Perceptions and representations of Africans in the Chinese imagination

This [very preliminar] paper will explore how historical and popular perceptions of Africa and Africans in the Chinese imagination inform certain prejudices that mark the experiences of African migrants within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. This paper was submitted as an assignment for the Key Debates in Cultural Studies course in The University of Sydney, back in early 2010.



Since the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy in the early 1980s, China has slowly begun to relax its previous restrictions on the entrance and settlement of foreign nationals in the country. China’s ‘opening up’ not only coincided with, but also fuelled, the dawn of economic globalisation. As the Chinese economy started to rear its head, businessmen, entrepreneurs and traders from all over the world were drawn to the country. Prior to China opening its doors in the early 1990s, traders from around the world began to congregate in Hong Kong (at that time, still under British rule). By the mid-1990s, Hong Kong registered dramatic increases in the numbers of Middle Eastern and African traders in search of cheap Chinese goods (Mathews, 2007: 170). By 2001, four years after the ‘Return’ of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, and against the backdrop of China’s entrance into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), foreign traders in major Chinese cities had become a common sight. African traders shipping Chinese products back to their homelands via Hong Kong relocated to the Mainland, settling mainly in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. By 2003, West Africans had become active in southern China’s import-export sector (Michel, 2009: 13).

The presence of foreigners in the People’s Republic of China is still a relatively new phenomenon.[1] Although, [I1] foreigners (of all nationalities) living in major cities are becoming increasingly common. Less common, however, are people from a one so-called ‘ethnic group’ becoming a dominant presence within a particular city. Consequently, the emergence of an African community of a significant size in Guangzhou is a remarkable phenomenon. From 2003 to 2009, Chinese official statistics estimated that the African population in Guangzhou was growing at a rate of 30 to 40 percent annually, and reached its peak of around 100,000 just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Bodomo, 2010: 9).[2]

This essay is a first step in the pursuit of a more ambitious project that aims to assess the implications of the emergence of an African community in southern China, and to locate such ‘emergence’ within the wider framework of contemporary Sino-African relations, as well as within different theories of globalisation. The analysis of the cultural, historical, political and economic issues surrounding this case study [I2] will provide for a better understanding of Sino-African cultural exchanges, in general; and work as a tool for suggesting that other types of analysis (away from the traditional ones simply based on the interactions amongst nation-states) are needed to make sense of these new patterns of migration.[3]

This essay will provide a first rapprochement [I3] to a cultural history of the representation of ‘Africans’ in the Chinese imagination, focusing mainly on racial perspectives. The first section reviews one of the few available sources on early encounters between Chinese and African civilisations. The second section analyses more contemporary representations, focusing on two cases: African students in 1980s China, and online perceptions. The third section presents the case-study of Guangzhou’s African community as a vehicle for highlighting how these representations have affected the everyday experiences of Africans in China.


“About the middle of October 1415, as Henry V’s army trudged through the mud of northern France towards Agincourt, a giraffe arrived in Beijing. The giraffe came from Malindi, in Kenya, and not many animals in history have been so acclaimed. The Ming Emperor received it at the gate of the inner palace. Prostrate officials congratulated their sovereign on its coming. And half a millennium later, in 1983, when the political and economic business of the modern world brought a prime minister of China to Kenya for the first time, a Beijing newspaper hailed the giraffe for its contribution to the friendship between the Chinese and African peoples.

The giraffe bore witness that two unlikely peoples had converged.”

Philip Snow, The Star Raft, 1988.

The above epigraph is a fragment of one of the most famous accounts of the first encounters between Chinese and African civilisations. It is particularly valuable here as a cue for thinking about the relationship between these two peoples outside the mediation of Western powers and Western history. To introduce the relatively unknown origins of this relation, this section will give a brief historical review of early Chinese-African encounters, placing particular emphasis on the perceptions and representations of Africans in China and the Chinese imperial courts.

Oh! Mighty Star Raft, Oh!

In The Star Raft, Snow (1988) suggests that the first encounters between Chinese and Africans happened long before contemporary Western historiographic analysis would assume. Snow is not trying to create a framework for the understanding of the ‘longevity’ of Sino-African relations, nor is he trying to make a case for the present day righteousness of Chinese incursion into African lands. What he does indeed do is present an historical account that aims to provide a better understanding of the influences and milestones structuring and shaping this relationship. Snow reminds us that modern Chinese scholars and politicians tend to value high age-old exchanges[I4] , and give a moral justification to their attitudes and relations with other peoples based on (sometimes long forgotten) historical contacts.

