Thursday, May 12, 2011

Michael Keevak's "Becoming Yellow"

Michael Keevak is a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at National Taiwan University. His books include Sexual Shakespeare, The Pretended Asian, and The Story of a Stele.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls at the very end of a chapter on nineteenth-century anthropology, in which I argue that "the yellow race" had become a widely accepted conceptual and scientific category.
Whether they were actually yellow was no longer the focus, perhaps, but at the same time there could be no mistake that they were not white. The point of so much measurement was to show that the "other" races really did differ from the "normal" one, the group to which of course the anthropologists themselves generally belonged...
But how did this come about? In their earliest encounters with East Asia, Europeans almost uniformly characterized the people of China and Japan as white, yet by the end of the seventeenth century the category of whiteness was reserved for Europeans only. When and how did Asians become "yellow" in the Western imagination? Looking at the history of racial thinking, I explore the notion of yellowness and show that this label originated not in early travel texts or objective descriptions, but in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific discourses on race. I argue that the conceptual relationship between East Asians and yellow skin did not begin in Chinese culture or Western readings of East Asian cultural symbols, but in anthropological and medical records that described variations in skin color. Eighteenth-century taxonomers such as Carl Linnaeus, as well as Victorian scientists and early anthropologists, assigned colors to all racial groups, and once East Asians were lumped together as members of the "Mongolian race" they began to be considered yellow.
Learn more about Becoming Yellow at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue