LI ANSHAN: Chinese ignorance of race should not be confused with racism

By / 06-06-2016 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Recently, a detergent ad appeared on Chinese TV that depicts a Chinese woman placing a black man in a washing machine, and when she opens the lid, she finds that his color has been “washed away,” revealing he’s actually a Chinese man underneath.

The ad has been denounced as racist in China and abroad, and there has been heated debate online among members of the Chinese community in Africa as well as Africans in China. As a Chinese scholar, I would like to share my thoughts with colleagues.

After more than 30 years of opening-up, China is still facing serious challenges in its dealings with the outside world. Ignorance is persistent, and some Chinese harbor prejudices toward not just Africans but people from other continents as well.

As a historian, I look to history for a broader perspective. The Chinese have by no means been free of prejudice and discrimination against foreigners. Historically self-centered and conceited, the Chinese have looked down upon outsiders and used condescending labels for the people who lived in surrounding lands. China’s name in Mandarin is zhongguo, meaning “Middle Kingdom,” implying it is at the center, and those who lived outside of it were dismissed as “barbarians.”

To the extreme, foreigners have been called gui, meaning “devil,” with the connotation that they are inhuman or evil. Blacks have been called fannu, or “barbarian slaves;” hei gui, meaning “black devils,” and Kunlun nu, or “Kunlun slaves.”

White people have been called yang guizi, meaning “foreign devil;” hong mao gui, meaning “red-haired devil;” fangou, “barbarian dog;” and gui lao, “devil man” and gui po “devil woman.”[i] Keeping this in mind, we can see that Chinese prejudice has not been confined to blacks but also includes whites or any cultural Others.

We have to admit that ethnocentrism is a universal phenomenon in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia that is rooted in the cultural environment of the people. Contrary to William Graham Sumner’s notion of the term, ethnocentrism is an attitude or action of a human group who regard themselves as normal, beautiful and clever while looking down upon others.

Ethnocentrism is common among people who are isolated and incapable of achieving mutual understanding, and it was especially evident in ancient times. People always think the highest of their own kind without exception. The Romans looked at all non-Romans as barbarians, and the Greeks regarded themselves as the most civilized. Like the Chinese, the Indians thought they were living in the center of the world at one time. Africans were also prejudiced against whites. According to Ibn Battuta, Malian cannibals did not eat whites since “eating a white man is harmful because he is not ripe.” Winnie Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela, told us in her book that the first racist she met was her grandmother, who thought white people’s pale skin and blue eyes were the symptom of some disease. There are similar cases today.

Ethnocentrism is understandable in a situation where people lack contact and an understanding of others. It is another thing when ethnocentrism is converted into racism, which was harnessed by modern colonialism to justify the military, political and economic domination of foreign people.

The overwhelming majority of Chinese people are ignorant of Africa, and there are quite a few misunderstandings. But we have to be cautious about labelling “the Chinese” as racist, since there are different cases of ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice and racism. Ignorance alone is not equivalent to racism.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Ghanaian student Zahra Baitie recounted her experience in China and discussed the Chinese attitude toward Africans. She said that although there are good relations between China and Africa on governmental level, “on a person-to-person basis, ignorance, misunderstanding, and intolerance still persist…… I never felt discriminated against or antagonized, but rather was treated with warmth and friendliness. Because I spoke Mandarin, I could often understand what people said about me, and they were rarely disparaging or maligning.”[ii] This observation of the attitude toward African is verified in other cases.

Yiwu, known as China’s biggest commodity city, set up a Foreign Dispute Mediation Office in order to settle up disagreements in business. The office uses volunteer mediators from different nations. A Senegalese businessman named Tirera Sourakhata and his African colleague volunteered for the program.[iii] The website Guancha reported the story of this successful African businessman who speaks French, English, Arabic and Chinese serving as volunteer-mediator in Yiwu market and the comments from readers were overwhelmingly positive.[iv] Readers showed ignorance and curiosity obviously, but there was not discrimination.

Another incident perfectly illustrates the difference between benign ignorance and malicious prejudice. An old lady in Shanghai Madame Zhu picked up an abandoned black infant and brought him home. She thought his black skin was merely dirty and tried to wash him clean. When she found this was not possible, she was scared and thought he had some illness, so she took him to the hospital. The doctor told her that the child’s skin is black.

She named the child Zhu Junlong and brought him up through kindergarten, primary school and middle school with various difficulties. In 2014, Zhu Junlong received a Shanghai hukou, or household registration, and Madame Zhu adopted him as her son. Zhu loved the child as her own though she initially did not understand that he was even of a different race.[v]

Historically isolated, Chinese people lack the sensitivity to issues of race that can be observed in more pluralistic societies where multiple ethnicities have coexisted for a long time. But as the nation becomes increasingly open and ordinary people are exposed to other cultures through global media and interpersonal exchanges, the widespread ignorance that is often mistaken for racism will become a thing of the past.


Professor Li Anshan is director of the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies and the Center for African Studies at Peking University.

Note: [i] Zhou Zikui, a Jinshi (a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations) in the late Ming Dynasty even thought that xiyang ren (the Europeans) cannot be called yi (barbarians), can only be termed qin (birds and beasts), because barbarians were still human beings, and Europeans were not human beings.

[ii] Zahra Baitie, “On being African in China” Accessed on 2 Feb. 2015.

[iii] Chen Lan, “Foreigners help foreigners like non-foreigners.”  Zhejiang Legal News, 24 June, 2014. For English report, see; 280958, Accessed on 24 Feb., 2015.

[iv] “Senegalese merchant turned out to be a foreign mediator for the dispute mediation commission in Yiwu”,, Accessed on 24 Feb. 2015.

[v] “Shanghai old woman raised an abandoned black boy for 15 years with love beyond family bond”, Accessed on March 12, 2015.