Some accounts claim that in the early fifteenth century, the Chinese admiral, Zheng He, landed on African shores, somewhere near contemporary Somalia (it would be another 60 years before Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias reached the southern tip of Africa) (Snow, 1988: 25-26). In Beijing’s political discourse, since that first encounter, China has never left Africa (Shen, 2009:426). They may not have been in direct [I5] contact for decades, or even centuries, but the profound impression left by Zheng He’s trading expeditions in both places is evidence of the longstanding relationship between these two civilisations – at least for some contemporary Chinese scholars (Snow, 1988: 1). Snow highlights, however, that African scholars might take a rather more sceptical approach to the origins of the Africa-China relation – and to the relevance and accuracy of fifteenth century Chinese records talking about ‘first encounters’ between ‘Africans’ and ‘Chinese’, especially as the African ‘national’ consciousness dates back to the relatively recent postcolonial period (1988: 2). Despite differing approaches, there is significant evidence to locate the beginning the exchanges between the peoples on the east coast of ‘Africa’, and peoples from the southern realms of the Tang Dynasty back to some point around the eighth or ninth century. This is relevant, because by the time that giraffe arrived in the Chinese imperial courts, there had been significant levels of interaction between African and Chinese traders in the Indian Ocean; but more importantly, because the giraffe (and the few zebras that followed) opened up a space for imagining other peoples and places in the Chinese mind. Depictions of the people that inhabited those remote lands from where such an exotic animal came from were soon constructed and registered.[4]

Kunlun Warriors

‘Dark-skinned’ people were talked of in China as early as the fourth century A.D. (Snow, 1988: 16). Early depictions of these dark-skinned people were heavily spiced with imagination, however. Images of strong armoured warriors confidently riding atop magnificent pachyderms were invoked as depictions of East African peoples. In Chinese dynastic imagination, the early Africans were invested with the cloak of heroism – embodiments of valour and loyalty (1988: 16). It was not until the Arabs arrived in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) court around the year 1000 that the Chinese recorded that ‘their [the Arabs] attendants had deep-socketed eyes and black bodies, they were called Kunlun slaves’ (1988: 17) – it is not clear, however, if they were Africans or Indonesians, nonetheless, this record marks one of the first representations of ‘black’ people in Chinese history. These Kunlun slaves, according to Snow, were represented in several stories of the Tang period as ‘unfailingly heroic’ and ‘resourceful’, able to speak Chinese, behave like Chinese and worthy of being treated by their Chinese owners with every sign of respect (1988: 17). By 1100, Kunlun slaves were common sight around Guangzhou and ‘belonged to rich people of the area’ (1988: 18). However, as the local population got used to them, their ‘heroic and magical nature’ became somewhat bleaker. No longer imbued by the strength of myth, the Kunlun became ‘displaced nomads, tragically ill-adapted to their Chinese surroundings’ (1988: 19). Unlike the resourceful Chinese-speaking Kunlun of fiction, ‘their speech and their desires are unintelligible… after they have been domesticated for a long time, they can understand human speech, but they cannot utter it themselves’ (1988: 19). As Snow suggests, there is no getting round the implications of the last sentence: for some Chinese, Kunlun were not considered to be humans (1988: 19). In a short time, their depiction had gone from mythical warrior to sub-human.

Thou Shalt Acknowledge Heavenly Power

Despite the shift in these representations, African delegations of merchants were still being received in Beijing with fanfares in the thirteenth century. These Africans were free traders and not representatives of any ‘state’, kingdom or court. According to Snow (1998: 20), their presence in the imperial Chinese courts was construed as an acknowledgment of the court’s ‘universal sovereignty’, and the goods they brought were presented to the Emperor as ‘tribute’ from a faraway land. So, while the giraffe offered to the Emperor in 1415 could well have been a regular sale in the mind of an Arab or African merchant, in the eyes of the imperial bureaucracy in Beijing, it was a ‘sign’ of tribute: a capitulation of a faraway land (now Africa) in front of the Ming’s heavenly emperor. Interestingly enough, since the early encounters between these two peoples, the Chinese side sought to find some kind of political recognition in the relationship. In the ‘African’ imagination, those ‘fair-skinned’ sailors from the east were different to the Portuguese in that the former just arrived, traded and left,[5] whereas the latter, imposed trade and religion (and their rule) in a rather more violent way.[6] In contemporary Chinese government discourse, Zheng He’s fleet set a precedent for how Chinese approach Africans: as an exchange partner rather than as an oppressive colonial power, as Alden (2007) suggests. There are several reasons why Imperial China did not have expansionist aims toward Africa, and why, by the end of the fifteenth century, direct contacts between these two regions suddenly ceased. Amongst these reasons are the Ming introversion and the so-called Middle Kingdom complex, but at this stage of research they are of minor concern.[I6]


Chinese Social Darwinism?

