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It's Not a Chinese World After All

Paris, Monday, July 12, 1999

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune.

HONG KONG - Genetics is a stirring subject for nationalists and historians. It is especially so for a China eager to underline the singularity of Chinese bloodlines and establish historical claims over neighbors. But genetic science has been dealing some rude shocks to those who like to use so-called racial identity for political purposes.

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 has been part of China from time immemorial.

In a process which took thousands of years, the seafaring Malayo/Polynesian peoples colonized 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 millennium ago, or some 400 years before Han Chinese from the mainland began to settle in Taiwan. The Hans did not become the majority until about 250 years ago.

On this Taiwan issue, genetics did not spring a surprise, although it underlines awkward facts for a Beijing government that has as much commitment to historical accuracy as Stalin's Soviet Encyclopedia did. But consider the shock to racist mythologizing of genetic mapping of groups of Chinese. The mapping is the work not of enemies eager to put down all things Chinese but of an international team of Chinese and other scientists working on a Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project.

The project 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.

That there was no specifically Chinese, or non-African, source of humankind may hardly be news elsewhere, but it is news to a China which has been pouring money into archaeological efforts to find a Chinese equivalent of the earliest African hominids.

The genome project also demonstrates the wide variations of genetic makeup 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 and susceptibility to diseases have long been known to vary greatly between north and south in China. The latter people are often closer in appearance to Southeast Asians.

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 "inferior" races. Such racism has percolated into laws, including those of Hong Kong, where people 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 harbored some of the same myths, and as a result has 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 channeled into cultural and political spheres where it belongs, rather than flirting with spurious "blood" concepts that have caused such suffering elsewhere.


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