Hongkong: Genetic science is
coming up with some interesting data about the diverse and un-singular
origins of Chinese people. This has political implications as well as being
a blow to blood-based racism.
Hongkong: Genetics is a stirring subject, not least for
nationalists and historians. It is especially so for a China
eager to underline the singularity of Chinese bloodlines and
establish historical claims over its neighbours. But genetic
science has been dealing some rude shocks to those
who like to use racial identity for political purposes.
Earlier this year, scientists announced that the closest
genetic relatives of New Zealand's indigenous Maori people
were to be found in Taiwan. The news stunned Chinese,
especially those accustomed to believe in the uniqueness of
the Chinese "race", and that Taiwan had been part of China
from time immemorial.
In a process which took thousands of years the seafaring
Malayo/Polynesian peoples colonised every island from
Madagascar in the west to Tahiti and Hawaii in the east, and
from Taiwan (and southern Japan) in the north to New Zealand.
They reached their southernmost destination a millenium ago,
or some 400 years before Han Chinese from the mainland began
to settle in Taiwan. The Hans did not become the majority till
about 250 years ago.
On this issue, genetics did not spring a surprise -- though it
has underlined what are awkward facts for a Beijing government
which has as much commitment to historical accuracy as
Stalin's Soviet Encyclopedia. But the Taiwan case is nothing
to the shock to racist mythologising of the latest genetic
mapping of groups of Chinese. The mapping was not the work of
hegemonists eager to put down all things Chinese but of
Chinese and foreign scientists working on the Chinese Genome
It suggests that the original human inhabitants of China did
not originate in the Chinese heartland, on the lands drained
by the Yellow river or the Yangtze. They migrated into the
region from the southwest. Worse still, from a Chinese racist
perspective, they originated in Africa! Ouch.
That there was no specifically Chinese, or non-Afican, source
of humankind may hardly be news elsewhere but it is to a China
which has been pouring money into archeological efforts to
find a Chinese equivalent of the earliest African hominids.
The genome project also demonstrates the wide variations of
genetic make-up within China (even excluding latterly acquired
territories such as Xinjiang) and the number of common factors
linking Chinese and non-Chinese in east Asia.
None of this should really come as a surprise. Body size, head
shape, susceptibility to diseases have long been know to vary
greatly between north and south in China. The latter people
are often closer in appearance to those in southeast Asians.
Genetics and physionomy do not follow directly. But many
Chinese -- including some race conscious descendants of
migrants to southeast Asia -- have clung to blood-based
beliefs similar to 19th century western ones in "superior" and
Such racism has percolated into laws, including those of
Hongkong where those of "Chinese race" -- undefined but
generally interpreted as ancestry -- have long been given
preferential treatment regardless of their current language,
culture or nationality.
Japan of course has harboured some of the same myths, as a
result having long confined its citizens of Korean ancestry to
inferior status. Japanese genetic origins are far more diverse
than the nation's cultural homogeneity would suggest.
At a time when Chinese nationalism is on the rise, genetic
science will be a doing a service if it keeps Chinese identity
channelled into cultural and political spheres where it
belongs rather than flirting with spurious "blood" concepts
which have caused such suffering elsewhere.
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