In the late nineteenth century, many Chinese intellectuals began to question the Imperial dynasty of China. They saw it as an outdated regime and wanted the government to adopt modern reforms in terms of education, the military, and the economy. Among these revolutionaries was a group of young Chinese students who looked to theater as a way of expressing their desire for change. For inspiration, they turned to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an American novel from 1852 written by the white abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1907, they adapted the novel into a play, focusing on the novel’s portrayal of oppression, injustice, and resistance and aligning its portrayal of Black enslavement to Chinese struggles at the time. This play is often considered to be the origin of modern Chinese drama, says doctoral candidate Kun Huang.
“The Imperial dynasty in China was being challenged from inside and outside. To cope with the political crisis, reform-minded student artists incorporated the enslaved Black figures from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to inspire their fellow citizens to rescue the nation from its impending demise,” Huang says.
Huang, who is fascinated by how ideas about Blackness can seep through national boundaries and influence movements thousands of miles away, studies the translation of global ideas of race and Blackness in modern China.
Huang defines Blackness as the articulations of racial difference in relation to people of Black African descent. To Huang, Blackness is a concept that is moved and transformed across national and cultural borders. Her dissertation, titled Un/Translating Blackness: Global Racial Entanglements and Chinese Modernity, lies at the intersection of Chinese studies, Black studies, and African studies from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century.
“I define translation as the cultural practice that establishes continuity at the point of disjuncture, which means connecting different worlds of people’s consciousness and history. Race operates across borders. We can’t just talk about one region or one country. I want to paint the bigger picture and show that there is a shared history, and because of that, a shared legacy between cultures. To understand race, we have to understand all those complex interactions,” Huang says.
Even after the Republic of China overthrew the Imperial dynasty in 1912, Chinese artists continued to adapt Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The artists repackaged the struggles of the enslaved figures in Stowe’s novel to shed light on Chinese struggles and political pressures of their own era.
“The characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin became vehicles for expressing Chinese desires,” Huang says. “For example, adaptations were performed in the Maoist period [1949–1976], when socialist China incorporates Black liberation struggles as an integral part of its cultural imagination of world revolution. Then again, in 2007, a century after the original adaptation, Uncle Tom was reintroduced to the Chinese stage as an exemplary figure of artistic freedom. When looking at this connection, we can see some ambivalence. Some may argue that these are gestures of solidarity with the enslaved and their descendants. But at the same time, Blackness is often emptied out of its historical and political specificity. It became a fungible symbol made to serve different, sometimes contradictory, agendas.”
Race and Anticolonialism under Communist Rule
After World War II, a civil war in China led to the creation of the People’s Republic of China and the establishment of Communist rule. The Chinese Communist party at the time was strongly anticolonial and anti-American.
“[M]any people said that the actors or artists were innocent because they’re not implicated in the American history of blackface minstrelsy. But that’s not how race works.”
To emphasize their dedication to anticolonialism, the People’s Republic of China supported the Pan-African decolonization movement, which called for a unified and self-governing Africa. Across the African continent, people revolted against their colonial rulers and won independence. One of these revolts involved the construction of the TAZARA railway in Tanzania and Zambia, sometimes known as the Freedom Railway because it allowed the two countries to be economically self-sufficient.
According to Huang, the Chinese Communist Party sponsored the railway and sent some of their best technicians to assist in its construction. Huang has studied the literary works written by these technicians, and she found racializing tendencies underlying the seemingly revolutionary image of egalitarian, collective labor between Chinese and Africans.
“The writings by the technicians, which include a novel and a collection of short stories, tend to emphasize the sacrifice and devotion of the Chinese sent to Africa. There’s this grand narrative of ‘we're helping to develop Africa, we are brothers working towards the right track to achieve industrialization.’ But they also say, ‘this is how we differ from the old colonizers,’ and this clean binary often erases the complexity of the relationship between Africa and China,” Huang says. “The novel and short stories were published by top literary presses, which means they were approved by the state. They were also among the earliest original work about Africa in the Chinese language.”
Huang’s interest in studying these texts comes from her upbringing in Guangzhou, China. Guangzhou is one of China’s commercial hubs, where people from around the world meet and mingle. She remembers her neighbors making racist remarks and perpetuating negative stereotypes about the dark-skinned people who came there to conduct business. These remarks were uninteresting to Huang until she went to college, where she began to explore conversations about race and identity.
“In China, we didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about racism. The general sentiment is that race is a Western invention, and in China we don’t have racism. But I want to push back against the narrative that, just because China doesn’t share this history of trans-Atlantic slave trade or European colonial burdens, race and Blackness is irrelevant,” she says. “When several blackface incidents appeared on popular Chinese media over the past few years, many people said that the actors or artists were innocent because they’re not implicated in the American history of blackface minstrelsy. But that’s not how race works.”
Cultural Consciousness, Neglected Archives
Race studies between China and Africa is not an established field. But as a recipient of multiple research grants, Huang was able to travel to places such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China to find accounts of these histories for herself.
“The historical archive [of this field] hasn’t been established. Some of these texts have never been studied before and can’t be easily translated into English because of the different connotations of terms. I have to find the archive myself. Also, the topic of race is still quite sensitive in China. There’s institutional barriers to accessing records. It's not easy,” Huang says.
Huang firmly believes that literature is crucial to antiracism activism. Outside of her research, she spends her time translating works by Toni Morrison and other Black American authors into Chinese. She also has organized a study network, called The Reading Group in Black (黑色读书会), consisting of more than 200 Chinese scholars who want to discuss issues and books that explore race from a globalized, critical perspective. Huang believes that by examining how race, history, and society interact, we can learn and create a more equitable future.
“It takes a lot of will and courage to counter the world of injustice, violence, and brutality, but [race studies] is important to me because it compels people to ask, how do we live more ethically and be politically active to challenge these issues? Answering these questions is key to a better future,” Huang says.
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