Race and Racism: Asia

Genzo Yamamoto. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Volume 5, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

To discuss race in Asia, race must first be defined. Changes in definitions of race over the centuries in the West make this difficult. The earliest uses of race in sixteenth-century Europe usually focused on differences arising from common ancestry, descent, or origin. These were perceived in kinship and lineage relationships, physiological differences, or even religious or mythical ancestors. The rise of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought new methods for ascertaining these differences. Social Darwinism suggested that there were races that were more or less advanced. In the name of science, research pursued observational studies that sought to create taxonomies establishing the hierarchies and differences among races. This shifted again in the mid-twentieth century due to the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and developments in science. Although voices critical of biological definitions exist as early as the 1930s, in the 1960s and 1970s especially, scientific research undermined post-Darwinian, “scientific” notions of race. While genetics is involved in the perceived physical differences of people, research showed that many of these phenotypical differences that divide people along perceived racial lines are less significant than the greater genetic similarities and differences that suggested groupings altogether quite different from the commonly perceived racial groupings. This undermined definitions of race that presented the criteria as objective and natural. Although, for these reasons, some have argued that race no longer represents a useful analytical category, the historical consequences of these ways of viewing the world as well as the continuing efficacy of the term in contemporary discourse makes the word useful and necessary for analysis. Most scholars no longer accept the assumption that objective genetic and physical distinctions play a dominant role in defining different races. Increasingly, race is defined as a socially and culturally constructed concept of a common ancestry.

Discussions of racism in Asia must also first consider differing definitions of racism. Although there is a general sense of what racism or racialism is—belief, theories, or effects privileging one race over others—there is considerable debate over definitions that are salient for discussing racism in Asia. Some have defined racism narrowly as being inherently a “white” phenomena, intrinsically associated with “the West,” to which the history of Western slavery and colonialism attest. Such arguments can rightly emphasize historical, cultural, and institutional factors, and power relations, that should not be ignored when discussing European-American racism. Moreover, it is reasonable to consider—without falling into extreme nominalism—that there may be phenomena in other societies that do not neatly match Western conceptualizations. Such definitions, however, assume that there are no equivalents to Western racism, and force the coinage of new terms for every particular manifestation that could be seen as equivalent in a variety of ways. A more plausible variant defines racism as occurring only among dominant groups. This avoids some of the weaknesses of the position defined above and certainly has some merit, but it insufficiently describes situations when those usually considered minorities become the majority in a smaller context and embrace hateful attitudes and behavior. It also insufficiently describes instances when multiple parties act with similarly hateful intentions and behavior toward one another in a situation where power relations shift over time. In contrast, some definitions of racism have been expansive, sometimes describing as racist situations where such intentions were or are nonexistent. The following discussion defines racism, or racialism, as intentions of disregard, ill will, or hatred toward groups with presumed common ancestry, often closely associated with ideologies that assume that racial differences are fundamental to the fabric of reality and with effects that disadvantage particular racial groups.

Race and Racism in China

Common ancestry is a common theme in Chinese history. Recognized as having one of the world’s oldest civilizations, China’s history shows the rise of a common sense of culture and identity early in its history. A common legend believed by many Chinese is that they (Han Chinese who form the dominant ethnic group in contemporary China) are descendants of the “Yellow Emperor” (Emperor Huang-ti), who is said to have ruled in the fifth millennium B.C.E. The focus on patrilineal descent—clearly discernible in the seventeenth century (late Ming, early Qing) but clearly existing before—has been another component of this racial focus. Indeed, Chinese descriptions of themselves as a “yellow” race predated European use of such terms. Evidence from Chinese scholars and common folk notions in the early Qing period suggest that the color harked back to their common descent from the “Yellow Emperor.” With connotations of purity and imperial grandeur, this was used to claim the superiority of the Chinese to other races in the early Qing period. Such definitions of the “yellow race” usually included the Manchu and did not threaten the legitimacy of their rule. Both Confucian and folk notions of patrilineal descent supported such racial aspects of Chinese identity.

This theme continued and became central to Chinese debates over identity in the modern era as evidenced by the thought and behavior of nineteenth-century elites. Ideas of some reformers such as Kang Youwei (1858-1927) in the late nineteenth century show the extent to which indigenous and Western notions of race shaped his view of domestic and global affairs. Kang selectively appropriated Western racial categories and created a taxonomy of hierarchical races according to “white,” “yellow,” “red,” and “black” skin colors, but presented the former two as superior to the latter two. The use of the same term for lineage and race (zu) aided the combination of both indigenous and foreign concepts. Others, while depending less on the language of scientific racism, conceived of fundamental issues nevertheless in racial terms. For example, Zhang Binglin (1868-1936), a more radical opponent of the Qing regime, understood the problem facing China as caused by the failure to protect the pure descent of the Hanzu (Han lineage-race) from the Yellow Emperor. In this view, the Manchu (Qing) were the culprits responsible for Han degeneration. While Zhang’s notion of race differed somewhat from the notions then dominant in Europe focusing on blood purity, it remains language firmly ensconced in the language of ancestry.

