[lg policy] Early Lessons in Ethnic Stereotypes in China

Fierman, William wfierman at indiana.edu
Thu May 21 15:00:15 UTC 2015

Early Lessons in Ethnic Stereotypes in China
By Didi Kirsten Tatlow   May 20, 2015 6:00 pm May 20, 2015 6:00 pm

How do you teach children Chinese characters? Mnemonics help.

This is how a teacher at a leading state elementary school in Beijing taught first-graders this month how to write 照, or zhao, meaning ‘‘to photograph’’: ‘‘A little Japanese, picked up a knife, killed a person, left four drops of blood.’’

When I asked Chinese friends about this, they laughed. Their reaction wasn’t exactly politically correct, perhaps. But then China isn’t, at least not in the way that phrase is understood in some societies as avoiding speech or policies that could offend an identity group based on gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Or on something else. Like Japanese-ness.

China is extremely good at being politically correct in its own way. Official documents are filled with phrases like, ‘‘We must strongly and severely express our anger toward Japan!’’

Why doesn’t the government spare us the repetitive adverbs?

‘‘Impossible to drop one word,’’ explained one politically astute Chinese. ‘‘If you skip one word, everyone will think there’s been a policy change.’’

The teacher’s choice of phrase was at least orthographically acceptable.

The radical, as the components of a character are called, for ‘‘sun’’ (日, or ri) also stands for Japan (日本, or Riben), ‘‘source of the sun.’’ (The ‘‘little’’ (小, or xiao) is a common insult applied in China to the Japanese.) The other radicals are a ‘‘knife’’ (刀, or dao) and a ‘‘mouth’’ symbolizing a person (口, or kou). Add four ‘‘drops’’ (滴, or di). An effective, if bloodthirsty, mnemonic, drenched in the Chinese-Japanese hatred born of World War II that flourishes to this day.

My 7-year-old daughter now knows exactly how to write zhao. Ask her and she chirrups: ‘‘Yige xiao riben, nale yiba dao, shale yikou ren, liule sidi xue!’’

Then there’s race.

‘‘Foreign babies are much more beautiful than Chinese babies!’’ friends and even strangers cooed when my children were small. ‘‘Uh, I don’t really agree,’’ I’d say. ‘‘Why do you think so?’’

‘‘Because they’re so white!’’

Black is less admired.

When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, a Chinese friend marveled at the election of the first African-American.

‘‘America must be a really special place,’’ she confided. ‘‘We would never elect a Tibetan as president.’’

Her reasoning ran something like this: Both blacks and Tibetans are considered inferior and such allegedly inferior people will never lead China. Comments about ‘‘black devils’’ are freely made here, and blacks may be regarded as a lesser kind of foreigner.

China does not have a specific antidiscrimination law, though there are provisions within individual laws, for example, pertaining to employment, and many regulations, banning discrimination on grounds of gender, disability or other attributes.

‘‘It’s scattered,’’ said Ding Xiaodong, a law professor at China Renmin University. ‘‘Each ministry has its rules. It’s not like the United States where there are special antidiscrimination laws.’’

Certain ethnic groups, such as the mostly Muslim Uighurs from the western region of Xinjiang, may encounter severe bias in the predominantly ethnic Han areas of the east. They are turned away from some hotels, and local governments may issue rules restricting their employment and residence.

Yet the state does not permit ethnic discrimination cases to be filed, Mr. Ding said. ‘‘They fear intensifying ethnic tensions,’’ he said. ‘‘They think antidiscrimination lawsuits could harm the state’s policy of ethnic unity, or lead to identity politics.’’

When prosecutors announced last week that they were charging Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer, with ‘‘inciting ethnic hatred,’’ what they meant was that he dared to criticize state policy in Xinjiang. Not that he said offensive things about Uighurs.

One mother of a child in my daughter’s class objected to the teacher’s choice of a mnemonic.

‘‘Thank goodness there weren’t any Japanese children in the class. It wouldn’t have been fair to them,’’ she said. Then she added, ‘‘Of course, I don’t like Japanese either.’’

Follow Didi Kirsten Tatlow on Twitter at @dktatlow.

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