Thursday, 7 July 2011

Xinjiang - Separate Tables and the History of Race

As part of my research on Xinjiang, I've read two books that were incredibly useful.  The first of these, Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang by Christian Tyler was a great overview of the history of this region, right up until 2003, when the book was published.  Of course, the period since 2003 has been incredibly important for Xinjiang, but a lot happened in the region in the 80's and 90's, which we don't often hear about it.  The second book I read was Racism: A very short Introduction by Ali Rattansi, part of the Oxford University Press (OUP) series I've mentioned in previous blog posts. 

Skeletons in the Desert

In Christian Tyler's words 'The climate of Xinjiang may be hostile to the living, but it is unusually kind to the dead'.  The early 20th-century craze for archaeology brought a number of (generally European) explorers and archaeologists to the Taklamakan desert and the Tarim basin, where they found mummified bodies dating back as far as 1900 BCE.  In modern Xinjiang, the topic of race is a controversial one.  Most people outside China might see the Uyghurs as the native inhabitants of Xinjiang, whereas the Chinese claim to have occupied this region, even before the Uyghurs came along. 

Genetic analysis of the Tarim mummies suggests that they are both wrong.  In fact, it's believed that the original inhabitants of Xinjiang were an Indo-European tribe called the Tocharians.  Red-haired skeletons wearing tartan seems somewhat out of place in Western China and I'm sure the evidence must be somewhat discomforting for modern inhabitants of the region, both the Uyghurs and the Chinese!

What is race?
Young girl at Chinese New Year by Yewenyi

When we think of race in the West, often the first thing that comes to mind is Black African versus White European.  In an effort to understand the concept of race, I wanted to read about it in a wider context, so I've chosen Xinjiang as my reference point to relate everything back to.  Of course, racial differences go beyond white/black and, in the case of Xinjiang, there is a very obvious clash of cultures that is, more often than not, given a racial context which pits the Turkic Uyghurs against the Han Chinese. 

One of the most important things I learned from Racism: A very short Introduction is that there is no such thing as race.  There are different colours of skin, different shapes of the eye or mouth, different genetic features that determine everything from what height we are, to whether our hair is frizzy or straight - but none of this constitutes complete identification with a racial category and, genetically at least, there is very little difference between someone who is perceived to be Chinese, than someone who is perceived to be Black African or White European.  When we talk about different races, often we're really talking about different cultures

So where did race come from?

The development of science from the 17th-century onwards, led to an obsession in the Victorian Age (19th century) with classification and 'putting things into boxes/categories'.  As Europeans started colonising the rest of the world and wiping out whole indigenous populations, (eg as the Spanish did in Central America, or the British in places like Tasmania), there was a real need to justify the expansion of European power.  Science, as much as religion, provided European conquerors with the moral argument they needed to colonise the rest of the world.

It was convenient to state that the people Europeans encountered in the New World were not really human at all, but somehow racially inferior.  Likewise, the people of sub-Saharan Africa, with whom Europeans had long-standing contact, were categorised as sub-human, a convenient justification, backed up by the new sciences, for the wholesale export of West African tribesmen and women to the cotton plantations of the Caribbean and the United States.

So what about racism?

Although I believe that there is no such thing as race, unfortunately, racism is a concept that is all too real for most societies in the early 21st century.  The term was first coined relatively recently (in the 1930's), to describe the Nazis' anti-Semitic policy of Judenrein, an early 20th-century form of ethnic cleansing.  Whilst in Ancient History, the colour of someones skin seems to have had little relevance, as to whether or not they would become a Roman Emperor (eg Septemus Severus) or an Egyptian Pharaoh (eg. the Pharaohs of Kush), xenophobia, ie. the hatred of strangers or foreigners, seems to have been around for a long time. 
Anti-Nazi League badge by Leo Reynolds

Although the Jews don't constitute a separate race, they are a minority group that has suffered incredible hatred and discrimination, particularly in Western Europe, since the time of Chaucer and the Spanish Reconquista (see my previous blogpost about the Sephardi philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza).  Likewise, being Irish, I always feel a bit strange ticking a separate box in equality monitoring forms, as I certainly don't feel racially different to other people who are white and living in Britain!  Irish people have also suffered incredible 'racism', being depicted as monkeys in 19th-century British and American propaganda and with British ethnologists, such as John Beddoe, claiming that Irish skulls were africanoid (and he didn't mean it as a compliment!)

