.
The black threat narrative represents the fusion of Western and local beliefs about black people. Those who fully subscribe to this view often call themselves 反黑 (anti-Black) and are extremely afraid of African immigration. A lot of their rhetoric mirrors that of white nationalist hate groups: they believe that Africans are genetically inferior; that each race should keep to its own; that Africans have the ability to outbreed other races and will do so in China as they are doing elsewhere; they believe that Black men are prone to violence and rape and that they are a threat to Chinese women. They focus heavily on instances of Black crime in China and abroad, with frequent references to the US, France, Haiti, and South Africa, all places that they believe have been or are being ruined by Black people. They take particular exception to any instances of Chinese women dating black men, and make a point of exposing and harassing them online. They say their actions are driven by the epidemic of Black men sleeping with Chinese girls and giving them HIV or leaving them holding the baby (Lan found that strict immigration controls and deportations were often the reasons why African fathers “abandoned” their families – they were physically prevented from reuniting). There have also been multiple scares about African international students raping Chinese girls and precipitating their suicides, all these rumours appear to be false. I’ve yet to see anything beyond anecdotal evidence of all these crimes, but unfortunately the lack of official statistics makes fertile ground for such rumour-mongers. I don't have anything close to an accurate estimate of the numbers of these hardcore anti-Blacks, but having done a simple search for 黑人 on the top three Chinese search engines one of the top anti-black forums (黑人吧) is on the first page of every one, suggesting that the online discourse is strongly influenced by these people. Bearing in mind the strict control of social movements in China, I’d say they’re rapidly approaching the size and significance of what would be called a hate group round our way.
To my mind, this online phenomenon is closely linked to the historical background which I've already laid out, as well as the press coverage and government handling of African immigrants in Guangzhou. (A lot of the people on the forums said the beginning of their anti-black sentiment began through seeing news stories.) There have been some good studies on this, especially the work by Huang (2018) in which he had a close informant in the police force exposing how the Guangzhou police were blatantly racially profiling and discriminating against Africans, as well as how the Guangzhou media linked the concept of 三非外国人 (those who illegally enter, live, and work in China) with Africans. In his media analysis he broke down how the papers linked Africans to crime by overusing their photographs in discussions on foreign crime, and running sensationalist pictures of the African's protesting. His media analysis is corroborated by Dang (2016), who did a media analysis comparing Guangzhou papers to others in the region. She found that Guangzhou papers focused much more on crime and negative stories when reporting on Africans, and Lan (2015) found that the immigration laws put in place to restrict immigrants in the region had a disproportionately negative effect on Africans because of their high visibility. Not only that, but these laws were then used as a template for nation-wide changes. Despite the central government’s push for Sino-African friendship, local government and media often view African immigrants as a social problem.
Unfortunately, the recent waves of new immigrants to the West have not always helped to bring nuance to these issues. International migrants often have a keen eye for noting and adapting to the racial situation of the countries they live in. Ritter (2013) found this to be the case with East Asian international students in the US, who were quick to notice the lack of Blacks on campus when compared to other groups, and the prevalence of Latinos in service roles. They often chalked this up to these groups being naturally uninterested in education. Kaiser Kuo, whom some of you may know of, wrote a good little piece that touched on the racial conservatism of recent Chinese immigrants in the US. A big factor is the tendency to focus on immediate safety and to ignore history. The fact that Blacks have the highest crime rate is enough for most upwardly mobile class-conscious immigrants to know that they're bad news, they don't want to hear excuses for it. If you’re British you may be familiar with the case of the Chinese airline that advised passengers to avoid areas of London populated by Pakistanis, Indians, and Black people. In my personal life many Chinese students, friends of friends, won’t go to certain places in London because there are too many Blacks or Indians. In one way it’s not incorrect, those places tend to have more petty crime, but by using race as the key signifier for high crime areas it openly reinforces the local racial politics that put those people there in the first place (黑人区 is the ubiquitous translation of American ghettos, some may argue that they’re functionally the same, but I think the thin veneer of the term ghetto at least allows for the potential use of the word in other contexts, whereas 黑人区 inescapably racialises the issue as a problem of the people and not the place).