Racial discourse continued in republican China after the fall of the Qing in 1911. With the decline of Confucian discourse, science was seen as the new discourse that would establish the nature of things. Clearly imbibing from the scientific racism of the West, intellectuals turned to embryology and genetics to argue for the need to rejuvenate the yellow race. Myths were combined with so-called scientific studies such as craniology to bolster notions of Chinese superiority vis-à-vis their neighbors as well as darker-skinned races. Eugenics would become a dominant part of the discourse during this period.

In the early communist era (starting in 1949), the emphasis on class as a universal unifying concept and the notion of racial theory as a tool of Western imperialism, restrained racial discourse. Still, the state defined the minority groupings as organically connected to the Han race. While on the one hand extolling the equality of groups, Maoist China still relied on the notion of a superior Han race, which would be the vanguard of the revolution and the embodiment of civilization that would lead the less advanced people. After the death of Mao in 1976, scientific discourse on race was granted more legitimacy, this time in the service of Chinese nationalism. Anthropology has sought to show that the earliest ancestors could be found in China competing with common assertions of the original hominid ancestor being in Africa. Serology has sought to show the intimate connections between the minority groups to the Han. Medicine has encouraged eugenics programs. Discrimination against the minority ethnic groups in contemporary China remains significant. While race is only one among many competing and complimentary discourses of nationalism and ethnicity, it remains a significant theme underlying Chinese identity in the modern era.

Race and Racism in Japan

The linguistic connections between Japanese and the Ural-Altaic language family have led many to suggest that the Japanese migrated from North Asia, though others have argued the possibility of migrations from Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. In any case, migrations of what constitute the majority of Japanese today over the centuries brought them into conflict with other ethnic groups already inhabiting the archipelago. For example, there is record of conflict against the Emishi of northeastern Honshu in the ninth century. Better known are the Ainu—a people ethnically distinct from the majority Japanese—whose culture had grown in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Japanese gradually pushed the Ainu north so that by the early Tokugawa period (early seventeenth century) they had either been eliminated or pushed to northern Hokkaido.

The existence of such ethnic groups and the history of their gradual territorial marginalization suggest the existence of racial identities, but they do not seem dominant among commoners. Lacking a strong central government for much of its medieval period, and probably because such contact existed mostly on the periphery, most of the commoner population were more concerned with the associations that governed daily life—relationships with kin, village, temple, and the regional lord. Indeed, there is some evidence of fluidity between ethnic groups where there was such contact: Under certain circumstances, some Japanese in Hokkaido identified themselves with “barbarians,” and some “barbarians” blended into mainstream society by becoming loyal imperial subjects.

During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), however, there are indications that racial identities were recognized and nurtured at least among ruling elites and perhaps those living and working in close proximity to such ethnic groups. At least in Hokkaido, distinctly “Japanese” and “Ainu” identities formed during this period with clear discriminatory intentions. This was true also with the Ryukyuans down south. Many in Tokugawa society also differentiated themselves from those classified as eta (outcaste) and hinin (nonpersons) who, though phenotypically no different from the majority population, were ostracized by society and forced to do menial or dirty work. Intermarriage was avoided, and the children born into these groups were marked for life. Despite little “biological” difference, Tokugawa society perceived here a problem of ancestry and discriminated against them.

Japan’s modern era began with foreigners helping to open the country to a world dominated by Western influence. Western notions of race including Social Darwinism would deeply impact Japanese racial thought. The Meiji Constitutional order established the state based upon the notion that the Emperor was a direct descendant of the original Yamato clan, and that the Japanese people were in some way “organically” related to the emperor, thus creating the notion of a single, homogeneous racial identity. These ideas would provide a powerful foundation for nurturing an intense nationalism.

The speed of Japan’s development led leaders to envision an empire that would prove notions of Western superiority wrong. At the same time, many viewed Japanese civilization and race as having something to offer to the “less developed” peoples of Asia. This would lead to imperial expansion abroad and oppression at home. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the government incorporated Ainu land and implemented assimilation policies. The Ryukyuans, now Okinawans, were also expected to assimilate into mainstream culture. The term burakumin (hamlet people) replaced the terms eta and hinin, but such semantic changes did little to stop discriminatory practices. Japan’s extended empire also gave rise to a domestic Korean population who also experienced severe discrimination.

Prewar conceptions regarding the peculiar uniqueness of the Japanese race continued in postwar Japan. Likewise, racial discrimination continues to exist in the postwar era. Although the post-World War II constitution has granted equal rights, and Japan has participated in international agreements to respect minority rights, it was only in 1991 that the Ainu were recognized as a minority people with individual rights and 1997 that the government recognized them corporately as an indigenous group with rights to defend their distinctive culture. Laws have not addressed the history of discrimination, nor those living outside of Hokkaido. Discrimination against Koreans residing in Japan and against the Okinawans since the modern period as a result of Japan’s expansionism earlier in the century has also remained an issue throughout the twentieth century.

