Organized Panel Session
Historical narratives of Chinese racial thinking during the early twentieth century focus almost exclusively on conceptions of the Chinese race from the perspective of nationalism. Though these narratives highlight the importance of nationalism as a major impetus for intellectual transformation during the Republican period, they present an overarching political ideology, often ignoring contested debates and discussions that dominated the intellectual-political elite. This paper interrogates the historical background of these contestations in order to better understand how race (zhongzu/minzu) was understood and utilized by elites. Chinese racial thinking cannot be understood independently of the sociopolitical contexts that served as the driving force behind its evolution. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries marked a concrete shift in the Chinese intellectual sphere from seeing race primarily as a cultural formulation used to demarcate different social groups to one with increasingly “scientific” undertones as the twentieth century approached. This scientific turn was a product of historical circumstance and the rise of global science as well as nationalism. Spotlighting anti-imperialism as the root of this shift pivots our understanding of racial thinking away from seeing race in teleological terms. Using a range of historical sources including intellectual monographs, journal publications, and newspaper periodicals, this paper argues that the scientific reification of race was a response to foreign imperialism that created a completely new way of conceptualizing race. Race as an idea became “Chinese” when the intelligentsia recognized the need for a racialized geopolitical identity to compete in a globalized, racialized world dominated by Western hegemony.