For Team China, the recently concluded 2020 Tokyo Olympics were a great success. After a year of pandemic-related delays and training disruptions, the team’s haul of 88 medals, including 38 golds, broke the national record for an Olympic competition held overseas. Yet it was a moment that didn’t produce a medal — that didn’t even take place in a final — that became one of the most celebrated and talked about achievements of this year’s Games.
When sprinter Su Bingtian took just 9.83 seconds to cross the finish line in the men’s 100-meter semifinal on August 1, he became only the second athlete from Asia to ever qualify for the finals in that event, after Takayoshi Yoshioka at the 1932 Summer Olympics. Although Su would finish the final out of medal contention in sixth place, the 32-year-old still notched another impressive time of 9.98 seconds.
But it was his initial 9.83 time that set China on fire. The sense of collective pride at his achievement was palpable — in both media coverage and private conversations. It wasn’t just a new personal best for Su; it was the fastest time ever achieved by a Chinese man, a man of Asian descent, or, as many put it, a man of “the yellow race.” Immediately following the semifinal, articles hailed Su in dizzying terms as “the yellow miracle,” “the fastest yellow man alive,” and “the pride of the yellow race” while praising his “China speed” in setting an “Asian record.” These headlines were quickly picked up and spread across Chinese social media. The core message was clear: The most outstanding athlete of the “yellow race,” competing in a sport otherwise dominated by non-Asian athletes, was — in a fact of great historical significance — Chinese.
A poster shows Su Bingtian celebrating his victory in the men’s 100-meter semifinal. The text reads: “China Speed/Yellow Skin Can Fly Too.” From The Paper
At a time when the idea of race as a category defined by biological and physical features has more or less been replaced by interpretations that emphasize it as a sociocultural construct, competitive sports remain one of the few highly visible fields still conducive to essentialist conceptualizations of race. The segregationist practice of “racial stacking,” in which players are assigned positions according to the perceived strengths embedded in their racial and ethnic backgrounds, is often replicated on the discursive level through the belief that certain racial groups have genetic advantages over others in different sports. For example, sociologist Earl Smith has noted how, in the United States, the overrepresentation of African American players in basketball has contributed to the sociocultural myth of “Black athletic superiority.” These essentialist ways of thinking, perpetuated by popular books like Jon Entine’s “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk about It,” are rarely challenged, in part because of their seemingly positive connotations.
These narratives have persisted in the U.S. despite numerous myth-busting articles showing how environmental and socioeconomic factors outweigh genetics — in which “race” is a null concept of very limited or no use — in longitudinal evaluations of athlete performance. They have persisted despite countless commentaries that emphasize the detrimental effects such myths have on African American athletes, allowing their individual hard work to be dismissed in favor of racialized explanations for their success. They have persisted despite their underlying racist logic: After all, if the overrepresentation of African American athletes in certain sports is justified by race and genetics, the continued underrepresentation and exclusion of Asian American, Jewish, or other less stereotypically “athletic” players in the same sports becomes somehow reasonable and acceptable. Moreover, as competitive sports are charged with imaginations of desirable masculinities, the “Black athletic superiority” myth sustains the racial-sexual axis of contemporary American society where Black men are fetishized as hypersexual and Asian men are consistently desexualized in media representations.
In China, belief in the importance of race in international competition is likewise widespread and helped fuel collective celebrations of Su’s success. It’s not uncommon to hear unsupported assertions regarding the racial advantages Chinese athletes “naturally” enjoy in sports like diving, badminton, and table tennis — which require more agility and technique than speed and strength. As for the recent successes in weightlifting achieved by East Asian athletes, one theory claims that it is because East Asians have shorter arms compared to other races. The biological determinism underpinning these beliefs also means that, whenever a Chinese athlete delivers a record-breaking performance in a sport deemed “unsuited” to or “disadvantageous” for East Asians, such as the various events that make up track and field, they receive extra praise for surpassing the “racial limit” of that particular sport.
Su had already generated significant national excitement in China when he clocked a historic 9.99 seconds in the 100-meters at the 2015 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, breaking the 10-second barrier hitherto deemed insurmountable for Asian athletes. It’s worth noting that the category of “Asian” here was itself already racialized. Technically speaking, the first “Asian” sprinter to break the 10-second barrier was Nigerian-born Femi Ogunode, who represented Qatar at the 2014 Asian Games. But Ogunode was not viewed as a “real Asian” in the Chinese popular narrative, which conceives of sports as not just international, but essentially interracial, competition. Even if Ogunode were of Arab descent, his record would still occupy a peripherical position in both the global Anglophone and Sinophone imaginations of “Asian” achievement. Like the label of “Asian American,” “Asian,” together with its Chinese equivalent, yazhouren, is usually used to refer to East Asians.