I haven’t touched on the portrayal of Africa and how that plays into things, but suffice to say that as the “veritable heart of darkness/blackness,” the state of African nations stands as a big piece of evidence to the casual Chinese observer. There’s a strong tendency in Chinese media to link Africa and Africans with all kinds of extremes, this has been well documented by Johanna Hood (2011) in her study of HIV/AIDS and the Chinese media. Here are two illustrative examples from her book. In Wang Jian and Xu Lianzhi’s Clinical Illness AIDS Pictorial, a book used to teach Chinese doctors how to treat AIDS in China, 224 of the 249 images were of black sufferers, this at a time when there was no shortage of AIDS patients in China. In the 1991 publication, Sexually Transmitted Disease, AIDS, and Drug Use, there are no images of unhealthy Chinese at all. Overall, Hood found that advanced or horrific states of disease were always depicted on foreign, especially Black bodies. Han Chinese were shown sparingly, most often in the early stages, or after recovery. The thrust of the book is that the disease is framed as so foreign that it actually makes many Chinese complacent because they think it’s not something Chinese can really get, but for our purposes it’s clear that such framing will affect their racial outlook. The Chinese media and even medical profession are doing a good job of associating Africa and blackness with disease and decay, even as the government trumpets all the good China does there. It’s no wonder the online racists are constantly fear-mongering about Africans causing an HIV epidemic.
The point of this little essay was to give a background to OP and those who are interested, and to clarify the part that historical racism has in creating other kinds of racism, as well as to point out how Chinese have built on these concepts in recent years. There are now a great many sites for Chinese to develop prejudice against Black people. In particular, the internet is a key site where anti-black racism is flourishing thanks to the efforts of a small number of hardcore racists poisoning the already biased media landscape. Unfortunately, there are few Black people with the Chinese ability to adequately combat these smears, and appropriately qualified Chinese allies are thin on the ground. These problems are exacerbated by a lack of personal contact with Black people, as well as long standing colourism that draws a very strong association between skin colour, class, and even morality. One certainly cannot go too far by saying that Black people in China have things stacked against them.
In contemporary times we can be thankful that actual violence hasn’t broken out as it did in the past, yet this does not mean that anti-black racism is no longer a problem in China. There’s still discrimination in employment, in social life, in the media, and even a degree of institutional discrimination albeit on a small scale. Some of the backlash is related to the fact that the Chinese have been building a race-nation for the past century, and so expanding the definition of Chineseness to fit Afro-Asians is going to take time, Eurasians have it easier because of the historical dominance of Caucasians and phenotypic similarities, but there is still very much a taken for granted belief in the unity and antiquity of the Chinese race-nation. I didn’t go into it as much as I’d have liked as this is already over long, but there’s a lot of evidence for this when you see the myths about Peking man, or the myth of the Yellow emperor, descendants of the dragon, all that jazz. But I digress.
When it comes to one on one interaction you’ll find a hundred different reasons behind any Chinese person’s view of Black people. Some will talk about GDP differences between China and African nations, others will talk about skin tone, or crime rates, or historical civilizations. The case has often been made that Chinese are unfairly judged for being open with their shallow prejudices, while Westerners have simply learned to hide their much more serious prejudice better. While I am partial to this viewpoint, I do think it is sometimes overstated, and my investigations into the long history of this stuff makes me think that, at a broader scale, anti-black racism is more entrenched in China than most people think. It doesn’t help when certain people imply that Black people are crying wolf or have been somehow coddled by Western PC culture. Contrary to what these people think, the majority of black people, and minorities of all sorts, women included, tend to avoid making a fuss wherever possible, and if they’re complaining about a certain incident, chances are there are many more they aren’t talking about.
Anyway, this has been a bit negative so I’d like to finish on a more positive note. Linking back to what Lan called “uneven racialisation” there is still room for Black people and Chinese to get along productively, I think this is shown in the increasing numbers of African Chinese intermarriages, both in China and in Africa. Among her African informants, Lan found people who thought that Chinese pragmatism tended to supersede racial considerations, they found doing business much easier in China than in Europe or America, where they have almost no credibility. Among the traders in Guangzhou, and presumably Yiwu, Black Africans are associated with foreign money and the international community, sometimes being reflexively addressed as 老板, a term of respect (can’t remember if this was Lan or Bodomo, 2012). In my more optimistic moments, and I am a huge pessimist, I think there’s definitely hope for the future.
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