The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which closed on the 8th of August 2021 after the many delays and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, was a great success for Team China. Having bagged 88 medals, including 38 gold medals, mainland Chinese athletes achieved a new record in terms of their collective performance at Summer Olympic Games held overseas. However, one of the most celebrated and memorable moments for Chinese audiences had nothing to do with medalists.
It occurred when sprinter Su Bingtian finished with a new personal-best record of 9.83 seconds in the men’s 100m semi-finals on the 1st of August. Only the second athlete from Asia ever to qualify for the finals in this event (after Takayoshi Yoshioka at the 1932 Summer Olympics), Su achieved sixth place, in the end, with another impressive result of 9.98 seconds. The number 9.83 set the entire Chinese nation on fire because it was not only Su’s personal best but also the best result ever achieved by a Chinese man, a man of Asian descent, or a man from what many Chinese still call “the yellow race.” Overnight, a sense of collective, racialized pride began to permeate public articles as well as private conversations, exemplified in phrases like “Yellow Miracle,” “Yellow Pride,” “Fastest Yellow Man,” “Asian Record,” and “China Speed,” which inundated Chinese social media feeds. The core message was clear: the fastest “Asian,” the most outstanding athlete of the “yellow race” in a sport long dominated by other races, is from China, and that is a fact of great historical significance.
Race as a human category, defined by biological and physical features, is in most fields regarded as more or less outdated and has been replaced by interpretations of race as a sociocultural construct. Competitive sports, however, remain one of the fields of concentrated public interest still highly conducive to essentialist conceptualizations of race. The segregationist practice of “racial stacking,” namely assigning players to different positions according to the perceived strengths of their racial and ethnic backgrounds, is often replicated on the discursive level in terms of how certain racial groups are thought to have genetic advantages over others in different sports. For example, within the US, the overrepresentation of African American players in basketball reinforces the sociocultural myth of “black athletic superiority.” Such essentialist thinking, perpetuated by popular books like Jon Entine’s Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk about It (2000), is far from sufficiently problematized in public discourses due to the seemingly positive connotations associated with such racial imaginaries.
Those imaginaries persist despite the numerous myth-busting articles that point out how environmental and socioeconomic factorsoutweigh genetics in longitudinal evaluations of athletic performances. (It is worth noting that in the field of genetics itself, “race” is a null concept, considered to be of very limited use if useful at all.) Racialized tropes in sports also persist despite evidence of the detrimental effects such myths have on African American athletes, especially how their individual hard work is often dismissed in the name of race and how African American children still have limited accesses to a more diverse range of sport activities, facilities, and training due to their disadvantaged socioeconomic position. The myth of race persists despite the fact that it reinforces the racist logic that underlies notions such as “Asian brain” versus “Black brawn.” Such racial binaries negatively affect athletes because, if the overrepresentation of African Americans in certain sports is justified by race and genetics, then the continued underrepresentation and exclusion of Asian American players in the same sports can be ignored as somehow reasonable and acceptable as well. Moreover, as competitive sports are also charged with imaginaries of desirable masculinities, the “black athletic superiority” myth sustains the racial-sexual axis of contemporary American society, where media representations fetishize black men as hypersexual while consistently desexualizing Asian men.
A similar version of the same myth also exists in China, and common belief in the importance of the “racial factor” in international sports informed the collective significance that Chinese people saw in Su Bingtian’s success. In Chinese media and everyday conversations alike, it is not uncommon to hear assertions about the racial advantages that Chinese athletes “naturally” enjoy in sports that draw upon “agility and technique,” such as diving, badminton, and table tennis. As for the recent successes in weightlifting achieved by East Asian athletes, one theory purports that this can be explained by the fact that East Asians have shorter arms compared to other races. The biological determinism underpinning these racial discourses also means that whenever a Chinese athlete delivers a record-breaking performance in a sport deemed “unsuited” or “disadvantageous” for East Asians, such as the various events in track and field, he or she is bound to receive extra praise for surpassing the “racial limit” of that particular sport.
National excitement for Su did not emerge in 2021. In 2015, at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, he had already generated a buzz in China for clocking a historic 9.99 seconds in the 100m competition, which made him the first Asian to have overcome the 10-second barrier hitherto deemed insurmountable for Asian athletes. Prior to 2015, the category of “Asian” in discussions of the 100m race was already racialized but in ways that did not straightforwardly correspond to geo-national designations. The first “Asian” sprinter to break the 10-second barrier was the Nigerian-born Femi Ogunode, who represented Qatar at the 2014 Asian Games. Although representing a country deemed to be part of “Asia” for the purposes of the Asian Games, Ogunode was not viewed as a “real Asian,” precisely because competitive sports are conceptualized as not only international, but often as tacitly inter-racial, 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” athletes. Like the identity label “Asian American,” the labels “Asian” and its Chinese equivalent “yazhouren,” are typically used to refer to East Asians, and at times South Asians (mostly in the UK, Southern Africa, and North America).
The celebratory conflation of “China Speed,” “Asian Record,” and “Yellow Miracle” reinforce the collective view of the Olympic Games as the biggest of the interracial competitions conducted in the name of nation states. The otherwise progressive (self-)representations of the multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural compositions of many of these nation states do not contradict the highly racialized lens through which sporting events are viewed. But rather, they reiterate the entrenched perceptions of racial difference internal to the nation building process. The athletic exceptionalism that makes Su representative of some imaginary “yellow race” is based on the essentialist differences that are perceived to exist between the “yellow,” “white,” and “black” races in the popular Chinese imagination. Notably, the hashtag “Su Bingtian surpassed all white men” soon became popular on the social media site weibo after the Chinese sprinter, now fondly dubbed “Sushen (God Su),” qualified for the final on the 1st of August. Media reports were also quick to note that Su would be the only non-black athlete to compete in the final match and highlighted this racial exceptionality with much national pride and excitement.
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 all white men in a sport that has hitherto rendered Asian men unsuitable and thus invisible due to their race, Chinese commentators seem to have proven 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 race, the myth of “black athletic superiority” was once again taken for granted, resulting in the persistent, tacit dismissal of the hard work of athletes of African heritage in the popular Chinese racial imagination.
Apart from this persistent racial stereotyping of black athletes, the widespread excitement about Su Bingtian’s achievements as a “yellow” man also exposes a certain discursive dilemma in the collective racial imagination and self-identification within China. As scholars like Michael Keevak and Yinghong Cheng have pointed out, “yellow” as an arbitrary racial label was an invention of 19th century European pseudo-sciences, especially racial taxonomy and physical anthropology. Perceived as a sickly and menacing color, “yellow” was assigned to the so-called “Mongoloid” or “Mongolian race,” evoking long-standing European fears and traumas about invasions from the East. The colonialist and racist histories of these terms explain why “yellow” is rendered obsolete and offensive in most Western public discourses; almost all the common phrases associating yellowness with race are negative, such as “Yellow Peril,” “Yellowface,” and “Yellow Fever.”
Many Chinese scholars have also noted this negativity and called for Chinese athletes to stop using the term “huangzhongren (yellow man)” for self-identification. But such efforts have had little to no effect on the popularity of yellowness in Chinese discourses regarding international sports. This is because yellowness as a collective racial identity also has a long history of localization in China and was embedded in the nation’s initial modernization process, which took place in the early 20th century. While “Mongolian” was not accepted as a self-identifier by most Chinese, as the term named only one, specific ethnicity among the many ethnic groups living in China, “yellow” was enthusiastically embraced by many late-Qing officials and early Republican intellectuals like Chen Tianhua, Zou Rong, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, and Pan Guangdan. “Yellow” as a racial color got a lackluster reception in Japan, but in China, yellowness was immediately linked to its long and auspicious role in traditional Chinese culture, as in “the Yellow Emperor,” “Yellow Plateau,” and “Yellow River.” Its older, positive associations help explain why in China today, identifying as “yellow” is not only politically correct but also signifies a unique form of regionalism that seems to transcend national boundaries but at the same time serves to reinforce a Sinocentric view of East Asia.
Contemporary imaginations of yellowness in China perpetuate the simplistic constructions of the global racial hierarchy that early modern Chinese intellectuals adopted from 19th century European thought. That hierarchy puts “white” at the top and “black” at the bottom, with “yellow” and all the “other colored” races in between. The idea of a “white-yellow race war,” imagined by Liang Qichao more than a century ago, persists through a kind of developmentalist competition, wherein Su Bingtian beating all the white athletes in the Olympic semi-finals constitutes but one manifestation of this updated and more abstract version of a race war. The persistence of the hierarchy also sustains the view of blackness and Africanness as animalistic and backward, thus rendering nearly impossible the idea that a “yellow man” might beat a black athlete in a physical sport like sprinting. Nevertheless, Chinese audiences remain eagerly hopeful that such a “yellow miracle” might occur in the years to come. 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 the infernal circle.
Notably, in the English language, the concepts “white,” “black,” and to a lesser degree “brown,” have all been retained, and are often used as self-identifiers, in public discourses to discuss interracial relations. The political incorrectness of the term “yellow,” and the lack of a concise, inclusive, and racially conscious replacement, can mean that East Asians and those of East Asian descent living outside the region can sometimes feel that they have been denied a similar opportunity to participate in discussions of racism in the more straightforward way that is afforded by such simplistic but powerful “color” categories. At the same time, the racial nationalism channeled through a Sinocentric view of representative yellowness has only been intensifying in the context of rising geopolitical tensions between China and the US in the last decade, and Su’s racial iconicity certainly appears as Liu Xiang redux for many Chinese and China watchers.
While it is easy to deconstruct “yellow” as a historical myth of racist origin and discriminatory function, it is a lot more difficult to find a way to build a strategic collective identity for East Asians based on shared memories and experiences of white supremacy and anti-racist resistance. The complicated discursive life of “yellowness” highlights the tensions between the epistemic violence of racial invisibility in the English language and the uncritical advocacy of racial nationalism in the Chinese language. These tensions, exposed by Su Bingtian’s Olympic success, are likely to remain unresolved and to emerge once again when the next “yellow miracle” comes along.
(An earlier, shorter version of this article has been published by Sixth Tone, and I thank the dedicated staff there for their editorial work and for allowing me to publish the full version here.)
Flair Donglai SHI is a researcher in comparative literature, focusing on the “Yellow Peril,” world literature, and China-Africa cultural relations.