As China gradually started coming out of its self-imposed introversion, a re-encounter with Africa was imminent. However, Africans and Chinese would soon discover that their relationship was not going to be an easy one. As outlined above, the image of Africans in the Chinese imagination has undergone several changes over the past centuries. Nonetheless, a negative image of Africans, one that was firmly entrenched by the time China closed itself off from the world in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), managed to persist until as far as the twentieth century. Throughout the centuries, dark skin and consequently blackness was instilled in Chinese societies as a sign of poverty, backwardness and inferiority (Sullivan, 1994: 441)[I7] . Another important consideration around the image of Africans in China, and the attitudes of Chinese toward them, is the aesthetic premium placed by Chinese on the lightness of skin colour (1994: 440). Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a reform-minded intellectual who was highly influential during the last days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), argued, in accordance with the Social Darwinist spirit of his time, that the world was divided into five races – black, red, brown, yellow and white – out of which the yellow and the white were ‘historical races’ capable of civilisational prowess, while the rest were ‘historically destined to be subjugated since they had failed to form cohesive national groups’ (1994: 442). Although it is a century old, Liang’s analysis resonates with the tendency of some Chinese to regard Africa as the embodiment of a past from which they wish to escape. [I8]

A Communist Flirtation?

Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the idea of Africa became a central element for the international configuration of the newly born republic’s strategy. The ‘New China’ sought recognition from several African (also newly born) states. Trade, as in the time of the dynasties, was important, however, aid became central in the relationship (Sullivan, 1994: 445). By the beginning of the 1960s, scholarship programs established by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were set in motion. In 1961, more than a hundred students from African countries arrived in Beijing. However, due to frictions with school authorities and harassment by local students, less than a year later, more than 80 percent had returned to their home countries (1994: 444). Notwithstanding initial setbacks, by the 1970s, international students from many African countries were commonly seen in the major Chinese cities. Although, generally speaking, relations between Chinese and African students were not complicated, there were several minor frictions and fights reported throughout the 70s and 80s. As Sullivan (1994) suggests, as China’s economic reforms broadened and encountered difficulties in the early 80s, tensions intensified between Chinese and African students. On the Chinese side, as Sullivan explains, anger was a consequence of discomfort with what the students saw as an economic failure of the socialist system. The anger became rage when some Chinese students, mixing patriotism and racial prejudices, complained against the supposed ‘better’ treatment of African students by the Chinese government. This reactive mixture resulted in the 1988-89 Nanjing anti-African protests. After a series of clashes over African students dating Chinese women, a minor incident in Hehai University unleashed major violent confrontations – as never before seen in the New China between Chinese and a foreign (non-Asian) group. Several days of demonstrations followed (1994: 447). These attitudes revealed, according to Sullivan, how Liang’s racially based distinction still permeated Chinese society in the late 80s.

It must be said, however, that different analyses of the Nanjing incident have suggested that much of the anger fuelling the incident and subsequent demonstrations was aimed at the government and it was not so much racially oriented – the fact that the demonstrations ended up with slogans like ‘Democracy and Human Rights’ and ‘Republic of China’, and not mentioning anymore the ‘black devil’ is evidence of that.

Chocolate Girl: Online Perceptions of ‘Africanness’*

More contemporary representations of Africans in the Chinese imagination can be exemplified by the controversy around Lou Jing, a 20-year-old Chinese girl born to an African-American father and a Chinese mother, who came to the public’s attention in Shanghai’s Go Oriental Angel talent show in 2009. When Lou became one of the five finalists on the show, she was dubbed qiaokeli nushi (‘chocolate girl’) and rapidly became subject of a heated and not very politically correct online debate. In the same vein, the stir caused by the story of a Chinese kindergarten female teacher in a relationship with an African man is also remarkable. The story was carried by several Chinese online portals under the headline of ‘Kindergarten teacher reveals her shocking romance with a black foreigner’ (my emphasis – club.sohu.com). The massive interest that Lou and the kindergarten teacher attracted from Chinese media opened up serious debates about racism and racial prejudice in present-day China.

