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Nanjing to Lou Jing:

Representations of Blacks and the Specter of Blackness in China


Jonathan Jacob Moore
Africa-China Relations, The University of Hong Kong
Dr. Roberto Castillo
In this paper, I trace the development of representations and perceptions
of blackness in China largely from the 1980s to present-day. Aware of the
nebulousness that blackness can constitute as an analytical category that
necessitates the inclusion of multiple factors, I seek to deploy transnational and
Chinese conceptions of blackness to understand the relationship between these
representations and Chinese rhetoric and policy announcing a reinvigorated and
radically equitable relationship between China and African nations.
Rather than relinquishing the conversation around Africans in China to
purely the realms of political science and international relations, I intervene to
discover what historical and modern representations of blackness in China can
teach us about perceptions and political positioning of Africans on the move
inside of its borders, from the Nanjing riots of the 1980s to the discourse
surrounding Lou Jing. I pay special attention to the axes gender and class of the
Blacks-in-China (BIC) I discuss in this essay. By interrogating the representation
of Blacks in Chinese publics over the past few decades, I ask, What does
blackness signify in popular Chinese imaginaries in the present moment? I am
interested in whether these meanings can be read as new or pre-existing and the
role of these meanings in reaffirming or complicating Chinese nationalisms, as
well as developing or hindering soft power with African nations.

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I. Blackness in pre-colonial China


To contextualize this conversation, its important to briefly review the long and
under-researched history of discourse around blackness in China. According to
Frank Dikotter, white skin has symbolized the center of civilization since antiquity,
with darker and black skinned people outside of China relegated to the realms
of sub-human or otherworldly being. Bengalis and people in Malacca, for
example, were seen as varying degrees of black, while people from the Nam-Viet
Cham empire were called devils or ghosts. 1 Indeed, as both the work of Dikotter
and Don Wyatt reminds us, the original blacks of premodern China were neither
African nor, in our conventionally modern interpretation of the term, black. 2 It is
important here to specify how I define blackness for the purpose of this
investigation. As an afro-pessimist, I agree with the understanding of blackness
as a categorical distortion that gives birth to the classical humanist subject as a
product of modernity [and thus, the black as] exiled from the human relation,
which is predicated on social recognition and the valuation of life itself. 3
However, the ontological dimension of black (non)existence owing to slavery in
the new world is beyond the scope of this paper and, while it certainly matters,
this is not the most expedient position from which to understand the antiblackness faced by Blacks-in-China. Instead, I look both to the history of
1 Dikotter, Frank. The Discourse of Race in Modern China. Stanford, CA:
Stanford UP, 1992. Print.
2 Wyatt, Don J. The Blacks of Premodern China. Philadelphia: U of
Pennsylvania, 2010. Print.
3 L, R. "Wanderings of the Slave: Black Life and Social Death." Mute, 5 June
2013. Web.
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blackness as a dualistically construed concept grounded in skin shade 4 and


the signification of blackness in the modern world as degenerate, poor, lacking,
and para-human. Blackness in China is indeed epidermal 5that is, meanings
associated with blackness are coded into the skin/phenotypic presentation of
black people herebut bias is not only skin deep. I believe there are very real
anxieties about Chineseness, nationalism, gender and sexuality that are exposed
and articulated through anti-black violence and rhetoric in China, as anywhere
else in the world. I will now analyze incidents of anti-black violence at university
campuses in 1980s China with these anxieties in mind.