Can only white people be racist?

Being born into a very 'white' society, I didn't have any friends growing up who identified as black or Asian, or anything other than Irish!  Luckily, being born into an culturally homogeneous community was no barrier to understanding other cultures, I think it depends on how you, as an individual, approach different cultures, and the idea that someone from a totally white background (or totally anything background) will somehow be racist, by default, is complete nonsense.  When I started travelling around the world, I was lucky enough to have the chance to become friends with people who were from different cultural backgrounds than me.

It wasn't until much later that I realised that it's not only white people who can be racist.  I think my first experiences of this were in Uzbekistan, where the local people had completely ostracised a young man who was of mixed Uzbek-African heritage, and in Thailand, where I was really shocked by the racism of my Thai students towards others in their society from Cambodian, Burmese or Lao backgrounds. 

Are the Chinese racist?

In answer to the question, Are the Chinese racist? or Are the Uzbeks racist? or Are the Thais racist? then the simplest answer is yes.  Yes, in the sense that, culturally, the Chinese (Uzbeks/Thais) have a very strong idea of what it means, and doesn't mean, to be Chinese (Uzbek/Thai).  Of course, it's a lot more complex than that and the question itself assumes that there is such a thing as a Chinese (Uzbek/Thai) race in the first place.

Whilst each one of us can approach the question of race from a very personal perspective, there are definitely collective attitudes in a lot of countries that could be considered to be inherently racist. Working with Slovak colleagues in my first teaching job in Bratislava, I was impressed by the fact that they genuinely welcomed me, an openly gay man, as well as my Jewish and Black American colleagues.  However, when the conversation turned to Roma communities in Slovakia, my erstwhile tolerant colleagues suddenly seemed a lot less so and I was surprised that a group of people who were so intelligent and reasonable, could have attitudes towards the Roma that appeared to be incredibly narrow-minded and stupid.  I guess we're all culturally brain-washed in one way or another and this is the challenge that faces many people in the modern world. 

Separate Tables
Chinese Feast by Wootang01

The evidence from Xinjiang is pretty damning and Tyler uses the concept of 'separate tables' to describe the cultural divide between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs.  Until 1979, Chinese law forbade intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uyghurs.  Although many individuals on both sides have made efforts to bridge the cultural divide, forming friendships and doing business together, intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uyghurs is still something of a taboo.  Tyler catalogues some of the terrible incidents of repression of the Uyghurs by Chinese authorities in recent years, everything from job discrimination to language restrictions to imposed birth control.  Uyghurs, on their part, use terms like 'the fourteenth nationality' as a slur against those Uyghurs who've learned Chinese and begun to assimilate with Han culture.

I can't hope to do any justice to a discussion on race in a short blog post like this, but it's an area I would like to come back to again, through another cultural or national lens.  As to whether or not the original inhabitants of Xinjiang were Uyghur, Chinese or Indo-European - it hardly seems relevant to two cultures, Chinese and Turkic, that have had centuries of contact, love, hate and (mis)understanding.

Image credits:

The photo of the young Chinese girl is by flickruser yewenyi aka Brian Yap who is an Engineer from Marrickville in New South Wales, Australia.  You can see more of Brian's work on his website.  

The image of the Anti-Nazi League badge is by flickruser Leo Reynolds who is from Norwich in England.  You can learn more about Leo at his website

The photo of the Chinese-style feast is by flickruser Wootang01 aka David Woo, who is a teacher, originally from New Jersey, but now living in Hong Kong - he also has a website which deals with his experiences teaching and living in Hong Kong. 

Thanks to Brian, Leo and David for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License.
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