Against the backdrop of these racial prejudices, but at a more socio-political level, many Chinese Internet users see illegal African immigrants in China as ‘paralysing Chinese society by unfairly tapping into the resources of the socialist welfare system’ (Shen, 2009: 435). They portray illegal Africans as a threat to morality and health within Chinese society. Shen’s study of online perceptions of Africa in China shows how the traditional prejudices discussed earlier in this paper are still around. In the Chinese online realm, Africans are prototyped [I9] as poor, lazy, sexist and threatening, with the added burden of being possible AIDS carriers (2009). Ideas about the impossibility of Africans to succeed still abound. According to Shen, there is a reciprocal relation between online opinions and the ideas that structure China’s foreign policy towards Africa. He argues that at a political level, the Chinese government’s approach could be seen as ‘orientalising’ Africans: Africa is thus seen as a timeless place that evokes nostalgia for a long forgotten Chinese past; and Africans are brothers that cannot help themselves and need China’s investment to overcome their structural failures. While online images and comments cannot be taken as representative of major social behaviours, in a country where offline public spaces of expression are highly striated, the online realm could give us an indication of certain popular perceptions.

Online perceptions of ‘Africanness’, as well as online perceptions of China’s role in Africa, are central to the way Africans and Chinese are structuring their complex relationships. Moreover, the construction of a Chinese image around its contemporary relation to Africa is crucial for the success of the People’s Republic in the twenty-first century. As Ien Ang (1993) reminds us, constructions of Chineseness are based on complex historical, social and migrational patterns influenced by mobility and displacement, either commercial or political (war and trade). In regard to this, despite a certain reluctance to the African presence in contemporary China, a Sino-African hybrid may well become a Chinese sub-national identity in the future, as Adams Bodomo (2010) suspects.

To understand why Africans are going to China, it is imperative to analyse what the Chinese are doing in Africa, how they are doing it, and how they have been received and stereotyped in different African nations. Unfortunately, perceptions and constructions of ‘the Chinese’ in the contemporary African imagination is a vast topic and one that is beyond the scope of this paper (it has, however, been relatively well documented by Michel Serge in his recent book China Safari [2009]).


Immigrés Clandestins Africains en Chine*

Nobody really knows how many Africans live in China. There are no official statistics, no authoritative account, and there is an immense silence around the African presence. It is as if both sides had signed a tacit agreement to not disclose information about their mutual businesses. One of the biggest obstacles for ethnographic researchers in Guangzhou has been that many of the African migrant traders settling there do not see any benefit in providing information about their backgrounds and activities (Wei, 2009: sina.com.cn). Notwithstanding this obstacle, what we know is that Africans started arriving in Guangzhou in the early 2000s, and since then, their numbers have increased. Africans arrive in China on a plethora of Chinese visas, and most commonly on a tourist or business visas. Once these visas expire, it is possible to renew them in Hong Kong, but visa runs can only be made a few times before exhausting the possibilities for consecutive renewal (renewal is strongly dependant on nationality). In the last three years, the Chinese government has tightened its regulations on visas, making it particularly difficult for Africans to renew their visas – as a result, many of them have been forced to stay illegally in China. As depicted by several media reports, the lack of visas (or residence permits) is perhaps the most [I10] widely experienced problem amongst Africans in Guangzhou (Wei, 2009: sina.com.cn). As a consequence of the tightening of entry requirements, the number of illegal Africans in China is increasing. This situation has created a vicious cycle in which Chinese police and Africans play the old game of ‘cat-and-mouse’ (Wei, 2009: sina.com.cn) – one that many Africans with previous diasporic experiences are well equipped to play.

If Bodomo (2010), who foresees the rise of an African-Chinese sub-national group, is right, then it is imperative to outline and investigate the dynamics and patterns that structure the so-called ‘emergence’ of this community. To date, most of the researchers have dealt with the concept of ‘Africans’, but there are no authoritative resources that pull the research to the sublevel of nationalities, language and religion – amongst other possible forms of imagining communities. What do we mean by Africans when we talk about the African community of Guangzhou? Bodomo illustrates that most of the African people living in Guangzhou come from West Africa – mainly from Nigeria, Mali, Guinea and Ghana (2010: 9). Li Zhigang et al, (2008) claims that the majority of African traders come from francophone countries such as Mali, Togo, Guinea, Senegal and Congo. Li’s account is significantly opposed to that of Bodomo, for whom Nigerians count to more than 70 percent of the community. Clearly, there are disagreements on the ethnic composition of this highly mobile and changeable community. Notwithstanding this, Bodomo, Li Zhigang et al, and Li Zhang (2008) all agree that most of these Africans are self-employed importers who enter China on tourist visas with limited capital, and outsource [I11] many different types of merchandise. Li Zhigang et al, affirm that ‘a majority of the African traders speak Arabic and French, while very few are able to speak English’ or Mandarin. Less than 40 percent of these Africans studied beyond high school (2008: 15). In Li Zhigang’s sample, 70 percent were males while 30 percent were females, and most were Muslims (2008: 14).

