Monday, January 16, 2012

How did East Asians become "yellow"?

I previously recommended the podcast New Books in History, hosted by University of Iowa historian Marshall Poe. I noticed recently that the format has been adopted by professor podcasters in other fields, including Sociology, Philosophy, Policy Studies, Military History, etc. For example, here are the podcasts from New Books in East Asian Studies.

I found the interview with Michael Keevak on his recent book (below) quite interesting. It is amusing that Native Americans are "red", whereas E. Asians are "yellow". Keevak notes that European travelers to Asia before the 18th century never used this characterization. The earliest reference Keevak can find where the terminology is used is in a classification of races of man by Carl Linnaeus.

See earlier post Yellow Peril: 2010 and 1920.

Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking

In their earliest encounters with Asia, Europeans almost uniformly characterized the people of China and Japan as white. This was a means of describing their wealth and sophistication, their willingness to trade with the West, and their presumed capacity to become Christianized. But by the end of the seventeenth century the category of whiteness was reserved for Europeans only. When and how did Asians become "yellow" in the Western imagination? Looking at the history of racial thinking, Becoming Yellow explores the notion of yellowness and shows that this label originated not in early travel texts or objective descriptions, but in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific discourses on race.

From the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb, which depicted people of varying skin tones including yellow, to the phrase "yellow peril" at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe and America, Michael Keevak follows the development of perceptions about race and human difference. He indicates that the conceptual relationship between East Asians and yellow skin did not begin in Chinese culture or Western readings of East Asian cultural symbols, but in anthropological and medical records that described variations in skin color. Eighteenth-century taxonomers such as Carl Linnaeus, as well as Victorian scientists and early anthropologists, assigned colors to all racial groups, and once East Asians were lumped with members of the Mongolian race, they began to be considered yellow.

Demonstrating how a racial distinction took root in Europe and traveled internationally, Becoming Yellow weaves together multiple narratives to tell the complex history of a problematic term.

Michael Keevak is a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at National Taiwan University.


Razib Khan said...

from what i have read east asians themselves considered themselves "white" in contrast to southeast asians and south asians (who were "black"). but in the 19th and early 20th centuries modernizing east asian intellectuals had to deal with the fact that europeans were white, and so accepted yellow as an acceptable and useful category.

steve hsu said...

Check out the podcast if you have time -- it's pretty good. Your recollection is not inconsistent with his conclusions.

PS I'll be giving a physics colloquium at UC Davis on our genomics research. Mon Feb 14

JustinLoe said...

Jonathan Spence,, gave a talk here a number of years ago. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is on the to-read list. 

RKU1 said...

A few overlapping (ignorant) speculations:

(1) Prior to about the 17th Century, many of the more influential Europeans, including those heavily involved in international trade, often tended to be Meds, who were somewhat darker themselves.  But once the lighter-skinned Northern Europeans began making comparisons, the East Asian difference in coloration became more apparent.

(2) "Yellow" has fewer syllables than "really light brown."

(3) The Yellow River (which obviously isn't really "yellow" either) is central to the origins of Chinese civilization, and if European visitors occasionally heard the Chinese describe themselves as "people of the Yellow River" or something like that, that would have provided a natural color to consider.

Razib Khan said...

from what i have read there was a big distinction in the ming dynasty between the dark-haired whites (portuguese) and the blondish dutch. the reason though was that the dutch tended toward piracy. the general injunction was that if dutch washed ashore the local authorities would execute them on the spot. for portuguese, who were often traders, they would take them into custody and wait for instructions. the elision between culture and phenotype is clear in that there were instances where portuguese crews washed ashore, and the authorities executed all non-brunette crew members on the spot, presuming them to be dutch because of their physical appearance. 

RKU1 said...

That's interesting.  Isn't "white" traditionally considered the color of death in Chinese culture?  I would have thought that would make it more psychologically difficult for the Chinese to define themselves as that color, compared to e.g. Northern Europeans...

Ken Condon said...

From the linked article “Becoming Yellow”

"Michael Keevak documents how the jaundiced views of the literati were by no means evenly applied and how scientific justifications of racial theory were colored….

Were those two puns intended?

Sam H said...

E Asians should have been called beiges. 
Whites with lighter skin just have more translucent skin, such as those of Nordic stock, and they start looking more pink than White, especially when it is either really cold or really warm out. And C & S Europeans look more white with their darker skin, ironically. 

LaurentMelchiorTellier said...

Nowadays, if you say that something - say, a film, or a persons mind - is "yellow", you mean that it is a skin flick, or a person who thinks of nudity. Yellow has literally come to mean skin, in a "dirty" sense.

There's a Chinese expression (based on a quote from an interview) used to describe the internet, "very yellow very violent". It took off as a major meme to describe stuff with this phrase.

han said...

黄(Yellow)and 皇(ROYAL)all have the same sound as huang. Yellow also is color of royalty. Huang pao (黄袍)mean yellow dress also reserved for emperor. 黄袍加身(PUTTING YELLOW DRESS ON) ALSO MEAN CROWNING EMPEROR. HUANG PAO (黄袍,皇袍)IS SYMBOL OF KING OR EMPEROR. In Qing dynasty (manchurian dynasty), royal tribe carry straight yellow flag. It is also color of gold which is considered king of all metals.

When Chinese is called yellow race, wow, it is like an honor to be called God chosen race or master race. No objection. Chinese certainly will embrace such name. 

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