How Volleyball and Pop Have Shaken China’s Idea of Race

What does it mean to be Chinese? Isabel Hilton writes on how national volleyball player and reality show contestant — both children of Chinese mothers and black fathers — have sparked debates over the question of race. Via the Guardian:

Earlier this year, China picked Ding Hui, a young man from Hangzhou, for its national volleyball team. Last month a 20-year-old Shanghainese, Lou Jing, made the last 30 in the Chinese version of Pop Idol. Neither event would have attracted unusual notice but for the one thing the two young people have in common: they are in a small, and for China, novel category of mixed-race citizens, children of black fathers. Their emergence into the limelight has forced the country into an uncomfortable and often shocking debate about what it means to be Chinese.

Both have been widely discussed on the Chinese internet in terms that have not been publicly acceptable in the US or Europe for half a century. Both Lou Jing and Ding Hui have been treated as frank curiosities: netizens comment on their white teeth, Ding Hui’s athleticism and Lou Jing’s sense of rhythm. On the show, the presenters repeatedly referred to Lou Jing as “chocolate”. Contributors to the nation’s websites indulged in altogether cruder epithets, indulging their imaginations on the subject of sex between a black man and a Chinese woman.

[…] China has not been a country of immigration: its ethnic diversity has come from expanding borders rather than inward migration. Who is really Chinese is not the easiest question to answer in a country that officially has 56 ethnic groups – and in reality many more – but in which one group, the Han Chinese, is so dominant that it has the power to define the cultural and racial content of nationality.

Charles Custer of ChinaGeeks also asks about race in China, though in the context of Chinese law. He posed the question “What, if anything, does the Chinese law have to say about racial and/or ethnic discrimination?” to three lawyers: Dan Harris of China Law Blog, Stan Abrams of China Hearsay, and Liu Xiaoyuan.

In response to China Law Blog’s Steve Dickinson’s response that in China, “your basic identity is the culture you follow, not who were your parents,” Custer writes:

He’s right, of course, in saying that the Chinese spend a lot more time talking about ethnicity (民族) than they do about race (种族). But the idea that Chinese care about culture more than blood doesn’t really seem to fit with what happened to Lou Jing, an ethnically Chinese but racially half-African Shanghainese girl who was abused by many Chinese netizens for her skin color and racial background despite the fact that she shared their culture.

If there are laws to defend Lou Jing, and those that will inevitably follow her as the number of foreigners and mixed-race couples in China continues to grow, even Liu Xiaoyuan doesn’t know about them. The next questions, of course, are: should there be? And if so, when will there be such laws?

ChinaGeeks has also posted on the topic of race before. See a March 2009 post, “Racism in China.”

Read also an added perspective from Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore, who recently sat down and spoke with Lou Jing (h/t Sue).

November 6, 2009, 7:39 PM
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