It is a task for further research to look beyond the concept of an ‘African trading community’ and delve into the everyday experiences of people that have successfully inserted themselves into the dynamics not only of the African groups but of the Chinese population. Many of these individual tales can help clarify the dynamics of globalisation and how they affect ordinary people. What I am suggesting here is that the analysis of the emergence of an African community in Guangzhou can be framed as a point for the microscopic observation of macroscopic trends and processes within globalisation. The study of this locale can aid us to better understand how individuals resist and negotiate globalisation.


This essay has aimed to provide a loose framework for more extensive research. There are, therefore, many angles and ideas central to the emergence of this community that were not covered. Perceptions of Chinese from Africans in China and Africans in Africa, for example, could enrich our understanding of this complex Sino-African cultural exchange. However, I decided to focus on the perceptions and representations of Africans in what I call the Chinese imagination because I believe that, as a first step, this analysis could help sketch out possible paths for further research.

Two final points, however, must be made. First, in the introduction, I advanced the following thesis: historical and popular perceptions of Africa and Africans in the Chinese imagination often inform certain prejudices that mark the experiences of African migrants within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. While I am not trying to ‘racialise’ the African presence in China, I do try to problematise the fact that Chinese official discourse does not seem to be coherent with the treatment of Africans in Guangzhou, and seems to be informed by the negative perceptions and representations highlighted throughout this paper. While the perpetuation of these stereotypes is not entirely the Chinese government’s fault, it is important to take into consideration Shen’s suggestion about the close relationship between popular perceptions and the composition of official discourse in China. This is relevant, because I believe that a case could be made for the following thesis in a future study: the stance that the Chinese government adopts in its treatment of the African diasporic population within its borders could arguably mirror the government’s prevailing (real) approach to African continental affairs. At this stage, I suspect that the Chinese government keeps quiet about what happens in Guangzhou with regard to the treatment and harassment of the African population, because it is not coherent with its own slogans of multiculturalism, diversity and partnership towards Africa and Africans.

Second, as the evidence presented in this research clearly shows, there is no distinction between the different African groups in Chinese representations. Arguably, within the Chinese imagination (and also for some researchers) it does not matter if the migrant is from Ghana or Cameroon – they are all Africans. This attitude reinforces the discredited notion of ‘an African culture’ and provides a safe haven for a plethora of negative stereotypes. I strongly believe that these stereotypes have to be challenged and eventually demystified. I also think that the imaginary unity of African communities purely based on ‘skin-colour’ and ignoring sub-national narratives has to be problematised.

The case of African migration to China is an interesting one because it challenges common understandings of migration studies. Inclusion, or assimilation, of Africans into Chinese society is far from becoming a reality – in China, assimilation of foreigners is practically inexistent, legally and socially. ‘No matter how long you stay in China, no matter how well you perform ‘Chineseness’, you can never become Chinese as you can become French,’ I was told by a woman from Mali that had been living in Beijing for ten years. Isabel Morais, in her analysis of the African experience in Macau, reminds us how difficult it is for Africans to become legal citizens – sometimes not even marriage with a Chinese national can grant a legal status to Africans from certain countries.

Finally, the diasporic identities that are being created in China also challenge the traditional canon in that the immigrant is not living the experience of adapting to a Western or First World country/culture. Against this framework of global migration, deterritorialisation and the transnationalisation of migrant communities, we need to endeavour to decentre diasporic and migration studies.

[1] There have been foreign students in Beijing and Shanghai all through the existence of the People’s Republic of China (Sullivan, 1994); however, up until the 1990s, their relatively small numbers did not have an impact on the general population. From the early 1990s onwards, however, foreign students can be seen practically everywhere in Chinese territory.

[2] The number of Africans living legally in China is a matter of debate. While Bodomo puts forward the idea of a community of more than 100,000 people, Li (2008) and Li Zhigang et al. (2008) are far more conservative and locate the number of Africans in Guangzhou not over 5,000 and 10,000 people, respectively.

[3] From ‘south to south’ nations and/or civilisations.

[4] Some superstitious imperial court bureaucrats saw the giraffe as a unicorn sent by Heaven to legitimate imperial rule (Snow, 1988: 1-36).

[5] The Chinese withdrawal from Africa might have been related to the Chinese Ming court’s rejection of the entire outside world.

[6] Portuguese started a huge maritime trade of slaves with South and East Asia (Morais, 2009: 9).

* In Chinese online discussions the idea of Africanness, whatever that means, is closely related to skin colour. Thus, it strictly refers to ‘black Africans’ and ignores all non-black Africans such as peoples from Maghreb, white-Africans and other minorities.

* Illegal African Immigrants in China


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