II. The Shanghai incident and Nanjing riots


In July 1979, an altercation over loud music at Shanghai Textile Engineering
Institute erupted between Chinese and African students. By the end of the next
day, the Chinese students had launched bottles at Africans and the foreign
student residence hall, destroyed their belongings, and overturned an
ambulance, all resulting in the hospitalization of sixteen foreign students, mostly
African.6 While the violence was rhetorically disregarded by the PRC as cultural
misunderstanding, it was the first major example of Chinese students openly
aggressing towards an aim of expelling African students from China or, at the
very least, their universities. The violence can as easily be characterized as
explicitly anti-black as anti-foreigner. The reference to the Africans as hei gui
4 Wyatt.
5 Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986. Print.
6 Sautman, Barry. "Anti-Black Racism in Post-Mao China." The China Quarterly
CQY 138 (1994): 413. Web.
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during the altercation, as well as the pouring of ink over a Malian determined to
be too light reveals the presence of anti-black attitudes among Chinese
protestors.7 The ink attack in particular speaks to a more than xenophobic anger
aimed at the black students. While only a thought exercise, one can imagine
what would possess a Chinese student to douse an African student in ink if not
the compulsion to articulation anti-black sentiment. The representation of black
students at this moment was not racialized other but rather black enemya
distinction in post-colonial perception of the black as an unproductive nuisance
and threat to national morals. This intersection of articulated anxieties, this threat,
is what I will term the specter of blackness.
In May 1986, clashes between Chinese men and foreign students, mostly African
and Arab, erupted at Tianjin University over loud music 8 and ended with 400-600
Chinese surrounding a barricaded dining hall and assaulting the foreign
students.9 With less than 30 foreigners present, the disproportionate number of
Chinese assailants suggests a desire for immediate action to be taken either
independently on behalf of the students or executively on behalf of the university
to remove these people from the campus at once.
The 1988 Christmas Eve protests at Hehai University in Nanjing resulted in more
than broken bottles and bruised bones. The controversial erecting of a gate by
the university to prevent Chinese women from entering the dorms of African men
7 Sautman.
8 It is hard to believe that the reoccurrence of loud music as the reasoning or
pretext for physical violence towards African students is coincidental. After all,
these students were often perceived by their peers as uncultured and
inconsiderate of Chinese behavioral moresdespite the fact that these dorm
parties provided respite from discrimination in public.
9 Sautman.
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should be read as a simultaneous policing of Black and Chinese sexualities.


Fascinatingly enough, even after the removal of and extradition to a guest house
of 140 foreign students--mostly Africans, plus other dark-skinned students and
fair-skinned supporters for their own safety 10, following the Christmas Eve
confrontation, the sexual behaviors of Black men (and White women) still
mystified the university administration. In a 1989 Los Angeles Times interview,
Hehai University President Liang Ruiju is quoted as saying, "I feel bad about
saying this but some Caucasians are extremely willing--maybe they're wives or
something like thatto live together with them. Some of the white women are
unwilling to leave them. . . They are living together as couples." 11 Masculine
anxiety over the sexual morality of Chinese women is thus projected onto white
women, allowing for the open condemnation of Chinese women for being
involved with Black men. The specter of blackness in China is most clearly
visible when the safety and sanctity of Chinese womanhood is invoked. So,
what to make of these anxieties that seemingly cultivated anti-black attitudes
among young male Chinese students? Perhaps the tale of Lou Jing can help us
make sense of the relationship between popular Chinese anxieties in regards to
gender, sexuality, and morality, and blackness.

III. The specter onscreen

10 Holley, David. "They Face Widespread Prejudice : Black Students in China-the Ultimate Outsiders." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 10 Jan. 1989.
Web.
11 Holley
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The conversation surrounding the appearance of Lou Jing () on Dragon TVs


Lets Go! Oriental Angel has been as international as domestic, with serious
questions about the way Chinese citizens imagine national community and the
role ethnicity and phenotypical Chineseness plays in who belongs and who
cannot. When the brown skinned teen, born to a Black American father and
Chinese mother, appeared on the singing competition akin to American Idol,
Chinese blogospheres lit up with debates regarding whether or not a Chinese
national identity was one for her to claim.

While netizens comments ranged from eugenic-era racism (black chimpanzee)


to Tang dynasty rhetoric (hei gui)12, the most telling comments in online forums
are in regards to Lou Jings mother, accused of an extramarital affair and
ridiculed for having a child with a black man. The work of Frazier and Zhang,
which shines a light on the internet as a discursive site for the cultivation and
dissemination of anti-black racism in China, is helpful here. The authors note a
comment posted on the website Youku: Actually, her skin colour is not a
problem, whats problematic is morality extramarital affairs are always spurned.
After all, we hate the infidelity of Lou Jings mother as much as the black
guy.13 At the juncture of what it means to be Chinese, debates over the morality
of Chinese women having interracial relationships with non-Chinese and the
social meaning of blackness, we arrive once again at the specter of blackness in
12 L, R. "Wanderings of the Slave: Black Life and Social Death." Mute, 5 June
2013. Web.
13 Frazier, R. T., and L. Zhang. "Ethnic Identity and Racial Contestation in
Cyberspace: Deconstructing the Chineseness of Lou Jing." China Information
28.2 (2014): 237-58. Web.
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Chinese society. Frazier and Zhang insist these developments require us to


gender blackness and I go further to say that specter of blackness must be
gendered as wellindeed, were Lou Jings father Chinese and mother black, the
question of morality would be minimal if at all existent. The social policing of the
Chinese womans body and the scrutiny black women in China (including mixed
Chinese women read as black) experience is one dialectic that informs the
specter of blackness.

