Race & Chinese Pop Culture
Earlier this year, China picked Ding Hui, a young man from Hangzhou, for its national volleyball team. Last month a 20-year-old Shanghainese, Lou Jing, made the last 30 in the Chinese version of Pop Idol. Neither event would have attracted unusual notice but for the one thing the two young people have in common: they are in a small, and for China, novel category of mixed-race citizens, children of black fathers. Their emergence into the limelight has forced the country into an uncomfortable and often shocking debate about what it means to be Chinese.
Both have been widely discussed on the Chinese internet in terms that have not been publicly acceptable in the US or Europe for half a century. Both Lou Jing and Ding Hui have been treated as frank curiosities: netizens comment on their white teeth, Ding Hui’s athleticism and Lou Jing’s sense of rhythm. On the show, the presenters repeatedly referred to Lou Jing as “chocolate”. Contributors to the nation’s websites indulged in altogether cruder epithets, indulging their imaginations on the subject of sex between a black man and a Chinese woman. (from a column by Isabel Hilton of the Guardian: “How volleyball and pop have shaken China’s idea of race”)
Hilton’s column discusses issues that were glossed over or completely ignored in much of the media coverage (check out CNN’s story on Lou Jing for a prime example). Chinese racism persists despite decades of avowed solidarity with the developing world, including Africa. For non-Han Chinese, acceptance as civilized” is granted to the extent that they come to resemble the Han (90%) majority. The reaction to Ding Hui and Lou Jing reflects an ongoing debate on the definition of Chinese identity. And, it isn’t going away. There are pressures from “minority” groups for equal rights, if not territorial autonomy, and Hilton reports that there were 3000 “mixed-race” marriages in Shanghai last year and that up to 100,000 Africans have settled in Guangzhou (known as China’s “chocolate city”). Pop culture will undoubtedly be one arena in which the struggle to define Chinese identity will be played out. And racial issues will surely come into the foreground again. If only to be cashed in on. The Chinese reality show, Go Oriental Angel (an American Idol / Britain’s Got Talent knockoff) had only gotten moderate attention from the Chinese public until the producers included Lou Jing, the daughter of a Chinese mother and an African American father, as one of the five young women chosen to represent Shangai. As the story unfolded, it appeared that Lou was chosen more for her appearance than for her talent. Although to this listener, as bad as she was, she didn’t stand out from the other contestants. Lou quickly became a media phenomenon, provoking an onslaught of attacks (mostly by anonymous internet postings) and a rare debate in the media about questions of race and racism in China. The producers of the show exploited the public interest as much as they could, including having Lou rap.
From the Guardian: