Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  

Yang Xi-Mei
Physical Anthropology and the Composition of Ethnic Groups in China

Yang Xi-Mei was born in 1917 in Beijing City. He graduated from Wuhan University with a degree in Biology, and started to work in the Institute of History and Philology at Academia Sinica about one year later. In 1980, Yang retired from Academia Sinica, and moved permanently to Beijing the following year, where he participated in research on pre-Qin history in the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He passed away in Beijing in 1993 (Yang 1998:394).

When Yang Xi-Mei first joined Academia Sinica, he worked as Wu Ding-Liang’s assistant. Later, he studied human skulls from the Yin ruins in the anthropology division, at the suggestion of Li Ji. Yang basically started by observing the shapes and types of skulls and applying statistical methods, then categorizing the specimens into five types, which reflected five human races. However, he did not find a “Chinese race” among the five, and the “species similarity coefficients” that he employed did not support his categorization (Wang 1998:177-178). At the time, Yu Jin-Quan, an adjunct research fellow at the Institute, criticized Yang’s categorization as not backed up by any proof that the five groups represent actual races. However, later his student Zang Zhen-Hua used the fact that in conventional physical anthropology bucket-shaped molars area characteristic of the Mongolian race to prove that most of the skulls that were excavated from the Yin ruins belonged to the Mongolian race. In one of Yang Xi-Mei’s papers, “Overview of the Past Thirty Years’ Research on Skulls from the Yin Ruins and the Ethnicity of Yin Dynasty People,” he pointed out that there were many self-contradictory arguments in the papers of scholars like Zang Zhen-Hua, who supported the view that the skulls from the Yin ruins belonged to the same race. And yet, Yang was not able to defend himself against the criticism that such scholars had made of his statistical data (Yang 1983).

Yang Xi-Mei’s debate with other scholars on the question of whether the skulls of the Yin ruins belong to the same race or different races arose from the fact that each scholar had his own way of categorizing races. Yang attempted to use statistical data to subjectively evaluate skulls and provide a testable method, but due to his lack of statistical knowledge, very different results would be derived from similar data.

Yang himself had mentioned that the shape of a skull is perhaps not enough to determine a human being’s race. In an article on the Taotie tribe, Yang pointed out, “…If we look at the human skulls that are known to be dug out from the tombs of the Scythians alone, we can see two skull shapes—dolico and brachyocephalic. Therefore, the shape of the skull cannot be considered a reliable tool for determining race” (Yang 1967:595). This article cited many places in ancient documents and in some Western scholars’ work on the human race in Central Asia. Along the same lines, Yang believed that there were already many different ethnic groups in China before the Qin Dynasty. In one of his researches on the “black people” mentioned in Han Dynasty bamboo-slip documents, Yang stated that they belong to a special racial group that was already cohabiting with the other ethnic groups that originally existed in China at the time. He also mentioned that the Lirong tribe of the Xirong people residing in China’s northwestern region, which was documented by Franz Weidenreich and C.S. Coon, should be the so-called “black rong,” and were very possibly related to the “black people” recorded in Han Dynasty bamboo-slip documents (Yang 1969).

Yang’s view that the skulls excavated from Anyang were of different races and that China was home to migrants from a variety of regions is a rethinking of Western scholars’ opinion that Chinese civilization had come entirely from the West. In an article titled “Modern Oriental Studies from the West and Research Related to Ancient Chinese History,” Yang pointed out that Western scholars thought that “aside from culture that came in from the West, ancient China had practically no centered culture, and can be likened to a ‘cultural desert’” (Yang 1961:25). This view basically supports Fu Ssu-Nien’s opinion that modern history is the studying of historical material, and his idea of development relies on the increase of material and research tools. Fu Ssu-Nien believed that in order to achieve the goal of establishing an orthodox, scientific Oriental Studies in China, we must borrow Western knowledge, for Oriental studies happened to be a specialty of Western scholars (Yang 1961:27). With such a viewpoint, Yang Xi-Mei broadly compared ancient Chinese documents with Western research on human races and the origins of cultures. Although he believed that China had been interacting with other civilizations since a very long time ago and the result also showed in terms of the physical condition of Chinese people, his ultimate goal was to find where to position Chinese culture in the history of world civilizations and show that the ethnic and culture diversity in China is a crucial component in the development of Chinese culture. The following quote can best exemplify Yang’s view on the composition of ethnic groups in China:

Perhaps the fact that human skulls from the Xibeigang group (especially the prehistoric Huabei group) show “Oriental characteristics” helped exemplify William W. Howells’s flawed “Chinese civilization is founded on agriculture in the Middle East” theory, but I think that there is no need to suspect this, for every ethnic group has their own culture, and because Chinese culture in particular has a history of several thousand years, it is irrefutable that Chinese culture did not solely originate from the West, and there are also traces indicating that some parts had been spread westward. Chinese people should not be ashamed of the fact that Chinese civilization contains Western elements, because cross-cultural interaction is what boosts cultural development. If we can learn from other cultures what our culture is lacking, and make it our own, what is there to be ashamed of? (Yang 1983:934)

1998 史語所的體質人類學家─李濟、史祿國、吳定良、楊希枚、余錦泉,刊於中央研究院歷史語言研究所七十周年紀念文集─新學術之路(上) ,杜正勝、王汎森主編。
1961(1995) 西洋近代的東方學及有關中國古史的研究,刊於先秦文化史論集。
1967(1995) 古饕餮民族考,刊於先秦文化史論集。
1969(1995) 論漢簡及其他漢文獻所載的黑色人《居延漢簡所見漢代人的身型與膚色》讀後,刊於先秦文化史論集。
1983(1995) 卅年來關於殷墟頭骨及殷代民族種系的研究,刊於先秦文化史論集。
1998 懷念我們的朋友楊希枚先生,刊於中央研究院歷史語言研究所七十周年紀念文集─新學術之路(下) ,杜正勝、王汎森主編。
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