Conclusion
In looking at the representations of BIC from Nanjing to Lou Jing, the specter of
blackness (and the body of the black) arises for Chinese publics to work out
anxieties about what defines Chineseness and what threatens it. During riots and
protests against the presence of Black students at Chinese universities, it
becomes apparent that the violence and frustration could not be understood
through solely a lens of xenophobia or class. While the students blackness is
certainly compacted and complicated by these dynamics, to wish away anti-black
racism in the Chinese context is to neglect the reality that students faced.
Anxieties that surfaced in this time have resurfaced, as we see with the case of
the black pearl.14 The hate speech and disregard for Lou Jings Chinese identity
(she does not herself identify as black but rather a normal Chinese girl that
happens to look different15) is indicative of the conversations the Chinese republic
14 Castillo, Roberto. "Africans in China." Africans in China: Africans in China in
Chinese Popular Culture You Are the One, 9 Aug. 2013
15 Twinbreed. "Growing Up Black In China." YouTube. YouTube, 29 Mar. 2010.
Web.
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is likely to continue having about ethno-nationalism and the place of nonChinese, mixed-Chinese, and black people within its borders. The positive
support Lou Jing received online reminds us to avoid homogenizing what is a
culturally diverse national body with varying outlooks on Chineseness and what
blackness can signify in China. For some, the sociopolitical and aesthetic utility of
Lou Jing appearing on Lets Go! Oriental Angel was indeed positive and made
them feel proud to be Chinese.16
The specter of blackness, then, has not been read as only a threat but also
telling of a new internationalism that some Chinese find appealing and ideal for
the future. How the government of the PRC reads this is another question
entirely and one that demands further investigation. While one may not expect a
university president to speak openly about the confounding choice of white or
Chinese women to have sex with black men in 2016, it appears the anxieties that
incited this comment in the 1980s run deep through the core of popular
consciousness, as reflected in the blowback against Lou Jing. An interdisciplinary
investigation of Sino-African relations should not be hesitant to gauge anti-black
bias and violence in China, nor develop language to articulate it, especially as
the rate of interracial marriage in the country continues to rise as well as the
number of self-identified Black Africans in China. Anti-blackness exists and
manifests always in relation to class, tradition, and social conditions to look
towards these discourses without engaging the specter of blackness fails to see
how the past informs the present and future meaning of blackness in China. As
16 Frazier, R. T., and L. Zhang. "Ethnic Identity and Racial Contestation in
Cyberspace: Deconstructing the Chineseness of Lou Jing." China Information
28.2 (2014): 237-58. Web.
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both China and African nations endeavor on new economic ventures, social
programs, and educational collaboration with one another, observers should be
cognizant of how perceptions of blackness in Chinese society unfurl and inform
diplomatic and economic relations.

Works Cited
Castillo, Roberto. "Africans in China." Africans in China. : Africans in China in
Chinese Popular Culture You Are the One, 9 Aug. 2013. Web. 02 May 2016.
Dikotter, Frank. The Discourse of Race in Modern China =. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP,
1992. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986. Print.

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Frazier, R. T., and L. Zhang. "Ethnic Identity and Racial Contestation in Cyberspace:
Deconstructing the Chineseness of Lou Jing." China Information 28.2 (2014):
237-58. Web.
L, R. "Wanderings of the Slave: Black Life and Social Death." Mute. Metamute, 5 June
2013. Web. 02 May 2016.
Sautman, Barry. "Anti-Black Racism in Post-Mao China." The China Quarterly
CQY 138 (1994): 413. Web.
10, January. "They Face Widespread Prejudice : Black Students in China--the Ultimate
Outsiders." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 10 Jan. 1989. Web. 02 May
2016.
Twinbreed. "Growing Up Black In China." YouTube. YouTube, 29 Mar. 2010. Web. 02
May 2016.
Wyatt, Don J. The Blacks of Premodern China. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2010.
Print.

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