I first came to this project because I was interested in learning how East Asians became yellow in the Western imagination. Yet I quickly discovered that in nearly all the earliest accounts of the region, beginning with the narratives of Marco Polo and the missionary friars of the thirteenth century, if the skin color of the inhabitants was mentioned at all it was specifically referred to as white.
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Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking by Michael Keevak. | eBay
Many readers will be aware that a similar set of questions has been asked with respect to red Native Americans, and that the real source of that particular color term, much like East Asian yellow, remains something of a mystery. There is some evidence to suggest that the idea of the red Indian may have been influenced although not fully explained by the fact that according to European observers certain tribes anointed themselves with plant substances as a means of protection from the sun or from insects, and that this might have given their skin a reddish tinge.
The stereotype of Indian war paint also comes to mind.
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- Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking.
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Some tribes even referred to themselves as red as early as the seventeenth century, probably in order to distinguish themselves from both the European settlers and their African slaves. Yet however flimsy or incomplete these accounts may be for Native Americans, in the case of East Asians there simply are no analogous explanations.
No one in China or Japan applied yellowish pigment to the skin and China and Japan will be the subject of this book; information about Korea was particularly sparse before the twentieth century , and no one in the Far East referred to himself as yellow until late in the nineteenth century, when Western racial paradigms, along with many other aspects of modern Western science, were being imported into Chinese and Japanese contexts. But yellow does have very important significations in Chinese but not Japanese culture: as the central color, the imperial color, and the color of the earth; the color of the originary Yellow River and the mythical Yellow Emperor, the supposed ancestor of all Han Chinese people.
Sons of the Yellow Emperor is still in use as a means of ethnic self-identification. Could the idea of yellow people have stemmed from some form of misunderstanding or mistranslation of these symbols? Most of them were well known to early Western commentators, especially the missionaries whose aim it was to learn about local beliefs and local cultural practices for the purposes of religious conversion. Their accounts of China routinely mentioned the Yellow River and the Yellow Emperor, and it is not difficult to imagine that such symbols could have been extended to represent the cultures of the entire East Asian region, just as Chinese learning and its written language had spread beyond the confines of the Celestial Empire.
The idea that East Asian people were colored yellow cannot be traced back before the nineteenth century, and it does not come from any sort of eyewitness description or from Western readings of East Asian cultural symbols. We will see that it originates in a different realm, not in travel or missionary texts but in scientific discourse. For what occurred during the nineteenth century was that yellow had become a racial designation.
East Asians did not, in other words, become yellow until they were lumped together as a yellow race, which beginning at the end of the eighteenth century would be called Mongolian. This book is therefore concerned with the history of race and racialized thinking, and it seeks to redress an imbalance in the enormous field of race studies generally, which has concentrated intently on the idea of blackness as opposed to whiteness.
The best work on the subject includes an excellent essay in German, Wie die Chinesen gelb wurden How the Chinese Became Yellow , by Walter Demel, which along with an expanded version in Italian has served as the starting point for the present study. Despite such promising titles and my own is equally guilty , each of these authors has discovered that trying to trace any straightforward development of the concept of yellowness is full of dead ends, because, as we will see in chapter 1, like most other forms of racial stereotyping, it cannot be reduced to a simple chronology and was the product of often vague and confusing notions about physical difference, heritage, and ethnological specificity.
Yet I have also followed the lead of these authors by pursuing a trajectory that emphasizes an important shift in thinking about race during the course of the eighteenth century, when new sorts of human taxonomies began to appear and new claims about the color of all human groups, including East Asians, were put forward. The received version of this taxonomical story, which we will trace in chapter 2, goes something like this. One of these races, he was the first to suggest, was yellow.
More influentially, the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus burst onto the international scene with his Systema naturae of , the first major work to incorporate human beings into a single taxonomical scheme in which the entire natural world was divided between the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Homo asiaticus, he said, was yellow. Finally, at the end of the eighteenth century, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, also a physician and the founder of comparative anatomy, definitively proclaimed that the people of the Far East were a yellow race, as distinct from the white Caucasian one, terms that have been with us ever since.
Yet there are a number of errors in this admittedly oversimplified narrative. The only human beings he described as yellow, and not associated with an entire geographical grouping at all, were certain people from India, especially women. Immanuel Kant, also sometimes invoked as a source in this regard, agreed that Indians were the true yellow people. Second, we can indeed credit Linnaeus as the first to link yellow with Asia, but we need to approach this detail with considerable care, since in the first place he began by calling them fuscus dark and only changed to luridus pale yellow, lurid, ghastly in his tenth edition of — Second, he was talking about the whole of Asia and not simply the Far East.
As for Blumenbach, it is true that he unequivocally named East Asians as yellow the Latin word he chose was gilvus, also revised from fuscus , but he simultaneously placed them into a racial category that he called the Mongolian, and it is this newly minted Mongolianness that has been unduly ignored in previous work on the subject.
For it was not simply the case that taxonomers settled upon yellow because it was a convenient intermediary like red between white and black—the two primal skin colors that had been taken for granted by the Judeo-Christian world for more than a thousand years. Rather, I would suggest that there was something dangerous, exotic, and threatening about Asia that yellow and Mongolian helped to reinforce, both of these terms becoming symbiotically linked to the cultural memory of a series of invasions from that part of the world: Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane, all of whom were now lumped together as Mongolian as well.