The celebratory conflation of “China speed,” the newly broken “Asian record,” and Su’s performance as the “yellow miracle” has, if anything, reinforced the popular view in China of the Olympic Games as a fundamentally interracial competition conducted in the name of nation states. In the popular Chinese imagination, the “yellow race” Su is said to represent at its best is defined through essentialist differences with the “white” and “Black” races. Notably, the hashtag “Su Bingtian surpassed all white men” began trending on microblogging platform Weibo almost immediately after his record run, as netizens hailed Su shen, or “the god Su” for his performance. Media reports were also quick to note that Su was the only non-Black athlete who qualified for the final, highlighting his racial exceptionality in tones of national pride and excitement.
Athletes prepare for the men’s 100-meter final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan, Aug. 1, 2021. Antonin Thuillier/AFP via People Visual
The collective affect of racial pride generated by Su’s record-breaking performance is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, by celebrating the fact that a “yellow” man can indeed beat white men in a sport that has hitherto marginalized him as racially unsuitable and thus invisible, Chinese audiences seem to be celebrating the irrelevance of race as a categorical force in international sports. On the other hand, by emphasizing the fact that Su was the only non-Black athlete to compete in the final, they took the myth of “Black athletic superiority” for granted, and thereby contributed to the dismissal of the hard work of athletes of African heritage in the popular Chinese racial imagination.
Apart from the racial stereotyping of Black athletes, the widespread excitement over Su’s achievements as a “yellow” man also exposes a certain discursive dilemma in China’s collective racial imagination and self-identification. As scholars like Michael Keevak and Cheng Yinghong have pointed out, “yellow” as an arbitrary racial label was a 19th century invention, akin to European pseudo-sciences like racial taxonomy and physical anthropology. Perceived as a sickly yet menacing color, “yellow” was assigned to the so-called “Mongoloid” or “Mongolian” race, and evoked long-standing European fears and traumas surrounding invasion from the East. The colonialist and racist histories of these terms help explain why “yellow” has been rendered obsolete and politically incorrect in most Western public discourses, as almost all the common English phrases associating yellowness with race are negative, including “yellow peril,” “yellowface,” and “yellow fever.”
Many Chinese scholars have noted the negative roots and connotations of the term and have called for Chinese athletes and media to stop using huangzhongren, or “yellow person,” as a label of self-identification. Yet their efforts have had little to no effect on the popularity of yellowness in popular Chinese discourse regarding international sports. This is because yellowness as a collective racial identity has a long history in China, where it became embedded during the nation’s initial modernization process in the early 20th century.
While the “Mongolian” label was unacceptable to Han Chinese, “yellow” was enthusiastically embraced by many late-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and early Republican-era intellectuals like Chen Tianhua, Zou Rong, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Pan Guangdan. Compared to the lackluster reception of the term in Japan, “yellow” as a racial identity benefitted from the color’s auspicious associations in traditional Chinese culture. One only needs to think of “the Yellow Emperor,” “the Yellow Plateau,” and “the Yellow River” to make sense of this affinity. Thus, in contemporary China, identifying oneself as “yellow” is not only politically correct but also signifies a unique form of regionalism that seems to transcend national boundaries while at the same time reinforcing a Sinocentric view of East Asia.
More troubling is how contemporary imaginations of yellowness in China tend to perpetuate the simplistic constructions of a global racial hierarchy first proposed by 19th century European thinkers and later imported by early modern Chinese intellectuals. This hierarchy puts “white” on top and “Black” at the bottom, with “yellow” and all the other races in between. The “white-yellow race war” imagined by the influential late-Qing thinker Liang Qichao more than a century ago has now become a kind of developmentalist competition, and Su’s triumph over all the white athletes in the semi-finals this summer a sort of victory in that fight.
At the same time, this racial hierarchy sustains the view of Blackness and African-ness as animalistic and backward. Although it is seen as near impossible for a “yellow” man to beat Black athletes in a physical sport like sprinting, Chinese audiences are eager for just such a “yellow miracle.” To paraphrase Franz Fanon, if the “yellow” man loses, it is because of his race; if he wins, it is in spite of his race. Either way, he is locked into an infernal circle.
An illustration purporting to show different Asian races, from the “Meyers Konversations-Lexikon,” 5th edition, by Bibliographisches Institut – Leipzig, 1895-1897. People Visual
Unlike “yellow,” terms including “white,” “Black,” and, to a lesser degree, “brown,” remain in use in English discussions of race and international politics — leaving people of East Asian descent living within and outside the region struggling to articulate their collective place in this discourse. It is easy to deconstruct “yellow” for its racist origins and discriminatory history. It is a lot more difficult to build an alternative collective identity among East Asians based on shared memories and experiences of white supremacy and anti-racist resistance.
Caught between the epistemic violence of racial invisibility in the English language and the uncritical advocacy of racial nationalism in the Chinese language, the collective racial imagination embodied by “yellow” self-identification — highlighted by Su’s success — is likely to continue in China, at least until the next “yellow miracle” comes along.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Su Bingtian in the lead during the semifinals of the men’s 100-meter race at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tokyo, Japan, Aug. 1, 2021. Fu Tian/CNS/People Visual)