East Asians in the Linnaean Taxonomy: Sources and Implications of a Racial Image

Rotem Kowner, Christina Skott

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Scholars of intellectual history tend to see their subject matters as products of long and gradual processes. The idea of race is certainly no different, given that it is possible to track its antecedents to well before modern times. And yet, these slow intellectual evolutions are liable to be interrupted by sporadic revolutions, which in turn shift their course completely or at least accelerate their pace dramatically. Around the mid eighteenth century the idea of race faced such a revolution, spearheaded by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778; ennobled Carl von Linné in 1761). From 1735 onwards, Linnaeus worked on refining a new taxonomic system which initially focused on plants, but came to include animals and eventually humans too. His classification of human diversity marks a watershed in the development of modern racial thought. In a period of rapid European colonial and commercial expansion, it had tremendous implications for the way in which Europeans viewed and sub-sequently treated Asians in general and East Asians in particular. This was not only the first time in which these peoples were clustered together and depicted as having common traits, but also the first time in which they were relegated to a secondary position in a fledgling hierarchically-organized system of human varieties. In this chapter, we argue that Linnaeus’s view of his “Asian variety” was based on European reports and notions of East Asians. To demonstrate this, we explore the sources of his racial worldview and the impact it exerted on subsequent racial theorists in Europe and on their view of East Asians.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRace and Racism in Modern East Asia: Interactions, Nationalism, Gender and Lineage
EditorsRotem Kowner, Walter Demel
Number of pages32
ISBN (Electronic)978-90-04-29293-2
ISBN (Print)978-90-04-32660-6
StatePublished - 2015

Publication series

Name Brill's Series on Modern East Asia in a Global Historical Perspective


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