Afrochina

When asked to talk about Blacks in China, most people generally assume that the only presence has been the more recent wave of visitors, expatriates, and quasi-immigrants since the economic opening of China in 1979. There have been Blacks in China before, going back to at least the Tang Dynasty (8th century) where they are chronicled as kunlun, the dark-skinned persons in China who came through trade or servitude to the powerful Chinese empire of this time and its capital at Kaifeng.

They were often noted in legends as loyal, principled, and performing feats of extraordinary strength, so much so that a famous Peking Opera, Kunlun Nu (The Black Slave), has a hero who is a Black servant. Not all Blacks in China were servants, and many were part of the burgeoning trade between East Africa, the Middle East, and China. In fact, as chronicled in a still untranslated paper by Zhu Deming of the Zhejiang Health School, many of the traditional Chinese medicinal herbs can be directly traced to herbs used in African traditional medicine, particularly Somalia & Ethiopia, and later imported to China.

More recent contacts have followed the vicissitudes of world politics. During World War II, the majority of the US soldiers building the Burma Road to supply China from India were Black Americans. They eventually transported vital supplies to Kunming in Yunnan province though at first Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek did not want to allow them into the country. The recent and most lasting contact, however, has been since the opening of the country to the world by President Deng Xiaoping in 1979.

The first wave consisted of diplomats, both from the US and African countries. Soon many more African students arrived on special scholarships offered by the Chinese government to enhance third world solidarity and provide education for development. These had been offered since the 1960s but became much more popular after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like many foreign students, they were segregated in their own dorms on campuses throughout China. Then, as now, Africans were the largest groups of Blacks in China.

However, tragedy struck in late 1988. With runaway inflation, social cohesion in China became tenuous and protests erupted countrywide including in Tibet and Beijing in the famous Tiananmen Square protests which ended in bloodshed on June 4, 1989. Another lesser known protest erupted four months earlier in Nanjing when Chinese students protested and rioted against the African presence on their campus. There were multiple reasons for tension from then still mostly closed China to a large group of foreigners: reported resentment of Africans dating Chinese women and preferential treatment of foreigners, including better dorms and services, by the Chinese government.

n540762033_694394_8124Fortunately, this incident did not end the scholarships or the African students studying in China. When this writer lived in Beijing in 2005 to study Chinese at Beijing Normal University, there were many African students, particularly in the sciences and engineering, at all of the universities in the city.

Today, Africans are the largest group of Blacks in China numbering at least 100,000. They are primarily students, traders, and diplomats in order of size. The center of African China is now Guangzhou, where tens of thousands of Africans live in work, most coming to China to try their luck at exporting wholesale Chinese goods to sell in Africa. They are concentrated in the area near Xiaobeilu and export all varieties of goods, operate restaurants, and run retail stalls. Guangzhou police estimate that if you count illegal immigrants who have overstayed tourist visas, the African population there could exceed 100,000.

This population may have decreased a little, as the decline of the manufacturing boom in the Pearl River Delta area around Guangzhou and the immigration crackdowns on visa overstays have put the African population there under stress in the last two years. Other cities with large African populations are Beijing, Shanghai, and Wuxi.

Blacks from the Western nations such as the US, Europe, and the Caribbean are next with a respectable number in China as students, English teachers, and expatriates. From the Black American perspective, however, China has never been a traditional destination given that the exposure of most Blacks in Asia is through Japan or Korea in the US military. Therefore, the community in China has not reached the size or connections of those countries.

Blacks in China do not have an extremely tight community, though there are small community organizations that hold meetups beyond the common school or business connections. The website Afroshanghai.com, run by Togolese Patrick Abotsi, hosts a lively web forum that acts as the largest online meetup place. In addition, there are Facebook groups for Blacks in China which act as smaller communities.

The reception of Chinese to Blacks in the country has improved markedly over the years. The hostility which caused the riots has largely changed to familiarity in large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Whereas once Blacks would elicit stares wherever they went, the impact of more visitors and international media-think hip hop and the very popular NBA-have made such scenes increasingly less common, especially amongst young people. The writer has had no huge negative incident in China and though there are still issues, it is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. Members of both sexes have Chinese partners or spouses without serious issues though there can be some social incidents.

profilepicFor Blacks planning to visit China, there are general guidelines. Visas are necessary for a visit and must be obtained in person at an embassy or consulate so either you or a service such as Travisa must obtain it from the requisite location. Be sure to get the correct visa and respect its duration. Visa enforcement is becoming more strict and the days of willfully overstaying ones visa without consequence are almost gone.

Many international brands are now available everywhere in China so you can pack light except on essentials including US brand medicine, Black hair care/beauty products, and fiction books for pleasure reading. All three are difficult to find in China. Above all, I would encourage you to learn at least some Chinese, even if only a few phrases, as it makes your trip much more pleasurable and fulfilling.

I would recommend China as a great opportunity for work, travel, or study. Whatever minuses there are of being Black in China are outweighed by the positives gained from the experience. As a rising power, it is good to understand China and the stunning transformations it is undergoing to better understand our world.

About the Author

Reginald Smith speaks Mandarin Chinese and is literate in simplified Chinese characters. He has studied in China at Beijing Normal University and has returned many times over the years on business where he works in supply chain management. He is a co-editor of the online magazine BlackExpat.com chronicling Black Expats around the world. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


References

(In Chinese) Zhu Deming “Exchange of Medicinal Herbs by Ancient China and Africa” China Medical History Magazine April, 1997.

Marc S. Gallacchio: The African-American Encounter with Japan and China: Black Internationalism in Asia 1895-1945, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Marc S. Gallacchio: “Colouring the Nationalists: The African-American Construction of China in the Second World War, The International History Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 571-596 (1998).

Photo Credits: Top: a Chinese propaganda poster; Source: http://www.iisg.nl/landsberger/fz.html
Middle: Jonathan Martindale on a visit to China
Bottom: Author, Reginald Smith on a stay in China