How did Asians go from being called “white” to “yellow”

Posted on : 2016-07-24 13:02 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Book now available in Korean translation charts the history of Westerners use of term “yellow”, with all its negative baggage
The cover of the Korean translation of “Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking
The cover of the Korean translation of “Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking

In “The Travels of Marco Polo,” the people of China are described as “white.” Records left by eighteenth century missionaries also report the skin color of Japanese and other East Asian people as clearly white. Yet in the nineteenth century, this perception quietly gave way to descriptions as “yellow.” In travel books, scientific discourse, and works of art, portrayals of East Asians began presenting them as having yellow skin. What happened in between?

In his 2011 book “Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking,” National Taiwan University professor Michael Keevak delves deeply into the origins and history of how and why East Asians went from being seen as “white” to being classified as “yellow.”

The first suspect implicated in applying the “yellow” label to East Asian faces is the famed Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). At first, Linnaeus used the Latin adjective “fuscus,” meaning “dark,” to describe the skin color of Asians. But in the tenth edition of his 1758-9 “Systema Naturae,” he specified it with the term “luridus,” meaning “light yellow” or “pale.”

” National Taiwan University professor Michael Keevak
” National Taiwan University professor Michael Keevak

It was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) who went beyond the coloring ascribed by Linnaeus to apply the completely different label of “Mongolianness.” Regarded as a founder of comparative anatomy, the German zoologist did more than just use the Latin word “gilvus,” meaning “light yellow,” to describe East Asian skin color: he also implicated the Mongols, a name with troubling and threatening connotations for Europeans with their memories of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Timur.

While the references remained anomalous at first, travelers to East Asia gradually began describing locals there more and more as “yellow.” By the nineteenth century, Keevak argued, the “yellow race” become a key part of anthropology.

But the yellow label came associated with discrimination, exclusion, and violence. Just as no one in the world is purely white or black, neither does anyone actually have skin that is deep yellow. By “creating” a skin color and investing traits such as “Mongolian eyes,” the Mongolian birthmark, and mongolism (the old name for Down syndrome), Westerners made the perceived yellow race synonymous with abnormality. They also responded to the arrival of immigrants from Asia by sounding the alarm over the “yellow peril” - a term with a whole range of negative associations from overpopulation to heathenism, economic competition, and political and social regression. The hidden agenda of this racial color-coding becomes apparent when one considers who benefits from a hierarchy that places “yellow” and “black” beneath “white.”

“Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking
“Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking

For the Korean-language edition, the author wrote a new introduction that asks, “Isn’t it time to stop using the discriminatory terms ‘yellow’?” It’s an argument solidly bolstered by the book’s footnotes and references, which account for a third of its 348 pages.

By Kang Hee-cheol, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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