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When a Mainland Chinese Museum Likened Africans to Animals

Updated on July 19, 2020
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A silent observer looking around. At times he must protect his identity with avatars and weird sounding names.

By the time I wrote this article, the west is still recovering from the George Floyd incident. The world will forever be haunted by the image of a police officer pinning the man on the back of his head, as the unfortunate Floyd begs for his life. For many, it was an eye opener that racism is still very much alive and well, while little was done to combat and control the ensuing hate.

The African Americans aren’t the only ones who experienced any sort of race related crimes. Asians and other immigrants also had their fair share of hate. But incidence of racism is not exclusive to western nations, as some countries in the east grapple with their own cases. But somewhere in Asia, a rising superpower seems to be undermining their own problems with other nationalities.

For other smaller nations who were on the receiving end of the Mainland China’s relentless expansion in the Pacific, the said country possessed a superiority complex it never admitted. And seeing a military base in the nearest seas and getting barred to fish on your own water is just the start. There are cases where the people from these nations were looked down and stereotyped, as in the case of a Hong Kong based columnist. Chip Tsao once called the Philippines as a “nation of servants.” And just wait till you see how the Mainland Chinese treat the African people, when a museum in Wuhan likened them to animals.

Racism on China

Chip Tsao, the Hong Kong based columnist accused of racism.
Chip Tsao, the Hong Kong based columnist accused of racism.

To be fair, the Chinese people were always the victims of racisms themselves. There were no shortages of stories on how they are stereotyped and discriminated in the west. The irony here is that in the Mainland China, the people there are also capable of equally toxic forms of racial slurs.

Coming from the foreigners who stayed in China, they also experienced racial profiling and discrimination, ranging from snide comments about their features to negative stereotypes on their races. And as mentioned before, that was exactly what Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao did when he penned his article “The War at Home.” As if calling the Philippines unworthy of claiming the Spratly’s Islands wasn’t enough, he called the said country a nation of servants, with China as its master. And long before he uttered that slur, Tsao was already accused of racism as in the case back in October 2005. Thanks to his post entitled “Have Hong Kong girls stopped looking for Mr. White,” Tsao was tagged as promoter of discrimination and jealous of western men in Hong Kong.

The problem here is that the Mainland China portrays racism as western problem, something exclusive to the west. This led to their own lack of acknowledgement of racism in their own soil. Chinese laws also do not define “racial discrimination,” but among the many foreigners living in China, the African people were the most targeted in terms of discrimination and stereotyping.

Treatment of African People in China

Black face in a Chinese show.
Black face in a Chinese show.

In Guangzhou, China, Chinese workers once held up a sign barring Africans from entering, something they shamelessly did. And during the COVID 19 outbreak, the attacks on Africans increased as one incident showed, when Chinese police forced Africans out of their home and putting them in the streets.

And way before the COVID 19 pandemic, the Chinese people were already discriminating the African community. In an elevator in Kempinski Hotel in Beijing, a Chinese woman refused to get in with an African man. And in 1988, Chinese students in Nanjing assaulted foreign students, mainly Africans.

Chinese TV ads were not helping either. They reinforced the stereotypes by featuring Africans in skin whitening commercials.

Museum Exhibit in Wuhan

Children emulating the photos.
Children emulating the photos.

Then, there was an incident in a museum in Wuhan that reflects the overall problems of African discrimination in China. Firstly, I did a quick research if the story was true as after all, it could be some sinophobic misinformation. I mean, it’s so blatantly offensive that there was a chance that it was fake. As it turns out, the story is pretty much real, and it was featured in news sites like “The Guardian.” It was even reported in separate blogs by Africans living in China. By the time I wrote this article, the province of Wuhan was in hot water because of the COVID 19 pandemic. But back then as was reported in October 2017 in an article by The Guardian, the Hubei Provincial Museum hosted an exhibit comparing Africans to animals.

The title of the exhibit was This is Africa, and it featured diptychs containing photos of African faces, paired with the faces of wild animals. Notably, the human faces and the animal faces got the same expressions, as if likening it to one another. What’s more, the African faces got comical expressions. A good example is an African child with his mouth open paired with the face of a gaping gorilla. Another is a man seemingly being compared to a baboon, and a grinning guy beside a great cat with its fangs exposed.

Other exhibits being viewed.
Other exhibits being viewed.

One might wonder what’s the purpose of such offensive exhibit, which received thousands of visitors. Wang Yuejin, the exhibit’s curator explained that the animal comparison is a Chinese culture of identifying a person with his animal zodiac according to their birth years, and the target audience is mainly Chinese.

Backlash

Man being compared to a baboon.
Man being compared to a baboon.

Obviously, being likened to wild animals won’t be taken lightly by the African community inside and outside China. And although their target audience is mostly Chinese, the museum never realized that the exhibit could be seen by the outside world, and by the people they targeted. And yes, they were offended.

When Wang Yuejin used the Chinese culture as an excuse behind the exhibit, people felt that it was a sign of cultural ignorance and insensitivity in the museum’s part. It seems that the people behind the exhibit never considered that what’s accepted in their part could be offensive to others. But then, the animals of Chinese Zodiac got mythical symbolism and representations. The wild animals of Africa could be interpreted as savages Then, there is the fact that the faces of the African was taken with comical expressions, as if ridiculing them.

In the end people felt that the Chinese culture thing was just an excuse. Trying to compare Africans wearing comical expressions to savage beasts is like portraying them as uncivilized, unsophisticated, unintelligent and savages. It was racism all along.

Removal

Obviously with so much controversy over the truly controversial photos, then it was no surprise that the exhibit was removed. But some felt that the removal was not enough, not after hearing the reasons behind it. It was removed due to the potential consequences, and racism was not even mentioned. No apology was made to the racial impact it caused. This gave a clear indication that racism in China was bound to continue.

And it did.

Fast forward in 2020, the Africans were labelled in the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic.

References

1. Wu, Adam and Goldman Russel (October 13, 2017). "Chinese Museum Pulls Exhibit Comparing Animals to Black People." New York Times.

2. Haas, Benjamin (October 14, 2017). "'Chinese Museum Accused of Racism Over Photos Pairing Africans With Animals." The Guardian.

3. Girard, Bonnie (April 23, 2020), "Racism is alive and well in China," The Diplomat.

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