Universiteit Leiden

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Lecture

How Did East Asians Become Yellow?

  • Michael Keevak
Date
23 November 2016
Time
Series
China Seminar
Address
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 3
2311 BZ Leiden
Room
104 (Verbarium)

In their earliest encounters with East Asia, Europeans almost uniformly characterized the people of China and Japan as white, yet 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, this talk will explore the notion of yellowness and show that the label originated not in early travel texts or objective descriptions, but in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific discourses on race. 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 together as members of the "Mongolian race" they began to be considered yellow.

Michael Keevak is a professor of foreign languages at National Taiwan University. His books include Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton, 2011); The Story of a Stele: China's Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625-1916 (Hong Kong, 2008); and The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar's Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax (Detroit, 2004). A new book, Embassies to China: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters Before the Opium Wars, is forthcoming next year from Palgrave Macmillan.