Travelers to East Asia began to call the inhabitants yellow much more regularly, and the yellow race became an important focus in nineteenth-century anthropology, the subject of my chapter 3. Early anthropology was overwhelmingly concerned with physical difference in addition to language or cultural practice, and skin color was one such preoccupation.
Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking
Blumenbach and the comparative anatomists were obsessed with the measurement of human skulls, producing a theory of national faces that led to a hierarchical arrangement of the symmetrical Caucasian shape as opposed to more lopsided forms manifested by the other racial varieties. Blumenbach and his followers placed Mongolian skulls, along with Ethiopian ones, at the furthest extreme from the Caucasian ideal, with American and Malay heads in between. But as anthropology came into its own in the middle of the nineteenth century, the process of physical measurement became much more complex and extended to minute quantifications of the entire body.
A key figure here was Paul Broca, who by the time of his death in had invented more than two dozen specialized instruments for the purposes of human measurement. Less well known is his highly influential foray into the assessment of skin color, which, as we will see, he attempted to standardize by developing a chart with colored rectangles designed to be held up to the skin in order to find the closest match. Others tried to improve upon this rather cumbersome and subjective procedure by experimenting with different color ranges and introducing different media, such as glass tablets or oil paints, and by the end of the nineteenth century one popular alternative was a small wooden top upon which were placed a number of colored paper disks that blended together when the top was spun.
The subjects to be measured would rest an arm upon a table next to the spinning top while the researcher adjusted the disks until they matched the color of the skin. Such methods may seem quaint or entertaining today, but anthropologists took them very seriously and used them with great frequency in many parts of the world. What especially interests me, however, is the way in which these tools functioned as means to invest preexisting racial stereotypes with new and supposedly scientifically validated literalness.
Colors on color charts were never chosen and organized arbitrarily, and the color top employed white, black, red, and yellow disks despite the fact that many other combinations could have been used to replicate the rather limited tonal range that comprises human skin. Rather, white, black, red, and yellow were the colors presumed for the four races of man from the outset.
When researchers began to quantify Mongolian skin color, it turned out to be some sort of in-between shade between white and black, and when the dice were loaded carefully enough, as in a color top, East Asian skin could turn out to be yellow after all. In chapter 4 we will perceive a similar development in nineteenth-century medicine, which instead of color focused on the quantification of Mongolian bodies by associating them with certain conditions thought to be endemic in, or in some way linked to, the race as a whole, a list that includes the Mongolian eye, the Mongolian spot, and Mongolism now known as Down syndrome.
I will argue that each of these conditions became a way of distancing the Mongolian race from a white Western norm, since they were taken to be either characteristic of irregular East Asian bodies, as in the case of the Mongolian spot, which did not seem to occur among white people at all, or a feature that appeared among whites only in their youth or if they were afflicted by disease, as in the case of the Mongolian eye or Mongolism.
Researchers also linked these Mongolian conditions to contemporary evolutionary theories about the way in which the white race had passed through the developmental stages still occupied by the lower ones. Much as in the case of early anthropology, medical explanations for Mongolian pathology had an uncanny way of reinforcing the stereotypes with which researchers began.
White people might be afflicted with Mongolian traits temporarily or because of ill-health or a birth defect, but real yellow people remained stagnant and frozen in a permanent state of childishness, subhumanity, or underdevelopment. By the end of the nineteenth century modern science had fully validated the yellow East Asian. But this yellowness had never ceased to be a potentially dangerous and threatening racial category as well, becoming particularly acute after larger numbers of East Asians had actually begun to immigrate to the West starting in the middle of the nineteenth century.
This period will occupy us in chapter 5.
The yellow peril was a remarkably free-floating concept that could be directed at China or Japan or any other yellow nation, as well as to many kinds of perceived peril such as overpopulation, paganism, economic competition, and societal or political degradation. But we will also see that the West had begun to export its purportedly self-evident definitions of yellowness and Mongolianness into East Asian contexts, and that this dispersal was hardly simple and straightforward.
Mongolian, however, linked to the non-Chinese barbarians who had historically been the bane of China as well as the West, was summarily rejected. Japanese commentators, on the other hand, disavowed both yellow and Mongolian, which were said to be descriptors of other Asians only, especially the Chinese. Many Japanese preferred to be considered closer to the powerful white race than the lowly yellow one, and indeed many in the West agreed.
In both China and Japan, however, Western racial paradigms had become so pervasive that even those for whom yellow was a term of opprobrium begrudgingly admitted that their skin color was something other than white. I will bring this story to an end in the early twentieth century, not because it ceases to be interesting or important, but simply because after the s and s the idea of a yellow race—and of race in general—would be much better suited to a separate study.
By those decades a yellow and a racially Mongolian Far East had crossed boundaries of language, discourse, location, level of education, and social rank as well as boundaries of gender, not pursued in this book. Introduction: No Longer White Pages Chapter 1. Before They Were Yellow Pages Chapter 2. Taxonomies of Yellow Pages Chapter 3. Chapter 4. Chapter 5. Yellow Peril Pages Notes Pages Works Cited Pages Index Pages General note: By using the comment function on degruyter.
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