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The Creation of Race in China

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The Creation of Race in China

An ad from the 1880s for a rat pesticide by a Boston company. The Chinese man is about to eat the rat.

(Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
The notion of “race” in China is a relatively new phenomenon, first introduced to China by Chinese intellectuals who had studied in Japan and the West around the turn of the 20th Century.

Many of these intellectuals studied the teachings that were popular around the world at that time, including Herbert Spencer’s writings on Social Darwinism that applied warped views of evolution to the human mind. A key translator of these Western texts into Chinese was scholar Yan Fu, who studied in England and later taught language and technology.

For many Western believers, the concept of Social Darwinism meant that the white race was racially superior. The Chinese reaction to this was to cultivate a Chinese race that could be equally or even more superior.

Chinese intellectuals translated “race” as “zhong zu” (种族) a combination of the word for “seed” (种 or zhong) and an old Chinese term (族 or zu) used to describe the lineage of patrilineal extended families. This translation shows how these intellectuals imagined what race meant in belonging to a larger nation.

Promoting such beliefs was instrumental in reforming the failing Qing Dynasty (the last dynasty of China). The dynasty would ultimately fall in the 1911 Revolution that created the Chinese Republic. These Chinese intellectuals pushed the view that the West saw China as The Sick Man of Asia and thus, China needed to heal itself.

Scholars had different methods to heal China. Intellectual Kang Youwei pushed for national salvation and reform based on traditional Chinese philosophies such as Buddhism and Confucianism. Meanwhile journalist and commentator Liang Qichao, believed the only way to change China was to create a larger sense of community and created the term “minzu” or “nationality” to define the Chinese people.

The term was later picked up by revolutionary Sun Yatsen who used it to refer to a Han race that excluded the ruling Manchus who made up the Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty of China.

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