Are Asians white or black

White was already taken - as the East Asians turned “yellow”

It was the European Enlightenment, which, in its mania for systematisation, came up with the idea of ​​dividing humanity into colors. The example of East Asia shows how the coloring played out historically. Once it had taken root, it also influenced vision - in a bad way.

Because of their fascinating properties, colors have always played an important role in human cultural history. They not only served art, but were also often used as symbols to make invisible things such as power or hierarchies visible. The decisive factor has always been who defines these symbols and who has the authority to define them.

Take the Olympic flag created by Pierre de Coubertin in 1913. A color has been assigned to each continent, and yellow represents Asia. Africa received the black ring and America the red. This division of colors is not random, but reflects the spirit of the times. Because colonialism was at its height at that time, and various racial theories with color allocation were just booming. The political slogan “yellow danger”, which was already widespread in Europe at the end of the 19th century, shows how well-established thinking in terms of color categories was.

Color and race

If one asks about its origin, one finds that the age of the Enlightenment is the cradle of the thinking that combines races with colors. The age of the Enlightenment is full of contradictions, because on the one hand it demanded the maturity of humans with the help of reason, but on the other hand it created ideologies that deny countless people the maturity. The color of the skin is a natural characteristic of humans. It remains a natural category and a sign of human diversity until it is linked to a cultural value. Using the example of East Asia, one can show how the color scheme was played out historically. Once it had taken root, it also influenced vision, as it is also culturally shaped.

Up until the 18th century there were only a few theories in Europe that divided groups of people into colors. An early example is a certain Georgius Hornius, who in 1666 divided the people as descendants of Noah into three groups and gave them three colors: the whites as descendants of Jafet, the blacks and the yellows as those of Ham and Shem. there is already a value here, since the son of Ham was cursed by God.

However, because of the religious context, this thesis had no lasting effect. This changed in the 18th century when natural scientists and philosophers began to deal more and more with classifications of races. At that time, disputes arose in Europe over the question of whether humanity has a monogenetic or polygenetic origin. Because with religion, the biblical narrative has also lost its influence, and the increasing knowledge about other parts of the world demanded a new explanation for the diversity of people.

Linnaeus and Kant

Anthropology moved more and more into the center of interest. The age of the Enlightenment is also a time of measuring and typing. The systematization rage captured everything that could be quantified. Gradually a scheme emerged. Important roles were played by Carl von Linné, the botanist who in 1735 attributed the pale yellow color to the Asians, and Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who in 1776, after much discussion, declared the Asians to be the "yellow race". Reports from travelers served as the basis for such considerations. The so-called travel literature had just established itself as a new genre and enjoyed great popularity in Europe. At the end of the 18th century, the colors "white, black, red and yellow" finally established themselves as symbols for important groups of people.

The East Asians were considered white in the eyes of Europeans for a long time until they were later declared yellow. For example, beginning in the 16th century and into the 18th century, most European travelers and missionaries described the Chinese as white. Exceptions are those who were referred to as brown because they were either tanned or lived more in the sunny south. There was only a few travel literature in the 17th century that spoke of the “yellowish skin color” of the Chinese.

However, the East Asians could only be white until the Europeans discovered and claimed the white color as an exclusive characteristic for themselves. Being white is only constituted in relation to other shades that are colored. In the course of the 18th century, the assessment of the East Asians increasingly shifted from white to yellow. The more negatively someone thought of China, the more likely they were to categorize the Chinese as yellow. Because in the colors one saw a degeneration phenomenon. Consequently, the white color was equated with higher civilization, which was therefore a superior one. Such theories were fatal because they came along with the paint of science and served to legitimize colonial conquests. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these views penetrated the political sphere with full force and determined the course of world history.

A kind of jade

The East Asians themselves knew nothing of this for a long time. They had no idea of ​​the disputes or that they were yellow. It was not until the middle of the 19th century, when the Europeans came to East Asia as conquerors, that people began to deal with the culture of the West. Books from Europe were translated and studied. Only then did you find out how Europeans thought of the world and what kind of image they had of Asians.

The East Asians have never considered themselves yellow. If you look in the literature for descriptions of skin color, you will usually find two variants: white and brown, in the sense of tanned. Only in the medical books is there talk of different shades of color of the face, which were interpreted as signs of various diseases. The beauty of a woman was usually celebrated by writing that she had snow-white or jade-white skin. There is a type of jade that is shimmering white and transparent. There are few reports of how Koreans looked at the skin color of Europeans when they first saw them. But in one it was labeled as ash-colored.