Race and Racism in India

Hints of the caste system can be seen in the Rig Veda written in the late second millennium B.C.E. It was clearly in place by the time of the later Vedic texts (c. 1000-500 B.C.E.). These Sanskrit texts are generally seen as products of an Aryan migration or invasion, and they teach a sacrificial religious system known as Brahmanism or Vedism, which would in later centuries develop into Hinduism. Deeply concerned with issues of purity and pollution, the Vedic texts divided people into different groupings called varnas (“colors”) at the top of which was a priestly caste called to set themselves apart from the others. In the early Hindu period (c. 300 B.C.E.-500 C.E.), the Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were incorporated into the tradition. These texts laid out four hierarchical varna classes (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra), which eventually became the larger groupings, which would encompass caste (jati) clusters. Although Hinduism does include elements of non-Vedic and non-Aryan sources, Vedic literature and Aryan civilization is seen as being at the core of the tradition.

Racial identities were fundamental to the development and continuation of this system. Those claiming Aryan heritage clearly stood to benefit. Orthodox scholarship interpreted the role of the Aryan in Indian society as the importer of high civilization, bringing Sanskrit, the Vedic Hindu texts, and the caste system. They constituted the Brahmanic class. The system was racial also in the sense that castes were based upon lineage. The family to which one was born usually determined one’s social status for life with discriminatory social, political, and economical impact on the lower castes. It limited the range of occupations lower caste members could fill, kept them from gaining positions of power, and forced them to practice social rituals that demeaned and oppressed them.

The influx of Western notions of race further racialized the population. European discourse, however, held peculiar salience for India and had distinctive impact there. Since the late Renaissance, philologists had noted linguistic connections between Sanskrit and European languages. By the Enlightenment, such studies had been made a science, and in the nineteenth century, many Europeans believed in an Indo-European connection through a common, Aryan, ancestral race. Ideas of “the Aryan race” with its assumptions regarding, and potential for, high civilization captured the European imagination. Spurred by Orientalist fascination with the caste system, and the desire to standardize laws while yet respecting traditional Indian laws, the British established guidelines for caste employment and governance that ironically helped to solidify caste statuses where previously relations had been more fluid. The consequences of this process, in some cases, were tantamount to ethnogenesis, as groups maneuvered to protect their interests.

Notions of the Aryan race also pervaded nineteenth-century discussions among Indian reformers, suggesting how the concept could not be avoided when seeking any fundamental re-shaping of Indian society. For example, Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883), a radical reformer, criticized contemporary Hinduism and argued that it had distorted the virtues of Aryan civilization. While Dayanand defended the caste system as a system that worked out the complementary needs of society, he argued that these classes were to be attributed by merit and not by the hereditary status. Swami Vivekenanda (1863-1902) presented a different perspective. He argued that the revitalization of India could only occur if people returned to the Aryan virtues found in Vedic texts. Attributing Aryans with distinct physiological attributes, he strongly favored the maintenance of racial and caste divisions. The Aryan race language is central even among those championing the cause of the lower castes, such as B. R. Ambedkar (1892-1956). In sharp contrast to more orthodox reformers above, Ambedkar questioned the canonicity of the Vedic texts, and presented the Aryans as a race that brought moral decay to Indian society. He questioned the physiological characteristics that had long been attributed to the group.

In the postindependence era (1947-), the Indian Constitution has banned discrimination and ostracism of the scheduled castes, creating seats set aside only for them in parliament. But discrimination remains pervasive in Indian society. Gandhi, for example, chose to call them “harijan” (children of God), but they have seen this as paternalistic and many have preferred to go by the term Dalit (the oppressed).


Racial concepts, as well as racism, existed in Asia prior to the arrival of the West. Here, the temptation may be to assert that such an argument ignores the peculiarities of indigenous systems of conceptualization. But an overemphasis on the actual English words is misleading. These concepts need not be so static and narrowly defined that they cannot encompass commonalities across cultures. Nor does a focus on commonalities necessarily ignore the particularities of these societies. To argue that there were racial and racialist elements in Indian, Chinese, or Japanese thought and behavior is not the same thing as reducing those concepts to only those qualities.

And yet, clearly, the arrival of the Western concepts did uniquely impact Asian thought and behavior. Some of this clearly victimized the Asians—who had to face Western racism and seek ways to counter it. Moreover, as in the example of the British in India, Western colonialism could exacerbate and solidify social divisions that had existed previously in more fluid form. In these cases, the agents were Westerners.

However, indigenous individuals also incorporated Western notions into their analysis and used them to construct arguments—against notions of Western superiority, as they nurtured nationalism, as they defended caste interests, or as they criticized the dominant system. A narrow definition of racism that pinpoints only the Western impact on the non-Western world would result in a skewed portrayal of “the West” as peculiarly imbued with a malady. It also denies non-Western individuals and societies agency and responsibility.